Pittsburgh’s PGH Lab

The Future of Cities series This case study is part of our The Future of Cities series. We have produced a handbook, in collaboration with the Boston Consulting Group and the Center for Urban Innovation at The Aspen Institute, to explore how city problem-solvers are using innovation to achieve greater public impact. Our handbook surfaces trends in city innovation, and extracts lessons from conversations with city leaders all over the US on how cities can innovate with intention to address the biggest challenges and create more livable, equitable, and resilient cities.

The city of Pittsburgh has managed to transform itself from a traditional American “rust belt” city to one with a thriving economy based on new technology. While the economy was growing, however, the municipal government had to address urban problems like air pollution, lead contamination of drinking water, climate change, and a struggling infrastructure. Therefore, the mayor wanted to connect the city’s thriving startup scene with these civic challenges to create “a city of equity, access and opportunity”.

The 2015 Roadmap for Inclusive Innovation was the starting point for creating a “Pittsburgh for the future” and making the city more equitable in the way it approached its unique urban problems. PGH Lab was one of the first initiatives to be established. It provides a platform for local startups to develop and test technology that will make the city of Pittsburgh more efficient, sustainable, and inclusive. The PGH Lab has run its programme four times since August 2016 and connected a total of 23 startups with civic needs.

The challenge

Pittsburgh’s economic development meant that it faced a range of sustainability issues, including contaminated air and water and an overstretched transport infrastructure. The city was facing a disconnect between the thriving entrepreneurship and startup scene and the innovative solutions that were needed to tackle its urban problems.

Pittsburgh used to be known as “the Steel City”, with manufacturing roots going back as far as the early 19th century. However, the economic downturn of the 1970s and 80s meant that workers were laid off, wages fell, and people moved out of the city en masse. Nevertheless, new high-paying jobs in advanced industries like energy, health, and higher education had revived the city by the mid-2000s, creating income growth despite a decreasing population. This new diversified economy, paired with a low cost of living and a rich cultural and educational infrastructure, marked Pittsburgh out as one of the World’s Most Liveable Cities, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. It was named the most liveable city in the US in 2005, 2009 and 2014, when it came 30th globally.[1][2][3]

However, challenges remained to be tackled, as not all citizens were included in the city’s growth. An equitable distribution of wealth and opportunity was needed to address inequality in different communities. By 2016, it had also become clear that the thriving and innovative economy was not sufficiently benefiting the city government. While the economy recovered, the city itself faced a number of major urban challenges:

  • Air and water quality – historically, Pittsburgh was notorious for the poor quality of its air and water, due to abundant coal resources and considerable heavy industry. Even though air quality has improved during the last decade, Pittsburgh’s metro region remained the “10th worst out of 201 regions for daily measure of fine particulate (PM 2.5) pollution” between 2014 and 2017, according to the American Lung Association.[4] Further, Pittsburgh is dealing with lead contamination of its drinking water. In 2016, “17 percent of homes had [lead] levels above the Environmental Protection Agency's action level of 15 parts per billion”.[5]
  • Energy and climate change – Pittsburgh adopted an elaborate climate action plan in 2008 to address climate change, which “established a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 20 percent below 2003 levels by 2023”.[6] This plan also recommended more effective management of the Marcellus Shale Natural Gas extraction, a large and prolific area of shale gas located across the eastern US. “The well development has affected local ecosystems, required water for hydraulic fracking operations, increased regional conventional and greenhouse gas emissions, and increased roadway traffic, including roadway wear and tear.”[6]
  • Transport – a further sustainability challenge relates to transport. “The topography of the Pittsburgh region provides challenges for transport investment and operations. The three major rivers and related streams require use of numerous bridges and restrict the extent of the highway network. “As part of the Pittsburgh 2030 District Initiative, a 50 percent reduction in transportation emissions goal was established, as well as an emissions baseline (from mid-2015) which was established as an average of the percentage share of different transportation modes of commuters and associated air emissions from commuter transportation to and from downtown Pittsburgh.”[6]

Based on these issues, the government tried to establish a system for using the city’s well-known cluster of startups and entrepreneurs to connect private sector innovation with the city’s urban needs.

The initiative

The PGH Lab tries to bridge the divide between Pittsburgh's many sustainability challenges by providing a testing ground for startups who want to test technology to make the city more efficient, sustainable and inclusive.

The PGH Lab is an initiative of the city’s Department of Innovation & Performance and its not-for-profit Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). Within the URA, the PGH Lab programme is run by the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE). The CIE was created as a result of the 2015 Roadmap for Inclusive Innovation, and has the aim of driving innovation for citizens and laying out an action plan for the future of the city. It set out a comprehensive framework of 100 recommended actions, and PGH Lab was one of many initiatives that resulted from it.

