Pittsburgh: Innovation in the Steel City

Katie Couric
Global Anchor

by Kelli Hill

Pittsburgh will always be known as the “Steel City,” but a visit to the town now reveals a fresh new identity — as a hub for innovation, arts and culture.

When the city’s steel economy collapsed in the early 1980s and nearly half the population left, it didn’t stay down for long. “There were forward-thinking people in this town that weren’t simply looking at ‘How do we reopen the mills?’ but “Why don’t we create a new economy?” said Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto. “They were creating this ecosystem for technology, life sciences and engineering to take a foothold.”

Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric takes a look at the technology and innovation revitalizing the iconic Rust Belt city for the latest stop in her series “Cities Rising: Rebuilding America.”

The robotics revolution in Pittsburgh began just as the steel industry all but disappeared. Since 1979, Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute has been on the cutting edge of this growing field, creating groundbreaking robots for work, home and the space beyond while bringing new people and businesses to the city. There have been more than 30 spinoff companies since robotics arrived in Pittsburgh.

The personal robotics lab at the Robotics Institute has been working on a home butler named HERB for the past 11 years. “HERB is designed to help people perform tasks around the house. He’s really designed as a robot that can help someone have independence and live at home even when they may not be able to take care of their own tasks on their own,” Robotics Institute Henny Admoni explained. “And I think in the next 20 years or 50 years, we’re going to see amazing advances in robotics really making a richer, more pleasant human life possible.”

Pittsburgh is also fostering new partnerships within the community. Project RE is tapping into the city’s sometimes forgotten resources by connecting builders and architects with former convicts. The nonprofit is a co-venture of Carnegie Mellon’s Urban Design Build Studio, the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh (TIP), and Construction Junction, a reused building materials retailer, in whose 100,000-square-foot facility the new venture is based. The group is currently working on affordable housing solutions for the community, built with repurposed materials.

“Project RE is like a cornucopia of just humanity. It’s just a positive vibe. You know, you have a diverse collective of people,” said Carl Meyers, one of Project RE’s TIP apprentices.

Pittsburgh is also reinventing itself through its arts and culture, perhaps most notably on Liberty Avenue. Back in the 1970s and ’80s, the avenue was lined with strip clubs and peep shows. Today it’s filled with theaters, restaurants and a bustling comedy scene.  

Arcade Comedy Theater, Pittsburgh’s only nonprofit comedy theater, was started by five improv friends in 2013. It’s since been named one of the Top 50 comedy theaters in the nation.

“A lot of us had been doing comedy here for a solid 15 years, 10 years,” said Arcade co-founder Abby Fodor. “When Mike [Rubino] and I met, I was doing improv in a basement. He was doing it on the third floor above a bowling alley. And so that was sort of how comedy was in Pittsburgh, and now it’s front and center in the cultural district. I mean, if that isn’t a metaphor for sort of what is happening all over, I don’t know what is.”

What’s next for Pittsburgh? Mayor Peduto described it best: “When I think of Pittsburgh’s future, I think of our past. It’s branded in steel, and it’s one that understands that change is inevitable, progress is not. I think that the future of Pittsburgh is one that remains a small community, knitted together by neighborhoods, and a global innovation center that will change the world.”