Audrey Russo

By Audrey Russo, Pittsburgh Technology Council

I do think the future is bright for Pittsburgh. But when it comes to population growth, we have to take our shades off.

It’s an understatement to say considering population, migration and economic development strategies for growth is complicated.

Pittsburgh has set the table for an incredible growth trajectory. The last few years brought the new world of innovation in mobility, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) to Pittsburgh. Strategic investment in these companies has been at historical highs. Proliferation of real estate investment should prove to be one of the critical leading indicators we have defining momentum for being a regional hub of noteworthy innovation.

But the story does not end there. The complex work actually just begins, again. In April of this year, the Federal Reserve Staff released a report presenting findings that should guide our economic development planning for the next two decades.

A few facts: Overall intra-U.S. geographical mobility has been at an all time low. While there remains population growth in the largest cities, there remains the danger that second tier cities – those located in the northeast and in middle America – will continue to suffer from population decline, even when there remains growth of innovation in these city centers. It may seem counterintuitive if we only look backwards to point to the future.

Ironically, with the proliferation of technology that eases communication, we remain people who desire community, real- time connections, proximity to family, great schools and low crime. Community is a loosely defined construct with definitions that are personally crafted and articulated. Cost of living and quality of life additionally remain subjective and personal despite the vast attempts at defining these characteristics.

However, when we review the biggest opportunities for jobs in Pittsburgh, they remain requisite in the highest education attainment and preferably with experience. Therein lies the conundrum. Less U.S. geographical mobility, immigration laws and the acceleration of automation could have caused this suppressed relocation appetite.

However, Richard Florida indicates that creative cluster growth in Pittsburgh is almost 20% in a 12 year period (2005-17), ranking us in second place in the country. This also means that if we keep on this trajectory, we have transformed our urban workforce to more than one third knowledge workers, in one generation. We reported on some of this data in our last TEQ, for the State of the Industry findings. While this remains a fascinating historical transformation, we are suffering from lack of immigration, wide gaps in skill sets AND understanding why people do relocate here.

This research will guide the next step the Tech Council is embarking upon. We are engaging the community of people who work in this ecosystem to understand: why they moved to Pittsburgh and what their experience(s) have been. We hope to glean insight and convert these findings into programs and policy that can further facilitate growth. This is crucial because, people can live anywhere. We see how the emerging tech companies are already opening offices outside of Pittsburgh. We hear how top-tiered talent remains tough to recruit here. We hear that executives and highly skilled computer engineers do not need to relocate here with success at remote engagements. As a result, we have to make Pittsburgh a destination where people want to build their lives.

Of course, you already know that “grow or die,” is a business idiom. The same matters for cities. Perhaps our course correction is not rapid growth? Instead, should steady, slow growth suffice? Attracting diversity from other cities requires a community which embraces differences. And lucky us, we have our universities who already do that for us by attracting the best and brightest here. But the universities cannot do this heavy lifting for us. We have to understand the motivation and incentive for people that drive them to relocate – like great life opportunities. People can live anywhere. Stay tuned to our findings as we survey the people who moved here over the last five years.

We are not the only city/region experiencing this issue. However we have a proven track record of solving tough problems just like this. With a growing population, Pittsburgh’s future is exceptionally bright.

It will require shades.