PGH Lab provides a platform for local startups to develop and test technology to make the city of Pittsburgh more equitable in the way it solves its civic challenges. It was launched in 2016 as a way to provide feedback on innovative ideas in a real-world environment.

The initiative runs in discrete annual cohorts, the first of which began in August 2016. Startups apply to PGH Lab for an initial three- to four-month pilot project which “tests beta-stage products and services to address a civic cause”. Projects are chosen based on several criteria, including their degree of innovation and feasibility, as well as the potential benefits for the city and its citizens.[7]

The Lab does not provide funding for startups. The idea is that small companies can generate market insights through running a pilot, and can therefore attract investors at a later stage. Participants will gain access to the valuable city resources, equipment, infrastructure and staff required for a successful pilot. They are also connected to a dedicated programme liaison officer, with whom they have weekly check-ins, and a Pittsburgh City department “champion”. When the programme period starts, the champion helps to set clear expectations, project timelines, and overall communications between the innovators and the city of Pittsburgh. In turn, the city gets access to new technology that may be useful in addressing its urban challenges, and projects can secure government contracts beyond the pilot phase if the pilot works well.[8][9][10]

The selected companies have included those tackling water and air pollution and promoting energy efficiency and a safer and more efficient cycling infrastructure. The first three companies that were selected in August 2016 were:

  1. HiberSense – “HiberSense acts as a network of smart thermostats adjusting the climate in every room” of the tested government building.
  2. Renergé – “The Water Horse by Renergé is a readily transportable hydro-energy solution that is minimally disruptive to other river resources.”
  3. Transit Source – “Sentinel Boxes, a bike-mounted piece of hardware that detects and reports close calls for cyclists, or events where a motor vehicle narrowly passes a bicycle.”[11][12][13]

The public impact

The PGH Lab has run its programme four times since August 2016 and enabled a total of 23 startups to engage with civic needs.

The PGH Lab is an award-winning, first-customer programme which has had four cohorts, during which a total of 23 startups have piloted their products and services for city government. The Lab was selected as the silver winner in the entrepreneurship section of the International Economic Development Council’s 2018 Excellence in Economic Development awards. While during the first round, 3 companies were selected, the programme worked well enough for the city to expand it to 15 companies in 2018.[12][14]

The selected startups built a number of pilots that addressed relevant civic issues, including:

  • Testing a readily transportable hydro-energy solution that is minimally disruptive
  • Developing a robot that uses advanced robotics and AI to sort recyclables from waste at the point of disposal
  • Inventing a smart heated garment that can be worn professionally and reduces the amount of energy used inside office buildings
  • Analysing the operations within the URA and identifying issues adversely affecting employee productivity and collaboration
  • Inventing a water sensor used by both citizens and industry to track changes in water quality
  • Developing a tool that helps to recycle food and garden waste in urban food growing
  • Using mesh networking technology to provide communities with a low-cost public wifi.[11]

What did and didn't work

All cases in our Public Impact Observatory have been evaluated for performance against the elements of our Public Impact Fundamentals.

Legitimacy

Public Confidence N/A

Assessing the public’s confidence in the PGH Lab is difficult with no direct evidence. However, citizens have long felt that the environment, transport, and other sustainability issues are a cause for concern.

There are no specific polls that assess the public’s confidence in the PGH Lab initiative. To raise public awareness on “inclusive innovation”, the city and the URA created the annual Inclusive Innovation Week (see Alignment below) in 2016. However, there is no hard evidence of its effect as yet.  

However, the Pittsburgh Regional Quality of Life Surveys 2011 and 2018 can provide some insights into public attitudes in general, and is considered the most extensive survey of Greater Pittsburgh residents since 1908. In 2018, 25 percent more respondents than in 2011 thought that the overall quality of life in Pittsburgh had improved. However, in comparison to 2011, more citizens in 2018 thought that the quality of the drinking water had deteriorated, the quality of the roads and bridge had declined, and natural gas drilling had become less of an economic opportunity than it was before. This corresponds to the overall civic challenges which the PGH Lab is encouraging startups to address.[22]  

Stakeholder Engagement Strong

The mayor of Pittsburgh personally consulted a variety of stakeholders, such as local civil society groups, businesses, and citizens through a number of roundtables and meetings about the 2015 Roadmap for Inclusive Innovation, which resulted in the PGH Lab project. The mayor wanted to ensure that innovation in Pittsburgh benefited everyone.

