Visions of Pittsburgh’s Future — Rebranding

Across America, and nowhere more than Pittsburgh, the recent recession has created a new “Thrust” Belt, where thousands of talented, motivated and skilled workers who might have been attracted by the security of a cubicle, have been thrust into the uncertainty of entrepreneurship. What used to be described as a “creative underclass” has become the “creative working class” (CWC), where design and inventiveness are intrinsic to their businesses. For example, friends of mine, trained as industrial designers, had an industrial laser cutter in their Point Breeze living room that allowed them to produce a growing line of gifts and lighting accessories. Another opened a record store and resurrected a record label. And thousands of others are designing and manufacturing products in their kitchens, basements and local warehouses and distributing through Etsy or their own websites. Drawn by the economies and cultural and natural assets of our region, the entrepreneurs behind these food trucks, letterpress shops and hundreds of other startups and sidelines—largely young, tech savvy and resilient—span the visionary arc from technology startups in healthcare to design freelancing, manufacturing, crafts and music—a unique combination of technological and creative sensibility with the skills and tools of tradesmen.

The effect of this thrust-worthy vision has been profound, particularly in the multidisciplinary culture they’ve spawned. Building on Pittsburgh’s “can do” roots, this new creative working class brings artistic chops, environmental awareness and a spirit of cooperativeness and “co-opetition” (where even so-called competitors are cooperating), creating cultural and economic vitality and accessibility to skills, knowledge and know-how that stimulates invention. And this spirit of invention, discovery and risk-taking is contagious—they are influencing all of us to think younger and be more adventurous and generous.

In addition to the economics that have driven this wave, there are also new tools and communities that allow this invention to flourish. Inexpensive 3D printing, tech shops that afford access to tools and easy-to-use web development, social media and online distribution platforms have made it possible for budding entrepreneurs to realize their dreams. Apart from the economic and cultural lift, perhaps the most significant impact of this CWC to transform and revitalize our community might well be their spirit of generosity, so indigenous to Pittsburgh. Our community has a legacy of generosity that endowed us with art and cultural institutions, gardens, parks, universities and hospitals. But the generosity exemplified in this CWC extends beyond financial generosity and philanthropy, flourishing through sharing intellectual capital: creativity, ideas and know-how.

The challenge is how to sustain this energy—to keep this generosity of spirit alive and growing as the CWC move from “there’s nothing to lose,” to roles of greater responsibility; buying homes, starting families and saving for future college educations that so often stalls the adventurous spirit.

Our growing creative community will soon be a new establishment of business owners, professionals and artists, and our hope is that success breeds further confidence in the spirit of adventure, generosity and sharing of creative capital that can fuel invention and growth and optimism.

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Pittsburgh Quarterly