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One of the test vehicles from Argo AI, Ford's autonomous vehicle unit, navigates through the Strip District near the company offices in Pittsburgh. In the world of autonomous vehicles, Pittsburgh, Phoenix, and Silicon Valley are hubs of development and testing. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Tech for all...but who's it really for?

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By Michael Madison


This is a story of two visions of the present and future of Pittsburgh and by extension, Postindustrial America. 

They’re documented in two recent reports about priorities in Western Pennsylvania, and they make for some dry reading. But behind the printed page, there’s a churn of ideas — a battle between old and new — with enormous implications.

One of these is “Pittsburgh’s Inequality Across Gender and Race,” known sometimes by the acronym PIGR, published in September 2019. That report was the first major output of the City of Pittsburgh’s Gender Equity Commission, working in tandem with researchers at the University of Pittsburgh.  A year later, the Commission built on that report with a series of policy recommendations in a document titled “Building an Equitable New Normal.”  

The details of the recommendations aren’t my focus. What matters is how the report placed racial and gender equity at the top of the public policy agenda across all sectors of public life in Pittsburgh: government decision making; policing and public safety; health; education; workforce participation, income, and opportunity; and finance.

One of the best ways to build a community that is both equitable and stable is to ensure that gender and race are parts of conversations about ownership, not just conversations about working. The PIGR report documented just how poorly Pittsburgh compares to its peer cities on many of these metrics.

That report got a lot of media attention when it was released two years ago, and based on my recent conversations with some of Pittsburgh’s best-known public sector leaders, I know that its themes have quickly found their way into policymaking in a lot of corridors of Pittsburgh power. 

But not all of those corridors. That brings me to the second report.

In early September, Pittsburgh’s Regional Industrial Development Corporation, known as RIDC, released something called “Forefront: Securing Pittsburgh’s Break-out Position in Autonomous Mobile Systems.” 

I’ll call it the Autonomy Report. In more than 150 pages, the Autonomy Report makes the case that Pittsburgh is home to a cluster of researchers and companies developing autonomous mobile systems, sometimes simplified as “robotics” — think driverless cars, but much, much more than that — and that Pittsburgh should drive economic development toward reinforcing and growing that sector.  

That cluster strategy promises to build on the more than 6,000 jobs already associated with autonomous technology in the region, and it promises to secure for Pittsburgh a sizable chunk of the $1 trillion (trillion!) global market for these technologies. 

Maybe we’re on the cusp of realizing the long-promised dream that Pittsburgh can be re-branded as “Roboburgh.”

The price tag for all the proposals in the Autonomy Report is more than $150 million — half of which is supposed to come from public funds. The hope is that both the state and the federal government will chip in.

In one sense, given the size of the global market, that’s a bargain price, even if it is public money, and even despite the fact that it’s a speculative bet as to the future impacts of the technology itself. 

In a different sense, a pretty good case can be made (and should be made) that public money should be spent on public interests — not on high-end technology companies and robotic systems that have the potential to ruin our lives as much as they might help us.

Did I mention that the authors of the Autonomy Report are drawn entirely from Pittsburgh’s technology sector and the regional robotics industry? They want you to pay for their bet on our future.

More galling than the obvious and unapologetic self-interest on display is its tone-deafness — and by extension, the tone-deafness of the regional tech sector — when it comes to the diversity and equity themes that the PIGR report prioritized.  

Search the Autonomy Report for the word “diversity” as it relates to populations and people.  Non-existent.  Search the Autonomy Report for the word “equity” as it relates to community health and well-being. Non-existent.  

The word “inclusive” appears only once — in the context of the unhelpful and undefined phrase “inclusive innovation.”  I’ve been studying innovation practices and industries for 25 years. That phrase is usually code for tweaking legacy systems that brought us the need for things … such as the PIGR report.

Instead, the Autonomy Report is oriented entirely around jobs that the autonomous sector provides (mostly elite researchers and managers in computer science, data science, engineering, and networking) and the money that the sector returns to … itself.   

“More jobs and more returns” is the language of Pittsburgh economic development strategies from the 1960s (yes, that long ago) through the early 2000s, when all hands were on deck to replace the jobs lost after the steel industry came to a functional end in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh planners cycled through a series of bring-the-factories-back and clustering strategies.  The cycle included the RIDC itself, which was founded in the late 1950s as an early effort to plan post-steel economic development from the top down. 

None of those strategies has had any long-term success.

Talk to just about any ambitious corporate leader today — other than those involved in the Autonomy Report, presumably — and you’ll hear an entirely different narrative about what’s driving growth and investment in different neighborhoods and communities around the United States.  

And you’ll hear an entirely different narrative about the economic development challenges that regions such as Pittsburgh face now and looking ahead. 

Here’s the story:  Why does Pittsburgh struggle at times to attract and retain investment by the world’s biggest and most successful companies? Why is Pittsburgh’s share of global tech markets at risk? 

Pittsburgh struggles with prosperity because it’s behind the curve, as a region, on diversity and equity — that is, the priorities and strategies identified in the PIGR report, not the Autonomy Report. Targeting diversity, equity, and inclusion, and building practices that bring diverse and inclusive voices to the conversation, isn’t just good for people. It’s good for business, too.

So it’s not enough for Pittsburgh’s business leaders to say or simply to assume that what’s good for robotics is good for Pittsburgh as a whole.  

The Autonomy Report is Pittsburgh’s newest version of an old clustering strategy, focusing on the same-old, same-old.  It’s corporate insiders looking for public subsidies and a branding campaign. It’s business looking after business, not a broad community coming together. 

The PIGR report is Pittsburgh’s business Pole star.  In a phrase, the Autonomy Report is both tone-deaf and old-fashioned.  There are two visions of the future on Pittsburgh’s table.  One that looks forward and looks broadly across the community for its inspiration and ambition.  One that looks backward and draws on a narrow band of interests and strategies that exclude, by design.

Pittsburgh should choose the former.

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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