Can the G-20 help Pittsburgh?

Not unless the region can shed the top-down thinking of its industrial past.

By choosing Pittsburgh to host the next G-20 summit, President Barack Obama has anointed the city with a powerful status. But as someone who has lived in Pittsburgh for almost 25 years and forged an entrepreneurial life here, often against great odds, I question whether this momentary fame will translate into meaningful long-term change.

The Pittsburgh “story” has become archetypal. A scruffy American city rises to its apex producing metals, glass and chemicals for the world, its growth fueled by plentiful natural resources, inexpensive commercial transportation thanks to three deep rivers and ample labor provided by members of some 90 different ethnic groups. But the rise of global competition — over which the G-20 countries now preside — devastated this city and others like it.

During my time in Pittsburgh, I have learned to separate truth from hype in the “Pittsburgh rises from the ashes” epilogue. Blessed by major research universities, strong cultural resources (often funded by “old money”) and a natural beauty unmatched by any other former industrial center, a Pittsburgh “back from the dead” mythology persists. Peek under the cover, though, and you see that the city continues to resist some of the fundamental changes needed to guarantee its future.

In particular, the remnants of top-down thinking that Pittsburgh inherited from its industrial past still encapsulate it today.

Industrialization powered mass distribution, putting lots of products in the hands of lots of buyers and creating countless job opportunities for blue-collar workers. But it required heavy financial investment while putting power — and innovation — in the hands of a few.

Gains for workers came only through unionizing and protest. A patronizing parent/child, us/them mentality, which left little room for bottom-up innovative thinking and problem solving, eventually helped hollow out the factories as well as the towering glass and steel structures that Pittsburgh’s major corporations created to imprint their legacies on the city’s skyline.

Today, the industrial economy that once created work opportunities for immigrants provides little draw. What does bring newcomers to Pittsburgh are its universities. It is here where one finds the petri dishes of fresh ideas. It is here where the incubators of innovation begin. And, unfortunately, it is here where great ideas often die due to a lack of funding, management experience or vision. As a result, it is from here that major talent escapes to other, more inviting places.

I believe Pittsburgh can be a great city again, a G-20- class city. But we must stop this exodus because with it goes the future of our community. The only way to do this is to escape the legacy of top-down controls that dampen creativity and to fund the innovation that creates job opportunities for “immigrants” (both domestic and foreign) who have the expertise to market and expand “smart” and “clean” technologies through the wide-open channels that the Internet offers us.

Compared to Silicon Valley; Research Triangle Park in North Carolina; Austin, Texas, and international tech corridors in Korea, India and China, Pittsburgh is still “old school.” Those of us who want to achieve change are working through layers of resistance, both imposed and self-imposed. The talk about a future that openly embraces new ideas, entrepreneurship and growth cannot be just talk. It must be activated.

First, local governments, foundations and policy makers need to embrace new democratized channels of open discourse. Today’s social media technologies offer great opportunities for sharing ideas, vetting issues and creating open dialog. There are good ideas out there that should be heard and put into action. Let’s use the technology available to us to empower citizen voices and build community participation.

Second, innovative ideas need to be funded. Some of the oldest money in Pittsburgh helped West Coast pioneers like Sun Microsystems, Google and Amazon.com rise to fame and fortune. (Had it not been for Pittsburgh’s Henry Hillman, the Kleiner Perkins investment firm of Silicon Valley might never have gotten off the ground. Just read “Valley Boy: The Education of Tom Perkins.”) It’s time to keep more of that old money in the city where it was created. It’s time to give back, not just to social-service organizations and cultural foundations — many of which are generously funded — but to the entrepreneurs who, with new ways of thinking and new techniques, are able to create companies that inspire, motivate and have the potential to bring real growth to the region.

Third, to truly join the ranks of other G-20 cities like Berlin, London, Sao Paulo or Beijing, Pittsburgh needs to build not just reasons for people to come here, but the means. Our wonderful river gateways of old must be replaced with new types of transportation — both virtual and real. We can create great companies that expand our markets beyond our borders by using — and inventing — new Internet technologies. But real connectedness comes face-to-face, as the members of the G-20 summit know — that’s why they’re gathering in Pittsburgh this month. Pittsburgh needs affordable daily direct transportation links to major U.S. cities and economic nerve centers in other countries.

Only by embracing these ideas will Pittsburgh continue to benefit long after the September meeting of the G-20 leaders has come and gone.

Abu Noaman is the CEO of Elliance Inc., an Internet marketing company based on the North Side (www.elliance.com).
First published on September 6, 2009 at 12:00 am in Pittsburgh Post Gazette