Collaboration, Underutilized Assets, and Entrepreneurship in Pittsburgh

 

Last month I attended a discussion in Pittsburgh hosted by GTECH Social Capital Council around the issue of innovation in the reuse of underutilized assets. The event brought together a cross-section of interested participants, including lawyers, entrepreneurs, community and economic development professionals, and artists.

Of course when you hear ‘underutilized asset’, buildings and land automatically come to mind. However, the folks at GTECH, who are already working with assets such as waste vegetable oil and dirt, encouraged us to broaden our definition – and so our discussion turned to assets like neighborhood stories, rivers, hillsides, and people. That last one is important in two ways. Abe Taleb, of ReWork, mentioned that according to 2010 census data, when compared to the 40 largest population centers in our country, the Pittsburgh region has the highest poverty rate among working-age African-Americans. Success stories abound about how Pittsburgh is reinventing itself, but imagine how successful we could be if those efforts included everyone in our city? Second, we have existing networks of people and organizations working towards the city’s success, but many have different ideas of what success looks like and how we can get there. In and of itself, that’s not a bad thing, but it tends to mean that our efforts are often siloed. Bringing all of those organizations together to share ideas and resources could help push everyone’s agenda forward.

Sara Thompson, of Pashek Associates, brought up the concept of economic gardening, a strategy focused on building economies from the ground-up. Instead of the traditional model of economic development, where municipalities participate in the zero-sum game of recruiting large employers to relocate, economic gardening encourages entrepreneurship. This is a comprehensive approach however, which relies on data to make informed decisions; coordinates continued learning and access to educational opportunities; sees community development and place-making as key components of economic development; and facilitates connections between a wide variety of stakeholders. The questioned that summed up our discussion that evening was, “How can we utilize this model in Pittsburgh to bring together the amazing organizations already working in the city to build platforms for entrepreneurship, especially while engaging the most disenfranchised citizens?”

Enter, the Pittsburgh Central Keystone Innovation Zone, or PCKIZ. PCKIZ is a consortium of higher education institutions, businesses, government agencies and community organizations, collaborating to enable the neighborhoods in central Pittsburgh to realize their potential within the knowledge-based economy. Last year, PCKIZ reached out to several local non-profits to create a winning proposal for U.S. Economic Development Association’s coveted Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge.

According to Carolina Pais-Barreto Beyers, Vice President of PCKIZ, “The complexity of this RFP made it clear that we needed to leverage the strengths and expertise of several organizations to craft a proposal that was appropriate for our region.” Furthermore, PCKIZ recognized this as an opportunity to address the needs of the region’s underserved communities. “When such a great number of people are completely disenfranchised from all the good things that happen here, our entire region is compromised,” says Beyers.

Working with the Hill House Association, Innovation Works, Duquesne University Small Business Development Center, the Community College of Allegheny County, and the University of Pittsburgh Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence, PCKIZ created the Southwestern Pennsylvania Urban Revitalization Project (SPUR). The overall goal of SPUR is to connect residents from underserved communities—particularly the Hill District—with the local energy and health care industry clusters, in part through the creation of employee-owned and/or community based businesses.

And the key to the SPUR’s success? Collaboration, of course. In Beyers’ opinion, “Collaboration among organizations is essential to make an impact of magnitude. Inviting partners of diverse expertise can tackle issues from various angles and in a holistic manner.”

This is just one example of how Pittsburgh is coming together to leverage our existing assets for the continued prosperity of our city. There are lots of ways to get involved, including the upcoming Pop City’s social innovation eXchange (SIX), January 31st at Point State Park. If you have other ideas for how to promote this work in Pittsburgh or elsewhere, leave a comment below!

Green Jobs: Learning from the Past for a Better Tomorrow

 

Earlier this month I attended the Great Lakes Urban Exchange (GLUE) annual conference, which was held in the Larimer neighborhood of Pittsburgh. GLUE is a network of young leaders devoted to creating a healthy, sustainable and equitable future for the Great Lakes region. The theme of this year’s conference was “Green-Lighting Neighborhoods” and one of the issues that surfaced repeatedly was that of green jobs. Green jobs have been getting a bad wrap lately, but there were several organizations on hand whose successes demonstrated a different story.

It’s true that green jobs programs have not been as successful in the past as they could have been. The term “green jobs” is tough to define and its goals have not always been clearly communicated.  And the initial slew of green jobs training programs was often uncoordinated and unaligned with market needs; there weren’t always jobs waiting for graduates of these programs. However, organizations involved with green jobs training are learning from past mistakes and reworking programs to make them more effective.

GTECH (Growth Through Energy + Community Health) is a Pittsburgh-based non-profit social enterprise, whose work lies at the intersection of community development, vacant land reclamation, and the green economy.  GTECH has only been around since 2006, but they’ve learned a lot about promoting the green economy over the past 5 years, and Khari Mosley shared those lessons with us at GLUE.

  • First, focusing solely on training isn’t enough. For programs to be successful, community, political, and business leaders all need to be actively engaged to make sure that programs are comprehensive and reflect actual needs and opportunities. GTECH is partnering with everyone from the unions, to the Housing Authority, to other area non-profits to implement their programs. This collaboration has led to a 63% placement rate for graduates of their Breaking the Chains of Poverty program. They’re also engaging political leaders through their Metro Scale Up program to ensure that there are policies in place to support green jobs.
  • Second, it’s not enough to do the work – if you want people to support the comprehensive programs and policies you’ve worked so hard to create, you’ve got to tell the story, too. To do that, GTECH has begun to focus on several community and consumer education efforts, so that everyone understands the benefits of creating a greener economy.
  • And finally, you’ve got to prepare the next generation of leaders to pick up where you leave off. Along with a host of partners, GTECH is identifying, educating, and engaging young and grassroots leaders to do just that.

One emerging market for green jobs will be in the water sector. As the Pittsburgh region, and many others across the country, prepare to invest billions of dollars in their failing water and sewer infrastructure, we need to make sure that local residents are prepared to implement the green solutions that will be a piece of that work. Abe Taleb, of  re|work, also presented at the GLUE conference about the work being done by the Pittsburgh Pipeline, also presented at GLUE. They are currently working with area high school students to make sure they are prepared to enter careers in the water industry. However, given the scale of investment, there is certainly more work to be done in preparing for future workforce opportunities.

At Fourth Economy, we are tracking many of these emerging market drivers and helping communities prepare to make the most of future opportunities. We believe that we can learn from challenges faced by yesterday’s green jobs programs, in order to build a more effective and robust green economy for tomorrow.