The mayor, Bill Peduto, sought to harness the positive change taking place in the city: big companies like Google were expanding their offices, and The Economist named Pittsburgh as the most liveable American city in 2005, 2009 and 2014. This development needed to translate into “a city of equity, access and opportunity” and connect people to the transformed economy. For that reason, Pittsburgh published the Roadmap for Inclusive Innovation in 2015 with the aim of driving innovation for citizens and laying out an action plan for the city’s future.

It set out a comprehensive framework of 100 actions, summing up feedback from the local community, which Mayor Peduto and his team had consulted via a series of roundtables. They had also researched best practices from other cities to see how inclusive innovation can give rise to new products and services that “meet new challenges and higher standards” (see Evidence below).[15] In total, these roundtables included over 102 local participants, 84 organisations, 17 presenters, and 685 social media engagements. Participants included a broad spectrum of NGOs, universities, government agencies, politicians, and others.

In addition to public roundtables, the Roadmap team also conducted “a series of internal and external meetings and presentations with members of the innovation community and city personnel”.[15] They engaged with these stakeholders to understand directly from the community what initiatives other departments were already working on and what additional innovation initiatives were required.

The PGH Lab was one of the first initiatives launched by the Roadmap for Inclusive Innovation team. After 2018, any outstanding actions from the Roadmap were incorporated in the OnePGH Resilient Pittsburgh Strategy.[15][16][17]

Political Commitment Strong

Political support from newly-elected mayor, Bill Peduto, and the newly-established Department of Innovation and Performance, led by the chief innovation and performance officer, Debra Lam, drove the initiative for the Roadmap for Inclusive Innovation and, ultimately, the PGH Lab.

Bill Peduto became mayor of Pittsburgh for the first time in 2014 with 84 percent of the vote and was re-elected in 2017 with 96 percent of the vote. Shortly after he was first elected, he described Pittsburgh as “the perfect urban lab because it is small enough to try out just about any idea. When the idea works, the city is big enough that it gets attention on an international stage.”[18]

Even before his election as mayor, Peduto had been an outspoken advocate of progressive reform in Pittsburgh. He served on the Pittsburgh city council from 2002 to 2014, where he formed important alliances with grassroots organisations such as unions, religious leaders, and environmental and community groups. “They became the foot soldiers that helped elect a majority of his allies to the council and laid the groundwork for Peduto himself to get elected mayor on his third attempt.”[19] This formed the basis for his decision-making on initiatives, such as the Roadmap for Inclusive Innovation, which was launched a year after his election. This initiative was politically driven by Mayor Peduto and Debra Lam, “Pittsburgh’s first-ever chief of innovation and performance, a role the city created and filled in 2014 to help modernise and futurise its operations.”[20][21]

Policy

Clear Objectives Strong

The objective of the PGH Lab is to connect the products and services of local startups to a civic cause that can serve the city of Pittsburgh by providing a testing ground for innovative new ideas.

The PGH Lab has a clear mission statement laid out in its rules and regulations booklet, although the statement is short and does not go into much detail. “PGH Lab’s main goal is to collaborate with local startups to explore new ways to use technologies to make the city of Pittsburgh more efficient, transparent, sustainable, and inclusive. PGH Lab connects local startups with the city of Pittsburgh and allows them to test their products and services in local government for 3-4 months.”[8]

In an interview in 2016, Debra Lam - then chief innovation officer at the city of Pittsburgh, confirmed that the purpose of the PGH Lab was to connect the thriving tech scene with civic issues. “I get a lot of ideas from local startups. But under our [previous] structure there was no way to try out their products or services and provide feedback.”[10]

Evidence Good

The 2015-2018 Roadmap for Inclusive Innovation not only included feedback from a diverse group of stakeholders but also a SWOT (Strength, Weakness, Opportunities, Threat) analysis of the city and a best practices benchmark from other cities. This generated broadly positive evidence in favour of creating the Lab.

As part of the 2015 Roadmap for Inclusive Innovation, Mayor Peduto and his team benchmarked other cities around the world, researching best practices and mapping the innovative efforts of other local governments. The Roadmap is a “culmination of the mayor’s Innovation Roundtable Series, as well as a comprehensive analysis of Pittsburgh’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats”.[15] In total, the team analysed best practices of 49 different cities and municipalities.

Moreover, the SWOT analysis was based on information from city personnel, the Mayor’s Innovation Roundtable Series, and nationally reported statistics. Accordingly, it was concluded that “in order for Pittsburgh to remain competitive, it must not only count on its incumbent businesses and startups to innovate, but also leverage what is currently available. While consistently marked as one of the world’s most liveable cities, the city misses out on many rankings of innovation.”[15][16][17]

Feasibility Strong

The PGH Lab initiative was feasible because there were no significant technical, legal or operational challenges. All the projects recommended in light of the Roadmap for Inclusive Innovation went through all the city of Pittsburgh’s usual vetting and legal processes.

