Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Pittsburgh Still Rising

Relatively speaking, economic fortune shined once again on Pittsburgh during Q3 2010. There is no shortage of skeptics about Pittsburgh's supposed transformation. The view from beyond the pale is considerably more optimistic:

But while clusters have historically evolved organically as entrepreneurs look to take advantage of natural resources, transportation infrastructure, highly trained workforces, and know-how, said [Michael] Wright, the new science, if that’s the right term, within this field of economic development involves facilitating and accelerating that process. And that’s now his official job description as manager of Cluster Development for the Economic Development Council of Western Mass. (EDC).

Wright, who most recently served as managing director of the Mass. Center for renewable Energy Science and Technology at UMass, started in this newly created post in August. He’s spent the past four months familiarizing himself with all aspects of the region’s business economy, identifying clusters and potential clusters, and laying some track for the process of creating and strengthening connections. ...

... When asked about the process of cluster-development efforts, the science of speeding up the process, and what could happen here, Wright cited the example of Ottawa, the Canadian capital. There, a cluster of photonics companies — ventures involved in the science and technology of light — has developed and now includes several hundred companies.

Greater Springfield and areas just south and east of it have about 50 companies in this same field, employing roughly 5,000 people. “This includes some companies just over the line in Connecticut, and others in the Sturbridge area and Worcester County,” Wright explained, “and the mix of companies is quite diverse.

“Ottawa’s cluster is much larger, and I’m not really sure why; I don’t know the history,” he continued. “But typically, you’ll find that there are a number of entrepreneurs and academicians who have, over the years, collaborated and created an open environment, allowing for the entrance of new companies, rather than hoarding information and keeping things close to the vest.”

Pittsburgh, a city that knew it had to diversify after its base in the steel industry shrank considerably, has had similar success with several clusters, including those in digital technology, biosciences, and advanced manufacturing technology, said Wright, noting that cluster-development efforts there have been ongoing for roughly 40 years.

“Pittsburgh is now quite diverse, and each of these clusters has hundreds of companies,” he explained, adding that the Pittsburgh Technology Council has spawned a number of vertical clusters in each of those areas he mentioned. “It’s like a Knowledge Corridor there in some respects; from the research universities down to the community colleges, they’ve figured out how their higher-education system can integrate into these clusters quite well.”

Once again, Pittsburgh is held up as an example of best practice. "Yes, but ...", start the naysayers. Is Wright a fool to celebrate Pittsburgh?

Experts in the know will always find something lacking. Goading the region to do better is a worthwhile goal. But from where I sit, Pittsburgh's rise from the ashes of the early 1980s is nothing less than remarkable.

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