The vaunted “creative class.” Cities everywhere—Pittsburgh included—are bending over backward to court this nearly mystical group in an attempt not only to stay relevant, but to do something that’s even more critical today: hatch innovators.

This week at the Pittsburgh Creative Industries Summit, experts will gather to discuss the region’s creative assets, and what it will take to elevate them to the next level.

So who’s in this “creative class”? As Kevin Stolarick, a keynote speaker at the February 19th summit, told us recently, “When you say creative class, people think you’re talking about artists and musicians. But it also includes a whole group of other innovators, from technology workers to artists and designers, to the professional class, and educators. You want those people in your city, the people who are paid to think. The key to the creative class is people who are being paid for their innovations.”

Stolarick should know. He and Richard Florida first landed on the notion of a creative class through their research (at Carnegie Mellon) back in 2001. The resulting book, “The Rise of the Creative Class,” soon earned “must read” status—and garnered a lot of debate.

You want those people in your city, the people who are paid to think.

-Kevin Stolarick

So what makes a city appealing to creative class innovators? That’s an open question, but I like the ideas presented at a recent a recent webinar hosted by the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City (ICIC). They identified five strategies to help cities ensure that growth happens and, importantly, that it benefits everyone, not just the tech brainiacs. The five strategies turn on the words “connect and create”:

  • Connect residents to global opportunities
  • Connect people to open innovation
  • Provide a platform for lifelong learning
  • Create a culture of innovation
  • Create places that inspire residents to innovate

I can think of several examples of these five in action in Pittsburgh, but to ensure that the benefits the creative class brings to a city spread to everyone who lives there, it’s critical to start with learning, curiosity, and creativity. Without a spark of creativity, without exposure to ideas, none of the inventions will happen. More fundamentally, without a sound education, today’s generation will be left behind and will end up serving the $5 coffees to the innovators.

Pittsburgh understands that. And its innovations aren’t limited to Carnegie Mellon. Not to toot our own horn, but “toot.” The Kids+Creativity Network and the Hive Learning Network are building a platform for lifelong learning both in and out of the classroom. The organizations involved provide a web of opportunities for kids and families to find their passions. One way they do that is by promoting maker culture, one of Pittsburgh’s specialties. Whether at the award-winning MAKESHOP at the Children’s Museum or in local classrooms, Pittsburgh is bursting with the hands-on learning opportunities.

As a recent U.S. Chamber of Commerce blog post notes, “Pittsburgh public schools, such as the Carmalt Academy of Science and Technology and the Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy, have designed an ideal learning environment that infuses science and technology across the curriculum.”

We might add to that list the great work going on in the Elizabeth Forward School District, which recently was named an Apple Distinguished Program. Or the STEAM Studio at Crafton Elementary in the Carlynton School District, where building, tinkering, creating are all an integral part of science, engineering, art, and math. Hampton Middle School is spurring student interest in engineering and computer science careers by integrating creative arts. And at Shaler Area Elementary School, Dream Flight Adventures—part simulator, part learning environment—engages students in teamwork, critical thinking, and problem solving while increasing their interest in STEAM.

These and other schools benefit from the $500,000 STEAM grants that the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, with support from the Benedum and Grable Foundations, awards to local school districts to integrate science, technology, engineering, arts, and math.

Luckily for Pittsburgh kids, opportunities to stay in the region and build the next generation of innovations are growing, which wasn’t always the case. The city itself is increasingly a draw to the creative class, thanks to its innovation labs, along with the its walkability, affordable housing, and ample “third spaces”—the libraries, museums, parks, and coffee shops that make a place more than the sum of its parts.

As Bruce Katz writes in his marvelous book, “The Metropolitan Revolution,” innovation districts like Pittsburgh’s “reflect a new vision of where innovative firms want to locate, where creative and talented workers want to live and work, and how ideas happen.”

Despite all these great assets, the road ahead for Pittsburgh isn’t easy. For one thing, as Stolarick notes, one measure of the creative class is diversity and openness to new ideas and new people. Pittsburgh, he says, is still too insular.

“We looked at measures of diversity between 2000 and 2010 that included foreign-born people, gays and lesbians, and bohemians. Measured against itself, Pittsburgh’s definitely gotten better. … Yes, things were bad and now they’re so much better. But you’ve got to get past that. If all you’re going to do is look at where things were in 1979, you’re going to have a really hard time making serious progress moving forward.”