Movers and shakers look toward the future

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Yesterday the Post-Gazette looked back at 1995 predictions made by some of the region's movers and shakers who were asked, "What does the next century have in store for Western Pennsylvania?" Today, as we move into the teens of the 21st century, what do the people who made those original predictions, and those have replaced them, see in the next decade down the road?

The future looks bright -- or brighter, at any rate -- to local honchos from the academic, cultural and technological worlds.

The Post-Gazette asked what the next decade might bring, and got predictions of more technological advances, conditions right for a renaissance in manufacturing and the continued growth of a vibrant arts and culture community. Here's what they said.

Marvin Sirbu, founder of the Information Networking Institute and professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University:

Having access to broadband communication is becoming more and more essential. For 50 years we have supported telephony for everyone through subsidies to high-cost rural areas or low-income people. I think we will begin to see similar policies applied to broadband within 10 years and maybe sooner. The traditional funding mechanisms that have subsidized telephony are going to be redefined to fund broadband in rural areas.

I think the high price of oil that we saw in 2007 and 2008 may return by the end of 10 years. We will continue to see a significant shift toward hybrid or electric powered vehicles, and renewable energy -- wind and solar -- not just because of global warming, but because we're past peak oil in the U.S., and generally not discovering reserves as fast as we're consuming it. We will be in the middle of that transformation 10 years from now.

Video-conferencing is starting to have significant impact on the airlines. I read a recent forecast that airlines expected as much as a 10 to 15 percent drop in business traffic this year because people are switching to video-conferencing.

Tony Stentz, associate director, National Robotics Engineering Center, Robotics Institute, Carnegie Mellon University:

Intelligent mobile machines have moved beyond the proof of concept stage. The robotics community is now focused on maturing these machines to make them cost effective. In the next decade, we will see them deployed in applications such as farming, mining, energy, and security -- working alongside their human counterparts -- to improve productivity and safety. For the most part, the machines will not assume radically new physical forms but will resemble conventional equipment that becomes smarter over time as they are programmed to handle increasingly more sophisticated tasks. Outfitted with the latest sensors, computers, GPS navigation systems and artificial intelligence software, these machines will go well beyond performing simple, repetitive tasks in factory-like environments. Operating outdoors in all weather conditions, they will dig soil, haul materials, apply chemicals, inspect crops, detect intruders and communicate with their human handlers. They will troubleshoot their own problems and improve their performance through experience. The machines will spawn a new industry to manufacture, service, operate and monitor them.

David Pahnos, former director, NASA Robotics Engineering Consortium:

In the last decade, we witnessed the greatest increase in American productivity since the beginning of the 20th century. This has largely been due to computer technology in the service sector and robotic technologies in manufacturing, mining and agriculture.

We have not yet reached the tipping point where outsourced manufacturing returns to the U.S., but the conditions will become more favorable over the next two decades. Per unit labor cost will continue to decrease as automation increases, making American workers more competitive. Energy costs will continue to increase with demand and the transition to renewable energy sources, in response to global warming; this will favor a return to manufacturing in the U.S., as transportation costs rise.

In 1995, I said, "As labor rates become less a component of manufacturing, we'll see what we considered the 19th century criteria for productivity come back in the 21st century -- quality of engineering and of design, productivity of the plant and proximity to power, raw materials and transportation." I think the prediction still holds.

Tom Murphy, former Pittsburgh mayor:

I believe manufacturing in the United States will in some ways see a renaissance in the next decade, and Pittsburgh could be well positioned to take advantage of that.

Charles Dougherty, president, Duquesne University:

The universities will continue to be the engines of economic development in Pittsburgh. It will get to the point where there is really no major successful corporation that does not have a partnership with a Pittsburgh university.

I think we will in the next decade finally develop a Hispanic community in Pittsburgh, and that will contribute to the first time in decades to the actual growth of the population of the city.

The next decade will be the decade of the father. I think our experiments with families without fathers will have led to such unhappiness that people will realize the critical role of fathers and families and there will be a renewal of a much more traditional family.

Kevin McMahon, president and chief executive officer, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust:

Artists from around the world and around the country are going to rediscover Pittsburgh as a place to come and do work because of the lower cost of living, but also because of the access to the arts. A number of cities have a more prominent recognition as arts towns, but in reality Pittsburgh is right up there. I think that will be acknowledged on the national scene as more artists come here.

In the next 10 years, we're going to see even more importance given to collaborations, shared services, mergers -- the kinds of things the Cultural Trust has spearheaded in the last several years. Resources continue to be a very, very critical component to the vitality of the arts. Without resources, the arts will languish. Being more efficient, sharing things, having multiple users of facilities are all going to be increasingly important.

More people will start thinking about living Downtown. We're going to see a much larger number of new housing units coming in to Downtown. In the last couple of years the economy has dampened that, but I think that's probably going to be the biggest change for the Cultural District.


Staff writer Sara Bauknecht contributed to this story. Adrian McCoy can be reached at 412-263-1865 or amccoy@post-gazette.com .


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