Brown's Viewpoint: Maneuvering the Rust Belt to Brain Belt divide

This text discusses the challenges that resilient communities face as they try to improve their situation. They are fighting against both the systemic problems that keep them down and the lack of opportunity that prevents them from moving up.

The narrative of the Rust Belt becoming a Brain Belt continues to gain traction for cities that are resilient, like Pittsburgh. They continue to redefine post-industrial stagnation. Although traditional Rust Belt towns like Pittsburgh have cleverly positioned themselves at the intersection of technology and sectoral digital enterprise, it is important to ask why this narrative has not gained real traction.

For those who are not in the loop with technology, it is hard to move from a Rust Belt into a Brain Belt. This isn't a brand new memory. It is more like the modern version to pull yourself up by your bootstraps without the straps. Resistant communities that actively struggle against hierarchies of basic needs are fighting with a double-edged blade as they fight to overcome systemic obstacles and access the bench for new opportunities. The impact of lower wages, fewer job opportunities and a shrinking tax base on upward mobility and adapting to trends is significant. The greater the distance between resilient, thriving communities, the more difficult it is to find ways to improve.

In a Pittsburgh Business Times article from 2019, I wrote that many of our residents would be left behind by the paradigm shift towards high technology. What lies behind this reality, though? Antione van Agtmael, Fred Bakker, and others discuss what I call 'The Pittsburgh Pivot', which is a move away from coal mining to new economic investments. In a deeper look at Pittsburgh's deliberate pivot away from its historically Rust Belt-based economy, however, we see that Pittsburgh has rebuilt infrastructure in order to accommodate the pivot, particularly around two key areas: Housing, and Development. In fact, resilient communities in these areas are being disenfranchised at the margins. The focus on housing and infrastructure is outstripping the perceived value that Pittsburgh's resilient population who have lived and work in these traditionally disinvested areas.

Pittsburgh's self-perpetuated push to become a Brain Belt has also changed the trajectory of resilient communities, from surviving into thriving. We have also seen many outsiders moving into the city in order to take advantage of the tech boom. This has left untapped potential within these communities looking on growth and prosperity. The development of an ever-evolving talent pipeline is essential to the success and sustainability of a Brain Belt. Emerging leaders need to understand the cultural context of a community in order to optimize technology as its common center.

Relationships are the focal point of optimal solutions. We can't assume that we will be able to solve today's problems without creating a context in which people feel welcome and safe. Our role as business leaders in the nonprofit sector is to provide underserved communities with the skills they need to bridge the Rust Belt-Brain Belt divide. To accomplish such goals, it is necessary to implement a long-term platform that promotes new skills in line with the framework for 21st century transformational jobs.

Black Tech Nation, a program for Black coders, has been one of the successful initiatives in Pittsburgh to close such gaps. These movements are a targeted way to increase BIPOCs in tech roles. We need to continue exploring these successful approaches, and empower people to ensure that this work is done in a way that promotes social cohesion.

The courage required now is unprecedented. Success is dependent on new ideas, processes, and partnerships that go beyond traditional models. Truthfully, there is no panacea that will solve all of these problems. All human beings will have to work together in order to create a new eco-system that can solve social problems.