Friday Q&A: Margaret Pugh O’Mara, author of Cities of Knowledge

If there ever was a chance for Philadelphia to become a technology hub on par with Silicon Valley, it was most likely to have occurred more than a half-century ago. We were a nation obsessed with the Cold War. Federal funding for science and technology flowed freely, and without the geographical constraints that once limited […]

If there ever was a chance for Philadelphia to become a technology hub on par with Silicon Valley, it was most likely to have occurred more than a half-century ago.
We were a nation obsessed with the Cold War. Federal funding for science and technology flowed freely, and without the geographical constraints that once limited industry, knowledge-based companies and academic research and development labs were booming across the country.
But as we surely know now, Philadelphia missed that opportunity. That’s precisely what Margaret Pugh O’Mara, a University of Washington professor of technology economics who studied at Penn, wrote about extensively in her book, Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley.
Some of that lost opportunity is blameless—consequences of an economic reality that was “blowing westward,” as she put it in a phone interview in late November.
But there are lessons in that history, too, of the City chasing a suburban-oriented economic development model that was clearly working in Silicon Valley, but couldn’t here.
Or, as Pugh more eloquently put it in her book — a must-have for any Philadelphian hoping to affect change in the city’s technology community:

Philadelphia’s leaders responded with a science-based economic development strategy aimed entirely at the white professionals and firms that were in the process of fleeing to the suburbs.

We spoke with O’Mara about her book, about Philadelphia’s once failure to become a well-known technology hub, and it’s prospects for the future, after the jump. Spoiler alert: it’s good news.

What’s your background? How did you come to pen the book?
I was studying urban history as a grad student at Penn and started looking at the history around me. I was interested in how the Cold War changed cities. I looked at California, Seattle. The Cold War in Philly was more about what didn’t happen than what did. You didn’t have federal funding flowing to the region like you did in some other places.
Why did you choose to base the book on Philadelphia along with Atlanta and the Bay Area?
In the last 60 plus years, the U.S. has become a more knowledge-driven economy. It’s essential to have a college degree to make your way in the world. Despite being a huge knowledge capital, Philly is not Silicon Valley. Historically it didn’t become a high tech capital. It didnt become an Austin, Seattle, San Francisco.
Set up some of the history of Philly’s industrial loss for those unfamiliar.
Philadelphia’s story, the way it was then and the way it was now, needs the context of urban history, how American cities changed. In the 50s and 60s, everyone was moving to the suburbs. Cities were left behind, and no place more dramatically than Philadelphia.
Philadelphia is different than Newark or Detroit or Washington, D.C., where you had these moments of violence where all of a sudden it’s clear that a city has gone from healthy and safe to a place that’s dangerous. In Philadelphia, the air slowly gets let out of the tire economically. You have these factories that are located in Philadelphia, the heart of the city, start moving away. No one really took a great deal of notice. It wasn’t seen as something that was going to be ultimately damaging to the city.
What would you say are the most important factors that led to the success of the Bay Area compared to the failures of Philadelphia?
If you dial back to the 50s and 60s, you have places like Northern and Southern California that are booming. It’s got great weather, huge infrastructure investments that the state is making. For firms that no longer need to be located near a natural resource, high tech can go anywhere.
Places that have really been successful have tapped into a core competency, not just said, “let’s build a research park and they will come.”
You posit in the book that Philadelphia, unsuccessfully tried to model what was being done in the Valley. Could you explain?
The strong cultural association between high tech and suburban settings is something that comes out of the 50s. High tech pioneers were located in research parks. The Valley is most vivid example of that. [In other cities], economic development officials take a look at what’s been succesful and try to mimic what others have done. There’s not going to be another Silicon Valley; it has a unique tech ecosystem. Penn tried to mirror Silicon Valley.
Can you point to specific political issues that affected Philadelphia’s failure to become a tech hub?
The strategy of high-tech development was a means to an end of fixing larger economic problems. That’s how Philadelphia went about it; ‘we’re going to build this not just as a economic development strategy, but as a strategy to somehow stop the racial and economic change in West Philadelphia.’ But around the world, when high-tech is used as a tool to solve other urban problems, it generally doesn’t work. You have to pure about it. Let’s get smart people together and give them tools to do really cool stuff, make it easy for them to innovate.
And tying that back to the history of the city?
What happens is that Penn and the City of Philadelphia together use federal urban renewal as a tool to bulldoze a big piece of West Philadelphia and build the University City Science Center. In the Valley, [where there is more space] you didn’t have to worry about getting rid of buildings, or getting rid of people.
From these historical lessons, what could Philadelphia do now to improve its technology economy?
Leaders in Philadelphia have been talking about it for 15 years: how you capture the brain drain. I see three things: education, entrepreneurship and environment. One, education. Put higher ed institutions front and center and give them tools to be partner with government, industry, players in economic development game. Two, entrepreneurship. get smart people the room to do cool stuff, throw money at the problem and then get out of the way. The Cold War defense economy channeled tons of government money into scientific R&D and didn’t micromanage what happened. Scientists got grants, universities got money, and that creates a foundation for the American tech economy. Three, environment. Is the city livable? Is it a regional environment that people who can live anywhere choose to live? Does it have cool coffeeshops, affordable living, amenitiies that this knowledge workfoce wants and needs? Philadelphia has got some certain core competencies, health and medicine being one of them. Another advantage is urbanity, something that was such a disadvantage two generations ago.
Have you noticed anything recently that shows that Philadelphia is on the right path?
One of the interesting things about Philadelphia, then and now, there’s a core group of thinkers who see Philadelphia as a vital urban place. One thing that was notable about University City initiative, it was trying to revision this new economy — a community of educated people — strongly assocated with this super suburban Silicon Valley model. They were trying to market University City as this cool urban neighborhood, celebrating the vitality and diversity of the city, like Jane Jacobs. Now, when you look at West Philadelphia, it’s an idea whose time has come.


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