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Beyond Innovation Theater

A game plan for growth begins by ditching old paradigms

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By Michael Madison


The phrase “postindustrial” Pittsburgh implies that Pittsburgh has entered a new phase, in which the key players, resources, challenges, and opportunities aren’t the ones that characterized its 20th century material past — steelmaking. Postindustrial implies a 21st century immaterial future, one that’s all about information. 

The truth is that this metaphorical back-and-forth is misleading. Hidden in plain sight, in between the look back at heavy industry and giant integrated companies and the look ahead to tech startups, there’s a different phenomenon in Pittsburgh that clouds the skies of its possibly sunny future. I call it “Innovation Theater.”

For 60 years (yes, that long!), Pittsburgh’s leaders have publicly insisted that the region’s future rests with building and using innovative technologies. That’s the show. The producers of the show have long been hard at work trying to replicate Pittsburgh’s 20th century industrial ethos: They think that the future of Pittsburgh requires giant tech enterprises. 

Today, they talk a lot about startups and new businesses, but they work hard to generate new, publicly-assisted versions of the old mills. Amazon! The Pittsburgh Robotics Network!  The promised BioForge!  

Years ago, a key Pittsburgh tech leader told me face to face that Pittsburgh has only so much capital to invest. In advising tech startups on how to find investors and customers and how to get deals done, his job was to “pick winners.” That’s a direct quote. That’s Innovation Theater.

Pittsburgh needs to stop picking winners. It needs to create opportunities for success.

Truth be told, very little comes of Innovation Theater and its endless emphasis on giant projects. Yes, Pittsburgh today is in many respects brighter, cleaner, younger, more tech-centric, and more energetic than it was 20 or 25 years ago. But a Pittsburgh economist named Ben Chinitz explained way back in 1961 why the “big enterprises” strategy wasn’t a formula for success. You can look it up, as they say. His insights are just as relevant today as they were 60 years ago.

I used to think that the right response to this sort of thing was to tear down Innovation Theater, to criticize its efforts until its producers undertook a renewal of Pittsburgh’s innovation ecology. I was wrong about that. Innovation Theater won’t go away. But it’s time for Innovation Theater to yield the stage. 

Official Pittsburgh — public Pittsburgh, elected Pittsburgh, and their counterparts in Harrisburg and Washington, D.C. — should leave Innovation Theater alone. There is no reason and no need to to sponsor Innovation Theater, no reason to encourage it, and no need to celebrate it. Most importantly, there is no need any longer to give it a seat at the table where accountable decision-makers are making public policy. Innovation Theater is bloated and unaccountable. So load it out, turn it loose, and spin it off. Innovation Theater has been around for so long and is sitting on so much money that it is absolutely capable of sustaining itself, financially, organizationally, and culturally.

What should come next, once Innovation Theater is put in its place? Here’s a short game plan, free for anyone to borrow, adapt, and use however they might wish.

Set the right goals

Start with goals. Innovation is not the goal. Innovation is not even a goal. Innovation is a strategy, a pathway, and sometimes a spillover effect. It’s not always a good thing, and sometimes it’s a bad thing. The right goals for any city are wealth, health, security, opportunity, and equity. Those are processes, not destinations. Cities are people, not gross regional products. 

Rally around the right leaders

Leadership is a question, not a given. Pittsburgh has a real and resilient culture of CEOs who talk only to CEOs. That “status culture” slows things down. The formal leaders of Innovation Theater spend too much time persuading its members that they’re a productive community of innovation players. But that community is much too small, much too exclusive, and much too static. Broaden and deepen the numbers and types of people who have voices in the future of Pittsburgh 

Find and follow positive deviants

Build on difference, not on sameness. People who study organizational and cultural change often point to “positive deviants,” individuals who are out there starting and leading ventures that aren’t simply following the status quo; they’re rallying partners and finding investors who respond to passion, vision, and energy. For Pittsburgh, the lesson is this: Find these people and encourage them. They bring “productive trouble” to the fore. Make Pittsburgh attractive and welcoming for people who don’t think the same things that people have always thought. 

Turn things over as well as around. 

Promote churn. Energy, ideas, and positive change come not simply from putting the nose to the grindstone. They come from turnover — people and their ideas come in, and people and their ideas move out. Pittsburgh should be a people processor. People grow up here. People come here. Then people get heated up — via studying and training, working, or simply living in the community. Then people go. More people come. Repeat. Don’t discourage people from leaving. Instead, make Pittsburgh attractive as a talent accelerator.  

Build community resilience

Encourage healthy, loosely linked population clusters, not tightly linked industry clusters. Pitt economist Ben Chinitz predicted both Pittsburgh’s late 20th century collapse and the resilience of New York, its mid-century peer. His basic message is still true today: Community health is based on economic resilience, and economic resilience depends on networks of loosely linked interdependent firms and neighborhoods, not on big, tightly clustered, hierarchical industrial organizations. New York is far from problem-free, but it never put all of its urban eggs in a single basket. Pittsburgh today doesn’t need a giant tech entity to anchor its postindustrial economy. It needs clusters of talented people, some of whom work in tech. 

Measure and reward the right results

Measure the right results and reward people and support processes that produce them. “Right results” means “areas where Pittsburgh performs poorly and needs to improve.” “Jobs” in isolation isn’t the right result. “Big entity comes to Pittsburgh” isn’t the right result.  

What are better metrics? How about “new jobs that last,” rather than “jobs that might come and go”? How about “jobs with income and benefits that can sustain a person, or a family”? How about “jobs that are accessible and available across the community,” rather than concentrated in a few neighborhoods? How about “jobs that don’t require a graduate degree”? How about new businesses formed, of all sorts?

Measure and reward the right inputs 

Invest in infrastructure, tangible and intangible. A lot of Pittsburgh’s postindustrial future depends on things that matter to everyone, tech or no tech, which means all sectors across Pittsburgh should be investing in and measuring success in things like safety, education, connectivity, and health, not only roads and bridges. How many people can access good public transit when they need to? How many people have affordable broadband access and the training needed to make that access meaningful? How many people have functional pathways to education that can lead to better jobs? How many people can access child care options that will help them get into the workforce if they want to? Count those things. Then measure the multiplier effects that follow investing in good infrastructure.

Tell better stories.

Tell new forward-looking stories, steering away from steel-based metaphors such as  “BioForge” and toward things that will make Pittsburgh attractive and inviting, even magnetic, for the new people that Pittsburgh absolutely must attract in order to thrive. Innovation Theater is in thrall to the backward-looking stories of “authenticity” and, yes, rust, that came to define industrial Pittsburgh. That history can’t disappear, but it needs context. Pittsburgh may still make steel, but the steel era is over.  

Pittsburgh needs to stop picking winners. It needs to create opportunities for success.

Michael Madison is a professor of law and John E. Murray Faculty Scholar at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, and a senior scholar with the University of Pittsburgh Institute for Cyber Law, Policy, and Security. He writes about institutions and governance and is a co-founder of the emerging research discipline known as “knowledge commons.” Before becoming a law professor, he practiced law in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Madison received his J.D. from Stanford University and his bachelor’s degree from Yale University. He is a regular contributor to Postindustrial.

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