The Roadmap for Inclusive Innovation served initially as a set of recommendations for projects and was not a binding document. The PGH Lab was created in response to these recommendations. “Goals and projects which made the Roadmap were scored on their demonstrated value in six areas by the Roadmap Team. These areas are: affordability, need for partners, speed of implementation, inclusivity, city capacity, and innovation. The Roadmap team scored each goal by six criteria on a scale from 1 to 10.”[15]

While this provided guidance on how to prioritise the different actions and proposed initiatives, all the potential projects that were developed from the Roadmap (including the PGH Lab) had to go through the same vetting and legal processes required by any other city of Pittsburgh project. Debra Lam, who developed the Roadmap, said: “as context changes, and as resources become more available, and partnerships made clearer, there might be new ideas that come in that can be incorporated into the roadmap”. This demonstrates that the roadmap was designed as a living document, which adjusts its priorities to reflect current conditions.[20]

Action

Management Strong

Startups meet with their own personally selected champion to set individual expectations, goals and timelines. Paired with weekly “check-ins” with the PGH Lab programme team, there are very good mechanisms in place to ensure that progress is made on each pilot project.

The PGH Lab is run by the URA through medium of the CIE (see the Initiative above). It set out clear guidelines in a rules and regulation booklet on how companies could apply to take part in the programme, and also provided an FAQ section for applicants on its website.

It has been clear from the start that the PGH Lab is not a “fast-track” programme to city procurement and that companies receive neither funding nor financial compensation. While PGH Lab participants can get a long-term procurement contract with the city, it is not one of the Lab’s goals.[8]

Each cohort runs for an average period of 6 months, Companies have 2 months to go through the application process and 3 to 4 months to run their pilot before the closing evaluation. Applicants have to fulfil the formal selection criteria, including format and content, and the PGH Lab programme manager will make a first selection based on these criteria. Next, the PGH Lab review committee will base their selection on companies’ presentations and a Q&A session. This second selection round is based on four broad criteria: “innovation based solution”, “skills, experience, and background’, “impact”, and “inclusion”.[8]

The PGH review committee also selects a department leader champion for companies to work with throughout the pilot phase. In this phase, companies are expected to agree clear expectations, timelines and plans with their champion, and report during weekly liaison meetings with the PGH Lab programme team. “According to their plan of implementation and timeline, companies are expected to accomplish 2-3 milestones marks per month.”[8] Companies’ pilot schemes are publicised through means such as city press releases, and participants also have the opportunity to network via a series of events and presentations during each cohort.[23][24]

Measurement Fair

PGH Lab does not publish individual metrics or successes continuously. However, the 2015 Roadmap for Innovation tracked results regularly until its conclusion in 2018.

The PGH Lab has not published any concrete measurement reports. However, it regularly provides updates on its own blog on the developments from different cohorts. In an overview section, it describes the different startups it is working with, so that people can find out what the startups are doing and how they are impacting Pittsburgh.[7][11]

The 2015 Roadmap for Inclusive Innovation did provide detailed measurement reports. “Each year the team worked with more than 60 partners measuring progress, updating projects and adding new initiatives. Updates were captured for public consumption in the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center.”[16]The PGH Lab was tracked as part of that effort on different startup selections and whether they can offer products that can make tangible social and environmental impact in Pittsburgh. It is unclear whether PGH Lab will be assessed in the same fashion as the Roadmap’s successor, the OnePGH Strategy.[13][25][26]

Alignment Good

A variety of city employees and local government agencies are involved in the process of selecting startups, ensuring that their different product ideas are aligned with the civic causes they seek to address. Further, the city sought to share updates on the Roadmap for Inclusive Innovation through public events such as the annual Inclusive Innovation Week.

The PGH Lab review committee consists of different city stakeholders, and decides which startups are considered in each cohort during the second application review phase. They are also in charge of connecting startups with respective department champions to develop the product pilot. Companies present their pilot in front of a variety of city employees and agency representatives. Officially, the PGH Lab review committee consists of:  The Office of the Mayor, the Department of Innovation & Performance, the Department of Public Works, the Law Department, the Office Management & Budget, the URA, the Housing Authority of Pittsburgh, and the Pittsburgh Parking Authority. Its diversity means that it is representative of different parts of the Pittsburgh government.[8][27]

Furthermore, to generate awareness and encourage cross-sector collaboration on inclusive innovation, the city of Pittsburgh and the URA created the Inclusive Innovation Week. This is an annual public event at which citizens can connect with the city and public and private sector organisations. “In 2017, 136 organisations hosted 79 free events across 20 neighbourhoods in 8 days under the banner of Inclusive Innovation.”[16]