Private Sector: Remember the titans (of industry)
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The recent passing of Bob O'Connor has underscored the need for Pittsburghers to maintain the civic enthusiasm our late mayor helped renew. As David Matter, the president of Oxford Development, commented recently in these pages, Mayor O'Connor "started the ball rolling down the hill. I think there is every reason to believe it will keep rolling as long as people continue to work at it."
In reality, though, the momentum behind Pittsburgh's economic vitality goes back much further -- to the late 1800s, when enterprising local technologists transformed common resources such as quartz sand, iron ore and bauxite into the wonder materials of the 20th Century: glass, steel and aluminum. By applying scientific knowledge to traditional materials, the captains of local industry re-shaped the world's economy and made possible such industrial miracles of the last century as skyscrapers, automobiles and airplanes.
"It was years after we had taken chemistry to guide us," Pittsburgh steel titan Andrew Carnegie recalled in his autobiography, "that it was said by the proprietors of some other furnaces that they could not afford to employ a chemist. Had they known the truth then, they would have known that they could not afford to be without one." Even in the 1800s, applied science gave enlightened entrepreneurs like Carnegie a competitive edge.
Although today many so-called postindustrial technologies -- such as computing, robotics and health care -- have helped the region offset the maturation of the once-potent troika of glass, steel and aluminum, it is the innovative application of scientific knowledge to common materials that continues to drive the essential wealth-creating growth of new products and new industries.
Consider, for example, just a few of these promising innovations:
Materials designed for holographic optical data storage that enable more information to be stored in less space than once ever dreamed possible.
New polymers that bring such properties as electroconductivity and luminescence to fabrics and other flexible materials -- potentially making possible such science-fiction ideas as wearable computers or artificial limbs with "sensing" skin.
High-quality carbon nanotubes that allow almost unimaginable ratios of strength to weight.
Other nanotechnology-based materials that sense, respond, adhere (or resist adhesion), retard fire and handle high temperatures in ways that endow them with almost-human intelligence.
Will the chemistry of these smart materials shape the industries of the 21st Century just as glass, steel and aluminum shaped the last? Noted blogger and futurist Glenn Reynolds certainly thinks so. "Materials science," he avers, "isn't sexy the way that, say, robots are sexy, but when you can cut the weight or boost the strength of aircraft or spacecraft or even automobiles by a factor of 10 or 50, the consequences are enormous. Ditto for killing germs or even detecting them in short order."
Moreover, unlike the postindustrial industries of today, where employment often tends to divide sharply between highly-paid "knowledge workers" on the one hand and minimum-wage service employees on the other, the new jobs created by smart materials could offer plentiful, long-term employment to skilled workers in advanced manufacturing and fabrication.
As economist Eamonn Fingleton points out in his 2003 book, "Unsustainable: How Economic Dogma is Destroying American Prosperity," countries such as Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, Japan and Singapore -- with their emphasis on material science and advanced manufacturing -- have tended to outpace the United States economically in recent years. A reorientation of our economy toward innovative materials and high-tech manufacturing could help reverse that trend.
With a long tradition of industrial innovation, moreover, Pittsburgh is well suited to developing the kinds of revolutionary materials that could one day prevent the transmission of infectious disease or construct an elevator into outer space. Dozens of local companies already are beginning to market many of these innovative substances -- with many more in various stages of business incubation.
Add to this the strengths of our local universities and our research facilities in science, medicine and technology -- along with a strong community of financial institutions, foundations, entrepreneurs and private investors and what The Economist recently touted as our potential role as a "logistics hub" -- and it's not difficult to envision a future Pittsburgh that could spawn a veritable cornucopia of emerging companies and industries.
In my view, "hard industries" and innovative materials have every bit as important a role to play in Pittsburgh's future economic vitality as they did in its past. If we really want to renew the momentum of the Pittsburgh region, we would do well to recall the formula that once made us the envy of the industrial world by applying our best thinking to the science of everyday materials.
First Published October 24, 2006 12:00 am