During a lecture in his hometown of Pittsburgh, an entrepreneur and innovator shared simple, clever points – points which are also within Stellenbosch’s reach.


Paul Graham, a social commentator and computer programmer, recently gave a lecture in Pittsburgh in the USA on how this city, where he grew up, can become another Silicon Valley where start-ups happen. (Wikipedia describes a start-up as a new or entrepreneur’s business in the form of a company or partnership that is easily scalable.)

In short, he reduces his talk to one sentence: “Encourage local restaurants, save old buildings, take advantage of density, make CMU [Carnegie Mellon University] the best, promote tolerance.”

Pittsburgh, for long a nucleus city for the steel, aluminium and oil industries, with many of the headquarters based there, started to decline in the 1980s. Layoffs because of de-industrialisation saw many blue collar workers moving elsewhere, hoping to find work.

Thus, how do you create a workable, growing, living city? Is it possible? Graham found his answer in an article in the food section of the New York Times, describing Pittsburgh’s growing food culture. This culture is largely driven by young people, who are also the face behind the start-up culture.

Graham starts by pointing out that Pittsburgh’s percentage of 25-29 year olds are above the national average (7,6% against 6,8%). And young people need affordable housing. He says in a neighbourhood that has always been bad, you will find bad housing. But in a neighbourhood that once was better-off, you will find good housing at affordable rates – something Pittsburgh has a lot of. According to Graham there are many good, solid (but not always pretty) houses built in Pittsburgh during the past century.

It is therefore important to focus on the protection of historical (older) buildings. According to Graham it isn’t the new developments built in the place of older ones that lure the young to a city. It is the better built, older buildings – often not pretty – but with character.

He also quotes empirical research which proves that one cannot be too firm when protecting older buildings. “The stricter a city is, the better they do.”

Furthermore, Pittsburgh’s centre dates from the era before motorcars – something young people like. According to Graham young people walk, cycle or use public transport instead of an own motorcar. The position of the university in Pittsburgh’s CBD is another bonus in this regard.

Graham says the culture of a city is very important: it must be tolerant. Many start-ups are the brainchildren of people who might seem to be a bit weird – a hippy who does not always stick to all the rules.


Paul Graham