Friday, 23 October 2015

KPMG Gets It Totally Wrong About Pittsburgh And Auckland

I lived in Pittsburgh for seven years (1994-2001) and have visited it multiple times since, as recently as last year. I've lived in Auckland for the last ten years. I got a PhD in computer science at CMU while I lived there, and of course I'm still working in tech in Auckland. So I was very interested to read KPMG's report on the lessons Pittsburgh holds for New Zealand ... but I was shocked by how different its conclusions are from my experiences.

Pittsburgh was a great place to live as a CMU student, mainly because the population and economy was so down that everything was cheap, especially rent. It's true that things have improved a bit since then in some ways --- Google opening an office there, for example --- but in many other ways things have gotten worse. City finances have been so bad over the last decade that bus services were being cut back to totally unreasonable levels. Multiple efforts to revitalize the downtown --- lauded by KPMG --- have basically failed; it's still a wasteland, and the Macy's that was the core of one of the more recent efforts closed down this year. The roads are unbelievably bad. I find Auckland by far a nicer city.

One thing Pittsburgh does have going for it is CMU and the tech companies that have grown up or built offices around it. Auckland has nothing like that. But here's what KPMG are recommending:

Simon Hunter says Pittsburgh provides a blueprint for Auckland thinking: "There's courage and focus on a specific group of young technical wealth creators; there's a massive contribution from the universities working together and from commercial entities - and there's urban renewal leveraging the rivers."
Almost none of that makes any sense to me. Auckland's geography is entirely different and with the exception of the wharves downtown, its waterfronts don't need "urban renewal". As for the universities and "commercial entities": Google, Intel, Apple etc are there entirely because CMU is there. CMU is there for historical reasons. (Andrews Carnegie and Mellon put it there, it rode a wave of DOD-funded computer science research, and accumulated enough gravitational pull to make it permanently one of the top four CS universities in the USA.) I like Auckland University but the gulf between it and CMU is vast and probably unbridgeable; at the very least, you would need to spend billions. There have been many, many extremely well-funded efforts to replicate CMU and its peers --- in Asia and the Middle East, for example --- and they haven't succeeded yet.

I do think we could do better at building an environment in Auckland or elsewhere in New Zealand that attracts outposts of the good big tech companies. I have some specific policy ideas. But aping Pittsburgh and CMU isn't going to work.

So in summary: Auckland beats Pittsburgh in most ways, and where Pittsburgh has advantages they don't translate here.

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