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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Positioning Pittsburgh for the Future

Today's Post-Gazette article by Carolyn Pengidore of Comperio Energy asks how can Pittsburgh position itself to take advantage of the economic opportunities associated with alternative energies and green practices. Her article mentions how Pittsburgh must get ahead of the clean energy tidal wave and take advantage of Governor Rendell's new energy independence initiative. Here are my thoughts on how we must reposition Pittsburgh as a region known for clean tech and green policies

To start, Pittsburgh has the story - a city that was once the industrial center of the world - black smoke and all - and one that is still in the midst of a major social-economic transformation. The reason I believe we are still in the transformation stage is that Pittsburgh does not have an identify - nationally and internationally - as being known for something besides the "Steel City." The region is also behind the curve in terms of immigration - most large cities already have had an enormous influx of Mexican immigrants and I believe Pittsburgh's low cost of living will soon lead to the same effect happening here.

One thing is clear when looking at all of the regional marketing and communications for the region - the messaging is confusing as those in regional development positions, our elected officials, and their overpaid consultants still struggle to come up with a new identity for the region. "Great place for families" and "Most livable" are two messages I see a lot these days but they don't really define the region as a whole and arguments could easily be made against both claims (high taxes, public school quality, air quality, etc).

I know how important the industrial heritage is to this region so I'm not stating that the next big thing for Pittsburgh will make the steel association obsolete. The Steel association is important to the region - it brings up images of how Pittsburghers played a critical role in the industrial revolution and laying the foundation for this country. It reminds us of the hard working European immigrants who settled here and made Pittsburgh the city we know and love today. It is also why I find it puzzling that our past full of diversity and change brought on by the immigrants and industrial revolution are represented by a culture of "Who Moved My Cheese" and intolerance to those who are "different" than the rest of us.

However, as Dick Florida and many others have pointed out, the old Pittsburgh mentality is the exact opposite of what is needed today to fuel growth in major metropolitan areas. Pittsburgh needs to be open to change and tolerance and needs to take the lead on something just like it did with the steel industry. As Ms. Pengidore points out in her Post-Gazette article, the region is positioned nicely and has the amenities to be a leader in clean tech and renewable fuels.

What we need now is an audacious plan that positions the Pittsburgh region for the next generation, a new identity that is more than just a marketing pitch or press release . This has to be more than just offering grants and incentives like the Rendell Energy Strategy. This initiative, this plan - it has to be a plan that covers the entire region and leverages all of the intellectual as well as risk capital that is available for something of this scale. Creative Destruction may be in order for a change of this magnitude , a revolution if you will, as we will be redefining one of the important American cities of the 20th century. This audacious plan needs to be big enough and broad enough to anoint Pittsburgh as the "Green" city rather than a Steel City. Where do we start? How do we do this?

First, it's time to start trumpeting our successes with green practices - more national and regional marketing of our leadership in Green Building is an easy place to start. Pittsburgh is home to first LEED certified convention center, in addition to many other buildings with green designs (full list is here).

How about green companies? Pittsburgh is still the birthplace and home of the central offices of Alcoa, one of the greenest and socially responsible manufacturing companies on the planet. How about clean tech startups? Plextronics is an early stage company based in Pittsburgh that is working on manufacturing a breakthrough thin photovoltaic material that generates solar electricity.

Here are some of the things we have going for us in the race to become the "Green" city:

  • Leading city for green buildings
  • Support and research at leading academic institutions (See CMU's Green Design institute) as well green graduate degree programs (why isn't CMU marketing it's GREEN MBA program???)
  • With Consol Energy's presence, the Pittsburgh region could become known as a leader in clean coal technology (let's hope the folks at Consol are sincere)
  • State alternative fuels and energy grants and incentives (part of Governor Rendell's Energy Independence Strategy)
  • Large urban parks and creation of 3 rivers parks and trails
  • Poor air quality rankings year after year which provides some extra incentive to get going on these initiatives
Here are some of the hurdles that I see preventing us from reaching the goal of being known as the Green City:
  • Risk averse culture - status quo is the easiest route so why should we change?
  • Local government support - politicians not on board with this movement yet and once Steelers season starts forgettaboutit
  • Lack of incentives for green businesses - subsidies going towards casinos and sports stadiums rather than young innovative companies that will bring jobs and capital to the region
  • Lack of public and government support for mass transit and car pooling - how do we incentivize people to stop driving their cars? (parking tax hikes are okay as long as there are viable alternatives for commuters such as light rail) How do we raise more money for more rails?
  • Lack of a manufacturing sector - most of the solar manufacturing companies are out west - close to the venture capitalists. Incentives are the only real option we have right now to get them here
  • What other areas are we weak when it comes to going green? Please comment with your suggestions.
Stay tuned for Part II on building a Green Pittsburgh

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