Saturday, August 18, 2012

Buzzing Hive Of Innovation

Place narratives drive talent migration. Employment fundamentals can look good, historically great. Prospective residents remain wary. The irrational choice, picking one job opportunity over another, can make the difference between backwater and boom town. In Pittsburgh, a new mesofact has taken hold:

My heart bleeds for Buffalo: its post-Apocalyptic squalor, indelicate accents, and biblical house fires. And most of all, its inability to rebound from the turn of the last century. Unlike its Rust Belt cousin Cleveland, this Lake Erie underdog never built a tourist mecca like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Nor did it pull a Pittsburgh, which reinvented itself as an buzzing hive of innovation.

The triangle of Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo forms my psychographic homeland. Canada weighs heavily on my world view. I enjoyed a transnational upbringing. I grew up in a frontier region. For most people outside this area, there is no difference between Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo. It's another Bermuda Triangle where fire and brimstone torture the economically disconnected.

To pull a Pittsburgh means to rise out of the slag heap and join the globalization club. The triangle ceases to be. PA Governor Tom Corbett was in Silicon Valley banging this drum:

Corbett said California’s technology companies and their investors seemed especially interested in Pennsylvania for its relatively low cost of energy and the high caliber of its college graduates, particularly those from CMU.

“We want to attract companies to use the students we have in Pennsylvania, and to use them in Pennsylvania,” Corbett said.

Pittsburgh has talent. Pittsburgh is known for its talent, leaving. Now Pittsburgh is a buzzing hive of innovation. Richard Florida famously overstated the Pittsburgh-to-Austin brain drain, the archetype of Creative Class migration. The myth he weaved became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Pittsburgh isn't cool. Pittsburgh isn't tolerant. Don't move there. How that narrative affects venture capital and innovation:

Tom Joseph, CEO of Epiphany Solar Water Systems Inc., New Castle, was one entrepreneur who met with some of the California venture capitalists, whose combined assets are worth more than $20 billion, according to Corbett’s office.

Joseph’s early-stage company produces a solar-powered water-purification system aimed at helping an estimated 2 billion people without much access to drinkable water.

“When I’m in Pittsburgh, a lot of investors I talk to say I’m thinking too big,” Joseph said. “When I say we have these water systems that are going to change the world, they say, ‘can’t you take it step-by-step first?”

Joseph said he “can’t think that way” and is more attuned to most California venture capitalists, “who don’t even want to talk to you unless you’ve got a billion-dollar idea.”

The most risk averse stay. The billion-dollar idea folks leave and move to a purported buzzing hive of innovation. Silicon Valley is full of people who have pushed their way into the United States from China and India. These New Argonauts define the culture. How they came to agglomerate there is a different kind of migration tale. The geography of international college students:

Many recruiters say that while Canada has a generally positive name abroad, they have difficulty articulating exactly what its brand is. And considering that education in Canada is primarily a provincial jurisdiction, developing a national brand is a challenge.

Some provinces, such as B.C., have already announced province-specific plans to recruit international students. Even so, Dr. Chakma said a “united front” is needed. That’s because research indicates that while students will always seek out well-known schools like Harvard, Oxford and McGill, most choose their international education destination based on a country’s reputation.

“Several university presidents went to Brazil, and while we were all promoting our individual institutions, we got much better access and coverage because it was a Canadian mission under a Canadian banner,” Dr. Chakma said.

Ms. Samarasekera agreed, adding that “people get confused when you talk about provinces with international students.”

“It doesn’t mean anything to them ... students don’t necessarily want to go to California or Massachusetts; they want to go the United States,” she said. “We need to do the same for Canada.”

Emphasis added. Talented Chinese entrepreneurs are not moving to Silicon Valley. They are moving to the United States. Pittsburgh can and does compete for this inflow. Relative to China, Pittsburgh is as good as Boston. The landscape changes on a domestic scale. Pittsburgh is not as good as Boston, not even close. Talent will always seek out well-known places like Austin and Portland. Tolerance doesn't make a difference, nationally or internationally. Creative Class theory has always been wrong on that score.

Being more tolerant and cool with world class urban amenities won't dispel the mesofact geography. A buzzing hive of innovation has nothing to do with any of those over-hyped variables. Buffalo's new hipster hotel will do as much for that city as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has done for Cleveland. You go where you think you know and Pittsburgh is finally on that mental map.

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