Editorial Disclaimer:
Our owner was a strategic partner in Shaping Davos and helped to produce the event in conjunction with the Global Shapers Pittsburgh Hub. Shaping Davos was presented by the Pittsburgh Global Shapers, an initiative of the World Economic Forum.

On Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015, Shaping Davos: From Ideas to Action linked Pittsburgh innovation leaders to the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2015 in Davos, Switzerland via live stream. The event, which took place at the Energy Innovation Center in the Hill District, was presented by the Pittsburgh Global Shapers, an initiative of the World Economic Forum that brings together young leaders to make an impact in local communities.

Pittsburgh was selected as one of four cities in the world to live stream its discussion about converting ideas into action by creating a culture of innovation. It was one of 40 cities in the world to virtually participate in the World Economic Forum. UPMC’s Chief Innovation Officer Dr. Rasu Shrestha represented Pittsburgh in the live stream, sharing our discussions with Global Shapers Hubs in Lviv, Ukraine; Quito, Ecuador; and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; as well as with Davos.

The day of conversation and idea-sharing was divided into panel discussions – one about ideas, the other about action – led by Pittsburgh’s leaders of innovation in entrepreneurship, education, philanthropy, government and business. They shared insight into what it takes to create a culture of innovation, what it took to bring Pittsburgh to where it is today, and what it will take to bring Pittsburgh to the next level.

Featuring an open art show of local artists’ work presented by Radiant Hall, the event tied together themes of creativity, art, education, technology and collaboration to paint a picture of the present and future of innovation in Pittsburgh.

Here are some key takeaways from their conversations that provide a useful innovation roadmap for both cities and citizens.


Passion + hard work + confidence = success.

Luke Skurman, founder and CEO of Niche.com, shares this simple formula for success. Without all three, success just won’t happen, he says. Passion ensures that you love what you do, and if you love what you do, you won’t mind working hard to achieve your goals. But even passion and hard work won’t get you all the way. Confidence helps you stay focused when faced with adversity and advocate for your vision when no one else will.

Take advantage of what’s right here.

The panelists share one thing in common: they’ve all taken a chance on Pittsburgh. Many of them are “boomerangers,” people who grew up in Pittsburgh but left after college, only to return again to pursue their goals. They’ve looked at what makes Pittsburgh different from other places and have leveraged those differences into strategy.

Ilana Diamond, director of AlphaLab Gear, an accelerator for hardware and robotics startups, saw an opportunity in Pittsburgh to manufacture locally. “We know how to make stuff. We know how to manufacture,” says Diamond. According to her, we can now make most things domestically for the same price as in China. This home-field advantage has helped AlphaLab Gear become the fourth greatest accelerator in the United States and the fifth in the world for hardware products.

Co-founder of SolePower, a company in the AlphaLab Gear program that makes shoes with soles that allow wearers to charge devices with energy they generate by walking, Hahna Alexander sees local advantages like these as the reason why Pittsburgh could become “the Silicon Valley of hardware.”


Fail hard and often.

As an entrepreneur, failing hard and failing often isn’t just likely, it’s necessary. There’s no such thing as getting it right the first time. You have to try, then fail, try, then fail, over and over, until you eventually get it right.

Over the years, Lenore Blum, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, noticed that many of her most promising student entrepreneurs would leave Pittsburgh behind after graduation and head to places like Silicon Valley. So Blum formed focus groups with her students to investigate the reason why. She found that they saw Silicon Valley as a safer bet than Pittsburgh for pursuing their ideas. They perceived Pittsburgh as risk-averse, where early failure would mean the end of their idea. So Blum created CMU’s Project Olympus, a place where students could receive early-stage startup advice, micro-grants, incubator space and connections. In other words, Blum created a place where they could fail safely.

AlphaLab Gear provided this for Alexander, who came to the accelerator with the idea for SolePower, developed during her senior year at CMU, but needing help to turn it into a business. AlphaLab Gear provided her with the environment and resources to develop a proof-of-concept prototype, only possible after plenty of failed attempts and trips back to the drawing board.

A safe environment is important, but you can’t keep picking yourself back up again without a positive outlook, says Bobby Zappala, president and CEO of early-stage startup accelerator and incubator Thrill Mill, Inc. “There are very few bad ideas,” says Zappala. Most ideas are good, but bringing them to fruition requires a lot of work and the positivity to keep experimenting.

Don’t be afraid to reinvent yourself.

Richard Piacentini, the executive director of Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, recalls when the century-old organization, challenged with remaining relevant in a new millennium, had to ask itself, “How can we reinvent ourselves for the 21st century?”

While building a new welcome center, they discovered LEED certification, and proceeded to build the first LEED certified visitor center in a public garden in the United States.

Instead of trying to be less bad, says Piacentini, Phipps asked, “What does being good look like?”

Since that initial decision to pursue a new, higher standard for environmental sustainability, they’ve incorporated it into their mission, reinventing themselves as leaders in sustainable design. Phipps Conservatory is now one of the “greenest” facilities in the world. Its Center for Sustainable Landscapes fulfills the Living Building Challenge with zero-net energy consumption and its Production Greenhouse was the first greenhouse ever to receive LEED Platinum certification.

Bill Strickland, Diane Holder, Lenore Blum, Richard Piancentini, Luke Skurman

Turn your liabilities into assets.

