All eyes were on Pittsburgh October 13th when 500-plus invited guests gathered at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh for the first-ever White House Frontiers Conference, a daylong event exploring the future of innovation, culminating in an address by President Barack Obama.
At CMU’s Jared L. Cohon University Center, Secret Service agents and SWAT team members weaved through hundreds of tech entrepreneurs, students and others attending panels featuring top scientists and researchers from across the country. Those leading the interplanetary track–which covered space exploration and the journey to Mars–were easily identified by their shirts emblazoned with NASA patches.
Just down the street, the University of Pittsburgh hosted tracks on healthcare, climate change and clean energy. The other two sessions featured at the conference focused on local issues of transportation and criminal justice, and Artifical Intelligence.
At the event, it was announced that $300 million in funds would be granted to further technology’s role in improving city infrastructure, brain research, small-satellite technology and precision medicine.
The choice of setting made sense in a time when Pittsburgh has garnered wide attention for its role as an emerging tech hub and smart city.
“Pittsburgh’s overnight success story is 30 years of hard work and innovation,” said Mayor Bill Peduto while addressing attendees at the Local Frontiers track. At the center of that success are the research and startups produced by Pitt and CMU.
The Local Track
Peduto offered his views on transportation on a panel that included United States Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, Zipcar co-founder and former CEO Robin Chase, and Tim Kentley-Klay of the autonomous driving startup Zoox.
In a breakout session on transportation that followed, Foxx asked, “What fundamental changes in transportation policy need to happen? It took a hell of a lot to get Congress focused on it. The conversation has always been 90 percent where will the money come from and 10 percent policy.” It needs to be the reverse, he said.
The $65 million in new funding awards announced at the Conference “will help cities and communities do the work to advance on a local level,” he said, citing the work of the Traffic 21 initiative in Pittsburgh where smart traffic signals have helped to reduce traffic congestion by 40 percent. The increased funding will allow that to “be applied to Downtown Pittsburgh much more broadly.”
“To reduce congestion, to increase safety, to really hardness opportunity, we are changing how we think about innovation,” Foxx said. ” There has to be constant vigilance by everyone . . . You tell us what you don’t like, tell us what you do like; we’re going to keep trying to build a better mousetrap.”
Kids are our future
Two themes that resounded throughout the day were about how our children will be the ones to solve many of the problems we face today and how critical it is to prepare all of our kids for the future, and how no one should be left behind as we innovate our way to the future.
“We are stronger than we think we are,” said Megan Smith, Chief Technology Officer at the White House. “How do we unlock and unleash the talent of everyone?”
More than once, a panelist talked about how “a seven-year-old is out there” who will one day to be able to solve the problems we face today. The 20-year-old leader of Greening Forward, Charles Orgbon III, urged the audience to “think differently about your role with young people. You’re not just a teacher of young people. To create that transformative change, we’re gonna need a lot of things and one of those things is your role as a mentor.”
The problems of today, he said, “should not be left to so-called experts. Young people are ready to take action against the environmental issues that impact us and the global challenges we face. We’re the first generation to feel the impacts of climate change.”
Obama addressed climate change in his remarks. “We don’t listen to science just when it fits our ideology. That’s the path to ruin,” he said. “When the Russians beat us into space we didn’t deny that Sputnik was up there…we acknowledged the facts and then we built a space program almost overnight and beat them to the moon.”
Obama gave a shout-out to numerous people and groups advancing the city, including the Girls of Steel, the upcoming Maker Faire, and the remarkable work at Pitt around brain implants. He talked about meeting Nathan Copeland, paralyzed since 2014, who has a prosthetic arm that allows him to feel sensation in his fingers. He shook his hand, said Obama, then they fist-bumped.
Making sure all are included
A panel roundtable discussion later led by Chief Innovation & Performance Officer Debra Lam pointed out that Pittsburgh still has some hurdles to overcome in order to make this new tech landscape inclusive for all.
“You need to ask, am I reaching out to everyone?” Lam said as she led a group containing tech, education and nonprofit representatives from Pittsburgh and throughout the country. “If I’m not, how do I do that?”
One solution lies in sourcing and analyzing data to understand the city’s needs and concerns. It was recently used to show how diverse Pittsburgh’s 90 neighborhoods really were. “Data doesn’t lie,” said Lam.
The words ring true for one agreement made just prior to Obama’s arrival for his afternoon address. Peduto announced plans to join forces with White House-led Police Data Initiative (PDI), which supports efforts of local law enforcement to build trust with the communities they serve by using data to increase transparency and accountability.
“In order to rebuild police-community trust, transparency is a vital first step,” said Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay in an official statement. “In a free democracy, the public has a right to understand the workings of government, and the actions of law enforcement touch the lives of our citizenry in powerful ways.”
Part of the participation includes the expansion of the Guide to Crime, Courts, and Corrections, a website developed by the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center (WPRDC) to increase public access to law enforcement data for Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. The WPRDC will enlist help from the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, the Department of Innovation & Performance, and the Allegheny County Human Services to add up-to-date information on everything from non-traffic violations to police training to civil rights lawsuits.
The site will also feature a variety of tools, such as charts, maps, interactive visuals and reports, as well as additional criminal justice-related data provided by Allegheny County and the State of Pennsylvania.
“This important work continues to build upon our broader efforts around open data,” said Lam in an official statement. “We hope that providing such data not only increases government accountability but empowers the community and strengthens partnerships. This is another testament to Pittsburgh’s inclusive innovation.”