Audrey Russo

By Audrey Russo, President and CEO, Pittsburgh Technology Council

It was just a few weeks ago that the Pittsburgh Technology Council set off on a benchmarking mission to Bilbao, Spain with several regional organizations and stakeholders.

We wanted to learn about how Bilbao, a traditional steel manufacturing city, has transformed its economy, and the impact that art, infrastructure and design has had on urban economic development.

We took a lot of notes and reported our findings back every day by partnering with the Pittsburgh Business Times. Contributors included StartUptown’s Dale McNutt, WQED’s Deb Acklin and Rivers of Steel Heritage Corp.’s August Carlino. Go to https://www.bizjournals.com/pittsburgh and search “Bilbao” for all of the insights. Here’s what I had to say as we kicked off this awesome benchmarking journey:

We have landed in Bilbao, in the Basque region of northern Spain, to immerse ourselves for a few days in understanding the transformation of a city that wrestled with economic performance after a rapid decline of industries two decades ago. The “we” who arrived are diverse groups of executives and CEOs from Pittsburgh’s art, multimedia, architecture, planning, design and cultural institutions, as well as leadership development, law and philanthropy. This trip in many ways serves as the next iteration of the Pittsburgh Technology Council’s work of nearly a decade in art and technology. The Tech Council began to develop programs strengthening the regional focus on the intersection of innovation and the arts, to ensure economic vitality and regional prosperity through supporting business growth of the newer world of design, technology and art. Lucky for us, Bilbao also has transformed its transportation infrastructure.

I have been on the ground for less than 12 hours as I type this and had one walk around the neighborhood, eating pinchos (a traditional northern Spain snack) and moseying around the path of an estuary that trails the urban core. Similar to Pittsburgh, this estuary is a result of two rivers that converge. The city, on a Sunday, truly observes the Sabbath. But people pour into the streets, going from one restaurant to the next, talking with old friends and new, as we had conversations with café owners intrigued by our accents and limited Spanish. Young children run through small playgrounds that pepper this neighborhood as well as the squares that flank the cafes.

There is young and old, foreign and local, all colliding and meandering on this brisk, gray sky day. (It rains or is cloudy at least 40 percent of the time.) Residential buildings are core to this area. With all first-floor shops, albeit closed and sealed today, this feels like a neighborhood. People here seem to reside right above the activities of daily life, participating in collective meandering on an afternoon, talking, drinking and eating. Squeals from the voices of children running amok matched with glasses of wine and a stellar array of small bites made this initial walk a lovely way to meet Bilbao.

I take notice of these details here as I think about Pittsburgh: The growth, the transformation, the shift in our demographics, our city, my city, has me feeling both excited and fretful. Where are our children on a Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh? Where are our older people? How do people spill into their neighborhoods and linger, connecting over small meals, talking about matters of the day or heart? Open Streets Pittsburgh, thanks to the early vision of Kim O’Dell and Eve Picker, has become a part of our seasonal events. Pittsburgh pulls people from all over the metro area to participate in Open Streets. It is a destination.

We have sensational amenities in Pittsburgh. I am betting that even with the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Pittsburgh has more than Bilbao. Our assets tend to be event-based.

Over the next few days, my views will certainly be altered as I have the pleasure of being surrounded by some of the most interesting leaders in Pittsburgh who care and nurture the arts, multimedia, history, leadership, innovation, community building and technology. I know that we will return with actionable ideas to drive us to the next iteration of Pittsburgh.

Over this week, you will hear from a few other leaders on this trip about Bilbao through their lenses. One of my tenets is that one cannot be a great leader without embracing the experiences of the world. Perspective is the gift that allows each of us to grow. Bilbao is a city that in the course of two short decades has transformed, which has been referred to as the Bilbao Effect. I take heed of the fact that there are many views we each have from the same seat. What makes me most in awe, though, is that we will return with a wider view shared with a collective of people who all adore Pittsburgh and pour their hearts and minds into making Pittsburgh the best version we have not yet seen.