News Center
Pittsburgh: An Economy Fueled by Innovation

Posted on: May 02, 2019

Today, Pittsburgh’s economy is diverse – driven by healthcare, life sciences, higher education, research and technology.
Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University is the birthplace of the autonomous vehicle.

From self-driving cars to leading-edge medical technologies, Pittsburgh is at the forefront of a technology revolution.

Pittsburgh’s transformation is remarkable given the region’s dramatic economic fall in the 1970s and 1980s.

Now viewed as the poster-child for postindustrial rebirth, the region’s unemployment rate hit 18.3 percent in 1983, and tens of thousands of residents left to find better opportunities elsewhere.

Steel’s decline, and the ensuing job losses and out-migration represented a low point in the history of the Pittsburgh region. However, through careful planning, collaboration, and leadership from the public, private, university, and foundation communities, the region bounced back. Its economy and quality of life make Pittsburgh a destination for young job seekers across the country.

Today, Pittsburgh’s economy is diverse – driven by healthcare, life sciences, higher education, research and technology.

National recognition of Pittsburgh’s economic rebirth first occurred in 1999 when the Wall Street Journal dubbed Pittsburgh “Roboburgh,” as a result of the region’s global leadership in robotics and related research and technology. Since then, the region’s economy continues to weather global recessions and the contraction of American manufacturing, attracting top technology firms like Uber, Facebook, Apple, Bosch, and GE.

Critical to Pittsburgh’s transformation story were early strategic decisions, guided by the region’s civic leadership community, to make investments in research and technology. These investments helped to make Pittsburgh a major technology hub with an economy fueled by innovation across industries.

But while the rebirth has been recent, innovation has been part of Pittsburgh’s DNA for centuries. The region’s leadership in robotics can be traced back to 1979 when Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) Robotics Institute was established. Today, the Institute is the world’s largest robotics R&D organization, and is the leading catalyst in the city’s robotics and autonomous vehicle industries. CMU’s robotics projects have played a role in solving threats to humanity ranging from cleaning up the basement of the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor to creating adaptive systems that improve the lives of older adults and people with disabilities.

Carnegie Mellon’s CHIMP robot, assisted by roboticist Prathamesh Kini, demonstrating its fine motor skills. Christopher Payne for The New York Times

CMU is also a pioneer of autonomous vehicle research and development dating back to the NavLab and ALVINN autonomous vehicle projects in the early 1980s. In 1996, the National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC) was established within the CMU Robotics Institute.

CMU’s decades of leadership in robotics and self-driving cars has led to the emergence of an autonomous vehicle industry with Pittsburgh as its epicenter. Major private investment began in 2014 with the establishment of Uber’s Advanced Technology Center in Pittsburgh. A close collaboration between the city and the company transformed Pittsburgh into a testing ground for its self-driving cars and SUVs.

Additional autonomous vehicle companies, many with roots in CMU and NREC, have since set up shop. These include Argo AI, a startup that Ford invested $1 billion in; Aurora Innovation, which received a $530 million investment in 2019 from a group of investors including Amazon; Aptiv (formerly Delphi); and other companies.

Pittsburgh is also a leading incubator of smart cities technologies. In April 2018,  Transportation for America selected the city as one of 22 communities (including Atlanta) to participate in the second Smart Cities Collaborative Program. CMU has also led in developing smart city solutions by partnering with the city of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, and other government agencies to promote technologies that improve safety, enhance mobility, and mitigate pollution.

But it’s not all just robot cars and smart tech.

Healthcare and life sciences is the region’s most visible industry and one of its biggest employers — as well as a major driver in the region’s technology, research, and innovation economy.

Downtown Pittsburgh skyline
Downtown Pittsburgh skyline

This key sector is built on a legacy of biomedical innovation, healthcare, and life sciences professionals creating lifesaving technology, innovating medical devices, and cultivating cutting-edge pharmaceuticals.

The region’s two dominant healthcare providers and insurers – UPMC and Highmark Health – have, in recent years, announced multi-billion-dollar expansion strategies that will further advance Pittsburgh’s position as a global hub for medical innovations.