By Sean D. Hamill Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Pittsburgh's reputation has come a long way over the last decade, slowly, but surely morphing from a Rust Belt city down on its luck, to one where the possibilities of a transforming economy seem real.
President Barack Obama is coming here Thursday, along with hundreds of the country's most prominent scientists, technologists and researchers.
They're here to take part in the White House-organized Frontiers Conference at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University on Thursday, a one-day gathering of big minds talking about the future of great ideas.
But a strange thing happened on the way to selecting Pittsburgh as the backdrop and host to such a prominent event: There was nary a snicker heard in August about why our fair city was selected.
That is a marked turn from 2009 when a White House spokesman announced at a press conference that Pittsburgh had been chosen to host the G20 economic summit. Members of the White House press giggled and questioned the choice.
If anything, the lack of questioning only serves to demonstrate how far the city's reputation has come over the last decade, slowly, but surely morphing from a Rust Belt city down on its luck, to one where the possibilities of a transforming economy seem real.
And that was exactly why Pittsburgh was chosen, said Cristin Dorgelo, chief of staff to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
While hurriedly pulling together the conference over the past three months has been complicated, deciding to host it in Pittsburgh was "simple," she said.
Aspects of all five "frontiers" that will be discussed at the conference are being developed in Pittsburgh, from advances in medicine and computer technology, to building Smart Cities and better neighborhoods.
"It's really a natural home for this discussion," she said.
But another equally compelling reason is the success story that Pittsburgh represents, she said, demonstrating that "innovation is not just happening in those traditional centers that might be well known" like Silicon Valley, Boston or Austin, Texas, but also in former manufacturing centers like Pittsburgh.
"I think there's absolutely a tie to Pittsburgh and where it's going to be in the future and how other manufacturing towns can also benefit from improvements in science, technology and innovation," she said.
Brian Kennedy, senior vice president for operations with the Pittsburgh Technology Council, a regional trade association, has seen the change in attitudes about Pittsburgh from businesses.
"In 2009, it was a natural question" about why Pittsburgh was hosting a meeting of 20 of the world's largest economies, he said. "Now, this year, it's like: Why not Pittsburgh?"
Mr. Kennedy, who was in a similar position with the council in 2009, said that when he takes start-ups or budding entrepreneurs from CMU or Pitt to the West Coast to meet investors or journalists -- as he will be doing this weekend -- "I don't have any problem getting meetings."
"No one ever says, 'No,' and when we get back, they all call us and ask when they can come here to meet more" people or companies, he said. "I would have told you the same thing even five years ago."
A big part of why, he said, is the confluence of charitable foundations, universities and private sector players in Pittsburgh working together to help each other -- something that also explains why Pittsburgh has been able to pull off this conference.
"When the White House pitched us at the end of July on this idea of what if these two universities helped President Obama host a conference to discuss these ideas, we were of course thrilled," said Rick Siger, CMU's director for strategic initiatives who is helping pull the conference together.
But they could not do it alone, and the universities reached out to local companies, as well a dozen of Pittsburgh's largest charitable foundations for advice and financial assistance.
In a few weeks, those foundations -- including the Heinz Endowments, which contributed $150,000, and the Pittsburgh Foundation, which contributed $30,000, and others -- quickly raised "in the high six figures" to help pay for the conference, said Martin Mbugua, CMU spokesman.
"It's a proud moment for the city," said John Ellis, Heinz Endowments spokesman.
The universities worked with the private sector to help figure out which people locally and nationally should be invited to speak on the five frontiers, with the White House making the final call on them, said Nathan Urban, Pitt's vice provost for special projects and associate director of Pitt's Brain Institute.
"They didn't want people to talk about their latest paper or body of work, but, what is coming next," Mr. Urban said. As an example of how frantic creation of the conference has been, late Friday afternoon, less than six days before the conference begins, the Frontiers Conference website still did not yet have up a list of the scheduled speakers.
Ms. Dorgelo said that the idea for the conference came as a result of a confluence of events this summer, starting with the White House's issuance in June of 100 Examples of President Obama's Leadership in Science, Technology, and Innovation. Not long after that Mr. Obama agreed to be the guest editor of the upcoming issue of Wired magazine, which will also focus on the future.
And while it can't be planned for directly, there is a larger goal from this conference that everyone involved hopes occurs with so many big thinkers in the same room, Mr. Siger said.
"I do think there's some magic that will happen there," he said.
Attendance at Thursday's conference is by invitation only and there are no public tickets available, but the conference will be streamed lived and archived for later viewing on the Frontiersconference.org website. Also demonstration projects related to the conference will be on exhibit and viewable by the public Thursday afternoon at the University of Pittsburgh's Alumni Hall, 4227 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh.