(Photo: Rob Long)
(Photo: Rob Long)

The Rust Belt story you’ve probably heard tells how the cities and towns that once formed the engine of 20th century growth—mostly in the American Midwest—have been left in the dust by the global economy. The decline of domestic manufacturing, mass migrations, and economic stagnation may appear to have paralyzed this once prosperous land of opportunity.
But for those of us working to reinvent the region, that’s not where the story ends. In my hometown of Pittsburgh, we’re seeing communities reinvent themselves from the ground up—increasing opportunities for civic engagement and improving quality of life. It’s starting with the education of our youngest citizens. At the same time, digital technology is giving people powerful new access to tools and resources, creating whole high-tech cottage industries.
Like the rest of the Rust Belt, Pittsburgh has experienced its share of large-scale revitalization movements, from urban renewal to the remediation of post-industrial brownfields to the “right-sizing” of districts shrinking in population.
Many past efforts to revitalize the Rust Belt prescribed solutions from the top down. The wave of innovation sweeping the region today, however, is more akin to the phenomenon of remixing—a practice in which thousands of creative people borrow and share tools and ideas, and invent and adapt products and processes to generate authentic solutions for the challenges their businesses, neighborhoods, and cities face.
Increased access to technology has played an undeniable role in enabling this revolution in Pittsburgh, and not only among the “eds & meds” economic powerhouses like Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh that epitomize the city’s transformation. Innumerable startups and innovative entrepreneurs are also putting technology to use on a smaller scale to re-energize communities throughout the region. From community innovators like GTECH Strategies, which helps communities in transition tap into the unrealized potential of vacant land by raising energy crops on empty neighborhood lots, to learning innovators like Zulama, which provides cash-strapped schools with a menu of creative technology and design courses they can use to provide students with more options for engaging and relevant elective courses.
In Pittsburgh, a constellation of co-working spaces, startup incubators, prototyping centers, and pitch events are giving rise to a new model of economic development that puts a premium on innovative ideas and the creative people who can make them happen. Combining capital investments, office infrastructure, and mentorship, Alphalab, a charter member of the Global Accelerator Network, is a hub for Pittsburgh’s entrepreneurial community. This supportive environment extends to nonprofit startups as well through initiatives like Pittsburgh Social Venture Partners’ Social Innovation Fast Pitch, which helps social innovation startups grow through competitive funding rounds and connections to Pittsburgh’s network of nonprofit innovators.
To make the most of this momentum, we must harness the opportunities offered by innovative technology and marshall the resources  of our region to create a collaborative, networked approach to remaking our cities and communities. It all starts with the children and youth who will soon inherit this new world of possibility.
Just as the old industrial production paradigm has given way to a microcosm of more nimble and creative economic engines, a similar sea change is afoot in education. Instead of top-down instruction and one-size-fits-all results, new learning opportunities encourage students to develop a sense of curiosity, pursue their own interests, build diverse and useful skill sets, and work collaboratively with their peers to solve complex problems.
TransformED, a digital playground for teachers at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit. (Image via The Sprout Fund)
TransformED, a digital playground for teachers at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit. (Image via The Sprout Fund)

That’s where the Pittsburgh Kids+Creativity Network comes in. Drawn together by a shared commitment to our region’s children and youth, Pittsburgh’s leading schools, museums, libraries, community organizations, higher education institutions, technology firms, and philanthropies are working together to remake learning in our region.
What does this look like?

  • School districts such as Elizabeth Forward are transforming classrooms into collaborative cross-curricular learning environments that integrate the creative arts with science, technology, engineering, and math.
  • Museums are partnering with learning scientists and designers to create immersive, hands-on spaces for creative learning like MAKESHOP at The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.
  • Teachers are learning innovative instructional methods through tech-forward professional development initiatives such as transformED.
  • Libraries are carving out spaces such as the Labs @ CLP where teens use creative media tools and work with mentors to produce music, animation, video games, and more.
  • After-school programs are partnering with tech experts from the Remake Learning Digital Corps to help youth develop digital literacies during out-of-school time.

Through such initiatives, Kids+Creativity has become a city-wide effort to take advantage of new media and technology.
Pittsburgh is not alone. Across the country and around the world, communities are forming cross-sector partnerships such as Hive Learning Networks to equip today’s youth with the skills that the new economy rewards so they can be the leaders of tomorrow—both in their local economies and on the global stage.
Remaking learning is our best chance to rewrite the story of the Rust Belt. By upholding our commitment to the children who call the region home, we can keep the spirit of invention alive and build on our regional legacy of creativity, ingenuity, and collaboration to become the engines of innovation in the 21st century.
Cathy Lewis Long is the founding executive director of The Sprout Fund, Pittsburgh’s leading nonprofit supporting innovative ideas, catalyzing community change, and making the region a better place to live, work, play, and raise a family. She was a speaker at the Techonomy Detroit 2013 conference.