Robotics is an important part of Pittsburgh’s revitalization

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While Pittsburgh may not be Silicon Valley, technological innovations are beginning to characterize this city as well.

This summer, Robot 250, a city-wide art and technology program designed to build a sense of community and raise the technical literacy of the region, ran from July 11 through 27. It was run jointly between Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, though it was also supported by a number of local community groups and foundations. The program had exhibits all throughout the city, including at Phipps Conservatory, the Warhol Museum, the Mattress Factory, the Children’s Museum, the Carnegie Library in Oakland, and the Carnegie Art and Natural History museums.

The program was open to anyone and everyone in Pittsburgh, whether visitors were there specifically to see the robots or simply ran into them on a trip to the museum or library.

Each summer, Pittsburgh comes up with a different theme and then plans a number of events and programs that correlate with that theme to bring the city together during the few warm months we see each year. Last summer, we saw “Pittsburgh Celebrates Glass,” a theme that centered around the Chihuly glass exhibit at Phipps Conservatory. This summer, Robot 250 was invented after a team at Carnegie Mellon’s CREATE Lab combined the idea of a city-wide robotics celebration with the city’s 250th anniversary.

The theme selection this year demonstrates that Carnegie Mellon, and its technological influence, plays a large role in Pittsburgh’s growth and development.

That said, we think emphasizing and expanding robotics is an important step toward furthering the revitalization of our dear Steel City.

Pittsburgh is a shrinking city. In urban affairs terms, shrinking cities are those urban centers — a large majority of them post-industrial — whose populations are declining, particularly in their cores. Sprawl around many of these cities, such as Detroit and Pittsburgh, is growing, but the city centers are staggeringly depleted of commercial energy — and residents.

As part of the decaying Rust Belt, the area of the northeastern and upper midwestern United States, in which major manufacturing occurred, particularly in the early- to mid-20th century, Pittsburgh is no stranger to a loss of jobs and an exodus of urban dwellers. Whereas steel once dominated the region’s industry and put the pierogie and kielbasa capital on the map, since the mills started closing in the 1950s, Pittsburgh has seemed to have less to offer on a national scale.

Since steel left, Pittsburgh has been trying to revitalize itself through the arts and biotechnology. Many other Rust Belt cities — many within just a few hundred miles of us — are likely to continue to decline. Four Ohio cities — Youngstown, Canton, Dayton, and Cleveland — were part of Forbes’ Aug. 14 list of the top 10 American cities with shrinking populations, for example.

However, Pittsburgh is different: It has the location — close to Philadelphia, New York, Detroit, and Washington — and now, it has the know-how to make technology its niche.

Several technology powerhouses are already headquartered or stationed in our soon-to-grow city. Google and Intel, for example, are housed in the Collaborative Innovation Center on our very own campus. Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute is incredibly prestigious, having won challenges and completed projects on a national, and sometimes worldwide, scale. The simple fact that the city is home to several large, research-oriented universities means that new technological developments are being created all the time, boosting Pittsburgh’s credentials as a tech-y, robot-y,
diversified powerhouse.

This growing technological prowess was visible this summer with Robot 250. For about two weeks, the city saw how prominent robotics is — and Carnegie Mellon (and other robot nerds) saw how robots and technology can be relevant and interesting to the community.

Robot 250 represented the cultural side of technology — and for technology to be the force that revitalizes the city, it has to be able to bridge the gap between the technical, detail-oriented side of it and the real-life, day-to-day happenings of tried and true Pittsburgh-ers. An attempt to bridge this gap, Robot 250 encouraged members of the Pittsburgh community that would generally not be doing something technical, and may see robotics as too academic or technologically advanced (or just, perhaps, too boring) to take part in the designs in some of the robots.

The exhibit at the Mattress Factory, for example, showcased a number of different robots, each designed by a child or group of children from the community. The individual creations each did something different when they detected noise nearby, and showcased the variety and creativity of the youth in Pittsburgh.

Another example was at the Children’s Museum, which featured robotic “flowers” with clips where the petals would be; as children came to look at the flowers they had the opportunity to decorate paper “petals” and clip them to the robot.

Robot 250 was encouraging in that it demonstrated that Carnegie Mellon, a school with such a strong technical background, is trying to interest the greater Pittsburgh community in technology by working with the more centrally-located University of Pittsburgh and encouraging locals to see robots as colorful, active, inviting objects.

The community involvement in Robot 250 is an important first step toward breaking the barrier between technology and the Pittsburgh region at large. As it stands, the city core’s population is dwindling. But with an increasingly dynamic technical community — and the attention of the city’s residents — Pittsburgh will be back on the map, to stay.