City Spotlight: Pittsburgh Prevails

An Interview with Mayor Peduto

“Acknowledge the past, invest in the future.” For Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, these aren’t just words, it’s a rally cry. I had the pleasure of talking with the Mayor at Smart Cities Week in DC and he passionately explained that while it is important to honor the city’s history, they are focused on the future. “Today our steel mills are Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh.”

Cities across the U.S. are going through a tremendous transition as they race to integrate connected technologies and transform into Smart Cities. Pittsburgh is on that path, but it is clear they are not taking the slow road. Mayor Peduto and his CTO Debra Lam are a united team dedicated to unleashing new city solutions. Here are some of the themes I picked up from our conversation.

Learn from your past

Pittsburgh is a steel town, known for being the workhorse of the industrial revolution.  There were boom times but there were also prices paid. The steel mills that were once a magnet for low-skill labor left a wake of 19 percent unemployment when US manufacturing declined. In the Mayor’s words, “There was a great disparity between the haves and the have nots.”

But then came 1979 and the first robotics program in the world. Pittsburgh’s product became people as universities began cranking out an entirely new strain of technology talent. The Mayor said, “The only way we got through it was because people were thinking ahead.” This is beautifully captured in their video submission for the Smart Cities challenge, which you can watch here.

It’s all about the ecosystem

The word ecosystem gets a lot of play these days, often reduced to circles and lines on a Powerpoint slide. In the case of becoming a Smart City, an ecosystem means that stakeholders are a part of the process and aligned around a single mission that is clearly communicated by a leader who means it. The result is that everyone from the folks at city hall, to citizens, to community advocates, to philanthropic supporters, to universities, to startups, to the business community get on board even though change is hard.

If you need an example of that concept in action, check out Pittsburgh. The city isn’t playing it safe. Instead they are breaking down barriers between different sections of the community with the wisdom that in doing so, they will build a path to success for the city at large. The Mayor insisted, “The cities that do this will lead. The others will follow.”

“If it’s not for all, it’s not for us.”

Inclusion is really easy to talk about and incredibly difficult to do. When roads and interstate highways were built through Pittsburgh, they isolated communities and created decades of economic disparity. It’s a powerful thing to acknowledge that and put mechanisms in place to try and fix it. City leadership is betting that the path forward is through innovation and technology.

An example of that in action is the Beacon project, which has digitized and simplified the city’s procurement process. Instead of insisting that bidders wade through lengthy documents and meaningless bureaucracy, potential vendors can simply register and then are alerted through a mobile interface about contract opportunities.

As stated on their website, the tool “was made as part of a year-long partnership between the City of Pittsburgh and a non-profit called Code for America. The projects coming out of this partnership leverage modern technology and user-centered design to make improvements to the ways products and services are purchased within City government.“ It’s the only system of its kind and business owners – many from disadvantaged communities – are noticing.

Make it easy to do business

“We have to nurture the new economy. Communicate that we are open for business, but not for sale.” Mayor Peduto is insistent that overreaching regulation and punitive policies are only good for one thing - pushing business out of town. Oh and by the way, just to make it more interesting, Mayor Peduto is a Democrat. He’s unwavering in the call for companies to invest their resources, talent and innovative solutions in Pittsburgh. He says, “Regulation never comes before innovation,” and once again makes a statement that leaves no room for guessing about Pittsburgh’s smart city intentions. “We’re going all the way.”

We talked about all of the projects that are Pittsburgh’s “walk beyond the talk,” including the labs where developers create apps to solve city challenges, the sensors in parking garages or cameras that show where and when the snowplow has visited and the integration with community colleges to make sure progress isn’t isolated to elite circles. They are working with other national level partners like Code for America and 1776 to join in the fun, again leveraging the ecosystem to create technologies that benefit everyone.

I have to say I’m a little surprised. I wouldn’t have pegged Pittsburgh as a city that would be leading the Smart Cities charge. But they’re doing it and it is truly inspiring. There is a real energy, a real commitment and a refreshing lack of bullshit in talking with both Mayor Peduto and Ms Lam. I’m excited to stay close to their progress and invite the rest of the country – and the rest of the world - to watch.

And I am not alone in this desire. On October 13, President Obama will host the White House Frontiers Conference along with the City of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon. The focus will be on “building U.S. capacity in science, technology, and innovation, and the new technologies, challenges and goals that will continue to shape the 21st century and beyond.”  This seems like the ideal opportunity to acknowledge the past, and invest in the future but it goes beyond being in the right place at the right time. From the turn of the century to the modern digital economy Pittsburgh is, once again, showing up to do the hard work.