Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Art + Technology

Update II: Another take, putting Indianapolis in a good light, on the Brookings report making the Rust Belt rounds today in the blogosphere.

Update: Given Brian Kelsey's query, this quote from HuffPo seems appropriate:

The report finds two distinct Manufacturing Belts (Berube said Brookings went with "Manufacturing Belt" instead of "Rust Belt" because, "We have friends there who have been trying to shed the rust image for some time"). One belt spans Midwestern metro areas decimated by the auto industry and the other is in the Northeast, where manufacturing in aerospace and plastics hasn't seen such a decline.

Two Rust Belts? Try three.
----------------- END UPDATE-------------------

Despite a shrinking population, there's energy percolating in the Burgh. A buzz. I can easily overstate all the positive publicity. So,
I'll let the team at Bright Innovation do the talking:

There are some compelling points within the article. California, or at least silicon valley, has always been the land of entrepreneurial opportunity for the U.S. The article cites that in 2007, 63% of Californians had moved from another state to seek opportunity. The opportunity they were seeking, Silicon Valley is the largest venture capital market in the U.S. Lately Pittsburgh has become the second fastest growing VC markets, according to the National Venture Capital Association. Pittsburgh has shown 513% growth totaling $197 million over the last ten years. This economic growth is a sign of fertile opportunities and technologies in the region. It is no surprise to me with top universities, hospitals, manufacturing and companies in the area that Pittsburgh's growth is on the rise once more. ...

... Two of us in the office at Bright Innovation have moved back to Pittsburgh from California. While California is an appealing place full of opportunity. It would seem Pittsburgh, and other rust belt cities like it, are becoming hot beds for similar opportunities but on a smaller scale. With this growing base of young professionals flocking back to Pittsburgh from their professional travels the city may experience a renaissance if it plays its cards right as it emerges from this economic downturn and takes its place as an innovation powerhouse with the necessary mindshare and infrastructure for growth.

The obvious civic boosterism aside, there are opportunities in Pittsburgh that you can't find in Silicon Valley. Pittsburgh is NOT the next Silicon Valley. And I wouldn't necessarily lump the region in with the rest of the Rust Belt. Love it or hate it (for better or for worse), Pittsburgh is its own peculiar animal.

To help explain, I found a story from a former place of residence (where my father toiled at the General Electric plant in Schenectady) in Upstate New York:

The robotics program is part of St. Clement’s effort to enrich students’ education with STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) concepts, an initiative that’s become popular in area school districts throughout the region in recent years.

While Ballston Spa Central School District boasts a budding high school robotics team that started this year, the program at St. Clement’s is unique among area elementary schools.

It was developed by LEGO Education and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa., which then sell the system to schools throughout the country, Knotek said. St. Clement’s used Alumni Association funds to purchase a LEGO Mindstorms system (including LEGO Education NXT software and four robot-building kits) three years ago, which students have been using since then in Knotek’s technology class.

Robots and Pittsburgh are practically synonymous. I think sooner rather than later, robotics will give way to the conversation going on between art and technology:

The Pittsburgh Technology Council's Art and Technology Initiative invites you to join us for the opening of the 2009 Annual Art and Technology Exhibition and the BurghBot Project. To celebrate the synergy that exists between the art and tech communities in Pittsburgh, the Council is partnering with the James Gallery and CREATE Lab to create this one-of-a-kind exhibition. The show opens at the 15 Minutes Gallery on June 18, 2009 and run throughout the summer.

I'm happy to plug a Burgh event. But I tend to showcase only that which makes the city special. Pittsburgh isn't just a place where artists interface with technology. It is THE place. Those Ballston Spa kids might stick around and help revitalize New York's Rust Belt. Or, they might fall in love with Pittsburgh, like I did.

It's steel good in Pittsburgh.


Anonymous said...

Jim, you may have posted an answer somewhere to this question before, but I'd like to get your thoughts on the "Rust Belt" label. What do you think of its shelf life given what we've been through over the last 18 months? Thanks, Brian

Jim Russell said...


Obviously, the negative connotations of Rust Belt are re-entrenched thanks to the downturn and the implosion of the auto industry. Rust Belt cities are the places globalization leaves behind. The shelf life of the label would seem to be extended indefinitely.

That said, I still prefer to appropriate the Rust Belt brand as a landscape of unique opportunities.

Jason D. said...


First I want to thank you for linking to us @ Bright Innovation. I enjoy your blog.

On the topic of the "Rust Belt" brand. If we think of it as a brand and are able to retool it to depict how we have emerged from times of economic hardship. Pittsburgh as a city has done a great job retooling our city and region around emerging expertise in the areas of sustainability, medical, manufacturing and material innovation.

How would we rebrand Pittsburgh and the surrounding areas to depict these new specialities? The Bay Area has "Silicon Valley" what would we create? The 3 Tech Rivers; medical, green, manufacturing. How does that sound?

Jim Russell said...


I'm wary of taking cues from the Silicon Valley archetype. This Michael Porter geography (clusters of innovation) might not translate as effectively as we would hope. My fear is that in the attempt to be a Silicon Valley of a certain economic sector, Pittsburgh gets caught up in a zero-sum game.

I suggest pursuing a different geography of innovation and re-branding Rust Belt liabilities as assets. For example, I see Pittsburgh's brain drain as a success story.

In that same spirit of mining Pittsburgh's history, I think of the region as the gateway to America's Urban Frontier. The Rust Belt is a hot bed of civic innovation (see Youngstown). Pittsburgh is emerging as a champion of the re-imagining of our cities and is strategically located to serve as a liaison between the East Coast and the Midwestern Interior.

There isn't another city in the US that can defy Rust Belt stereotypes like Pittsburgh can and does. I'd like to see Pittsburgh take a leadership role in the urban pioneer movement, instead of spending so much time trying to scrub the smoke off of its image.