Saturday, December 06, 2008

Wrong Kind of Innovation

Perhaps the creative economy in Pittsburgh is all wrong. Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) produces plenty of brain power. What Pittsburgh lacks is the ability to market all the toys invented in CMU labs:

While others bemoan the state of American education, Mr. Bhidé, who graduated from the elite Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai before he earned advanced degrees at Harvard, is impressed with the general level of creativity and practical skills across the nation’s work force.

Every day, for example, millions of workers are using spreadsheets to do simple what-if calculations to improve some process or operation in their businesses, he said. “In the end, it comes down to individuals, and you don’t need to be a trained scientist or engineer for this broad swath of creatively productive work,” he observed. “You need a somewhat more open mind, a willingness to experiment and to innovate in the use of technology, not create it.”

So instead of tilting policy toward the apex of the education system, Mr. Bhidé suggests, it may make more sense to invest scarce government resources further down — say, in upgrading community college programs. “The modern information technology economy is going to need a lot of foot soldiers,” he said.

“And our supply of high-level science and ideas in most fields far exceeds our capacity to use it.”

Richard Florida has made much out of Lycos leaving Pittsburgh for Boston. Supposedly, Pittsburgh didn't have enough talent to keep the start-up in town. Turns out that's not why Lycos got out of Dodge. Pittsburgh was (is) missing sufficient entrepreneurial know how and venture capital. I've written on many occasions that venture capital doesn't travel too far from the funding source. Ideas and gizmos are much more mobile.

Pittsburgh is like a minor league franchise. Talent is nutured until it matures enough to be of value to the regions that specialize in technological utility. That's a problem because India and China can also produce loads of STEM workers. The value add is figuring out a viable business model or actual application for a new device.

Richard Florida has also made much of the world's surprisingly spiky geography. Not only has the Flat World of the internets failed to emerge, just the opposite is happening. There is no substitute for face-to-face creativity and we should expect people to continue to crowd into cities to take advantage of proximity. But Spiky World isn't a failure of technology. It is a shortcoming of utility. I've suggested, perhaps ad nauseum at this juncture, that Pittsburgh's niche isn't the development of social software. The special sauce is the innovative application of existing social software.

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