When Bill Strickland was a teenager attending high school in Pittsburgh’s Northside in the 1960s, he was disengaged with his education until an art teacher saw his potential and mentored him. This experience would shape the rest of Strickland’s life, leading him to attend college and pursue a career helping others see their potential.

In 1968 Strickland founded the Manchester Craftman’s Guild, which offers arts education and mentorship to inner city youth. In 1972 he took over nearby Bidwell Training Center, which now offers nationally accredited career training and educational programs ranging from horticultural instruction to medical technology. Today, Strickland is the president and CEO of Manchester Bidwell Corp. The organization operates numerous facilities that combine mentorship, beauty, hope and education to empower the people who, in Strickland’s words, “everyone is running away from.”

Strickland shares the innovative strategy around which he’s built his career and a worldwide network of institutions: turning liabilities into assets. In his work, liabilities have been at-risk youth and adults from his neighborhood. To help them realize their potential, Strickland created an educational environment full of beauty, where his students would feel safe and welcome. To ensure that his students would succeed after his programs, Strickland went to local employers and worked his way backward. He figured out the skills his students would need to obtain jobs and incorporated them into the curriculum.

When you give people access to culture and education, says Strickland, “The rest of the world is downhill from here.”

Through empowering educational environments and careful planning, Strickland has transformed countless individuals perceived as liabilities by society into assets to their communities and the local economy. His vision has scaled globally and today, Strickland operates eight affiliates around the United States with plans to expand to Israel, Japan and England. Strickland has received numerous awards for his work over the years, including a MacArthur “Genius” Award in 1996.


Be restless.

“It’s an incredibly dangerous time in Pittsburgh,” says moderator and Heinz Endowments president Grant Oliphant. He pauses for a moment before elaborating on this provocative statement. The danger to which he is alluding is paradoxical: the danger or resting on one’s laurels. Pittsburgh’s past failures, he argues, are the result of settling.

“When I got here, everyone talked about Pittsburgh in the past tense,” says Oliphant. There’s no need to state how different this is from today’s state of affairs. Pittsburgh has a lot to congratulate itself for, having achieved so much in its transformation since the steel era. Here we are, sharing our ideas and experiences before an international audience at Davos. Today, everyone is using the future tense to talk about Pittsburgh.

But it’s dangerous to become complacent, to think that our work here is done.

It’s not. Pittsburgh has progressed in leaps and bounds in terms of technological, medical, academic and economic innovation, but a serious social rift exists, evidenced by studies like this one, that suggest that Pittsburghers experience two very different cities depending on their ethnicity.

The study shows that Pittsburgh’s black families earn half as much as white families. Black Pittsburghers have substantially higher death rates, infant mortality rates, low birth-weight rates and rates of death due to heart disease, diabetes and cancer than their white counterparts. They are less likely to have health insurance. Black youths in Pittsburgh are arrested at a rate six times higher than the national average. One-third of black Pittsburghers, one-quarter of Hispanics, one-fifth of Asians and 15% of white Pittsburghers live in poverty in Pittsburgh.

These are stark truths.

“Innovative cities are often the most exclusive,” says moderator Debra Lam, the Chief Innovation and Performance Officer for the City of Pittsburgh, gently pointing out a downside to rapid progress and acknowledging that there is a certain demographic associated with innovation.

As the innovative forces in the city forge forward, we have to avoid creating “two separate societies,” one for the “haves” and the other for the “have-nots,” says William Generett, Jr., president and CEO of Urban Innovation21, a public-private partnership that connects underserved communities to entrepreneurship and innovation through workforce and economic development programs. “The only way to deal with economic inequality is to come together,” he says.

Energy Innovation Center Hallway


The panelists all repeat one idea over and over: You can’t innovate if you don’t collaborate. Like failure, collaboration isn’t an option, it’s a necessity.

“One thing I suggest to other cities is to build an intentional culture of collaboration,” says Diamond.

Diamond tells the story of a day when she walked into her office to find the companies of AlphaLab Gear, all technically competing with one another, seated at the same table, helping each other find solutions to their problems. She says that when Silicon Valley investors meet with her companies, they often tell her that the Pittsburgh companies are “overly modest.” “I actually think that’s the source of our strength,” says Diamond.

Pittsburgh’s startup accelerators are used to collaborating, making use of their ties between the business and academic worlds, as well as sharing resources with each other. A thriving collaboration culture exists between local universities and the technology and innovation sector. Strickland sees this as a model that can translate to the social sector, and suggests that we employ Pittsburgh’s considerable intellectual resources to help teach and mentor young students who will be tomorrow’s innovators. Diamond expands on this idea, advocating that we should show students entrepreneurship as a path out of poverty.

Build inclusion and accessibility into your business plan.

Just as Strickland says you can’t transform a disillusioned, disenfranchised youth into a straight-A student without first bringing beauty, culture, light and art into his or her learning environment, we can’t build an equitable economy without first building a sustainable physical, social and cultural environment.

As Phipps Conservatory learned, it’s a lot easier to innovate when you incorporate ideals and high standards into your design process at an early stage. It behooves us to program things like diversity, inclusion and sustainability into our plans for the future now, so we can avoid having to find retroactive solutions to problems we caused when we didn’t do it right the first time.

“These things matter,” says Oliphant, arguing that we can no longer support a stratified society if we want to adapt, innovate and succeed, “The challenge now is what are we going to do next?”

Hadley is advocate for developing communities. She tells their stories and explores complex social issues we all face and shed light in the nooks and crannies around them.