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[Op-ed] Pittsburgh`s Message

Posted September. 23, 2009 07:24,   


Cities have messages. Pittsburgh, the venue of the Group of 20 summit Thursday and Friday, boasts the nickname “Rust Belt Transforming into a 21st Century High-Tech City.” The city took pride as the world’s steel capital but turned into a rust belt due to the industrial reshuffle a generation ago and the rise of foreign competitors such as Nippon Steel of Japan and POSCO of Korea. Pittsburgh, however, has seen a drastic change as a center of high-tech innovation, encompassing medicine, education, research and development, and green technology. The Convention Center where the G20 summit will take place is considered the world’s first and largest leadership in energy and environmental design building. U.S. President Barack Obama probably wanted to convey the message that cities must take advantage of the global economic crisis to transform like Pittsburgh.

Can Detroit, which is in decline because of the demise of the U.S. auto industry, revive like Pittsburgh? Newsweek magazine said “It was out of the question” in June when Obama announced Pittsburgh as the host of the G20 meeting. The reason was Pittsburgh did not change due to state intervention and subsidies like General Motors did in Detroit. In other words, the change originated from Pittsburgh residents, who realized that they could not rely on steel or unions forever.

Pittsburgh is home to Carnegie Mellon University, founded by steel mogul Andrew Carnegie, and the time-honored University of Pittsburgh. Residents invested in the two universities in the belief that education is the only way to survive. As the two emerged as top-rated research-oriented universities, more than 70,000 R&D jobs were created including those generated by the 35 universities in and around the city. IT and BT companies flowed into the city en masse to take advantage of Pittsburgh’s brain power. More than 200 companies have been spawned by Carnegie Mellon over the past 30 years. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which was merely a nearby hospital as recently as 20 years ago, is now a global medical center employing 100,000 people.

Pittsburghers transformed both themselves and their city. Workers laid off in the 1980s later learned medical technology at university to land jobs at the city’s medical center. Under Pittsburgh’s self-revival program, the city’s jobless rate is 7.8 percent, lower than the U.S. average of 9.4 percent. The city’s success suggests an element more important that massive state assistance or the relocation of government agencies.

Editorial Writer Kim Sun-deok (yuri@donga.com)