As Pittsburgh’s tech economy grows, it’s increasingly important to address its challenges before they become full-blown problems. A new report from a local nonprofit think tank might be the most comprehensive look at the sector — and what will be needed to accelerate its growth responsibly — yet.
Partnership to Advance Responsible Technology (PART) published a comprehensive 86-page report on the future challenges and potential solutions of Pittsburgh’s tech and innovation economy, entitled “How Pittsburgh Can Build a Better Innovation and Emerging-Technology Economy Through Connectivity, Density, and Collaboration.” Supported by funding from the Richard King Mellon Foundation, the report is a compilation of research from a one-year study that gathered data from 200 participants in the form of in-depth interviews and long-form surveys.
Founded in 2018, PART started as a group of people across policy, business, academia and philanthropy focused on the promotion of ethical use of artificial intelligence. But soon, cofounder and executive director Lance Lindauer told Technical.ly, AI became relevant to almost everything in tech, prompting PART to update its mission to encompass more than just ethics and more than just AI.
“What we were really trying to get at when we came together around the idea of ethics was actually responsibility,” he said. Where ethics often has a lot of gray areas, responsibility, he argued, is more black and white. “Responsibility to us really means that you can influence public policy, you can influence academia in terms of curriculum development. You can really influence what are on-ramps for more socioeconomic disparaged groups into an economy, and being more accessible and inclusive, and making really good investments.”
The recently published report centers on five main themes of focus for Pittsburgh’s tech economy over the next few years:
- Capital channels for an innovation economy
- Rapidly adapting leadership
- Technology education and workforce pipelines
- Regional and national strategy
- Clear and transparent metrics and data
Each theme comes with its own specific and actionable set of recommendations — summing to a total of 33 — though Lindauer emphasized that PART purposely didn’t assign them to any person or group by name. That’s because he wants to see organizations openly communicating with each other about how to tackle the recommendations together.
Still, since publishing the report, Lindauer said he’s received a number of messages from orgs and individuals alike claiming some recommendations as ones they can take on or simply signing up to help where needed.
“Those are the conversations that we’re actually really having right now is, here’s the work and the hustle and the field work we did over the last year-plus, and here’s what the operators and the funders and the government officials all say they want,” Lindauer said. “Now, let’s get to it. Let’s start putting some tangible action together.”
The report is the latest addition to the many local conversations on getting access to more capital for entrepreneurs and finding new ways to keep tech talent in the area.
PART isn’t the first group to assess the shortcomings of Pittsburgh’s current tech economy. It’s a frequent topic of webinars, conferences and reports put forth by groups such as the Pittsburgh Technology Council, Allegheny Conference, Innovation Works and the City of Pittsburgh’s Department of Innovation and Performance. There have been countless conversations on getting access to more capital for entrepreneurs, finding new ways to keep tech talent in the area, and leveraging the homegrown talent that could exist within the city’s own public school system.
But PART’s novelty in that discussion is part of what Lindauer thinks is the reason the RK Mellon Foundation decided to fund the report in the first place: Because PART was initially founded with a global mission, rather than being Pittsburgh-centric, Lindauer said that helped the organization understand how local trends and challenges related to global ones. Furthermore, PART’s status as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) allowed the organization to be more flexible and freer of any agenda than older and more established orgs.
“I think it was probably a combination of our interdisciplinary expertise from multiple industries, as well as our nimbleness and untethered-ness,” Lindauer said.
Beyond continuing to disseminate the report and its myriad findings, Lindauer said 2022 is shaping up to be a big year for PART, which has plans to expand its staff and operations. Part of that will include work with other philanthropic organizations to develop programs and influence policy around education and leadership in the tech sector, especially as it pertains to responsibility. Finally, he shared that PART has hopes of hosting an in-person conference this summer around career paths and trends in AI engineering.
“We’re going to be pretty busy in 2022 finishing up some of our work, onboarding, doing some new work, having a conference, growing the team,” he said. “And I think that PART’s delighted to help and impact this region for hopefully many, many more years to come.”Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.
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