“Roboburgh,” has been used by the Post-Gazette 42 times.
So the story goes, Mayor Bill Peduto began using #Roboburgh whenever he cited technology articles on Twitter. It seemed trendy and possibly even hip or, to some, dorky.
The goal seemed to be to give Pittsburgh’s tech prowess a name to compete with the likes of Silicon Valley or the Big Apple and maybe to gain traction through a marketing strategy like the one that Jackie Erickson, a robotics public relations guru, had begun with her clients in the Strip District.
The nickname-dropping didn’t stop there, though.
News pieces have been using terms like “Robot belt,” “Roboburgh” and “Silicon Strip” to describe technology hubs in Pittsburgh and other historically industry-driven states like Michigan and Ohio — conjuring up images of industrial robots with artificial intelligence-powered brains scraping rust off the Carrie Furnaces in Swissvale.
There’s a common thread in the national rags to riches — er, rust to robots — stories being written and that’s the urge to reclaim the so-called Rust Belt, which is full of cities known for both a loss of industry and workers in the 1970s and 1980s. Public officials — and public relations firms — in Pittsburgh are making a bid to replace that image with a portrait of startups, universities and of course, robots.
Will the new names become part of the language? Look to the 16-year-old girls.
According to linguists, “Roboburgh” or “robot belt” will never truly become a part of our everyday vernacular as either a branding term or even a wonky industry phrase to poke fun at without first being adopted by teens who have an uncanny way of driving changes in the language.
And that could seriously take time.
On Nov. 23, 1999, “Roboburgh” was used in a Wall Street Journal article, which ranked the former steel capital as one of the nation’s 13 hottest high-tech regions.
That same Tuesday, the city planning commission approved a $40 million six-story office and laboratory building for Seagate Technology Co., then the world’s largest maker of computer disk drives and now a data storage solutions company in the Strip District, a.k.a. “Silicon Strip.”
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s first mention of Roboburgh came in a story that noted the Journal seemed particularly impressed by robotic activity here, indirectly referencing the active scene at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute and the contributions of companies like Seagate.
“Yet, robotics companies employ a minuscule percentage of the Pittsburgh workforce,” Rona Kobell wrote a year later on February 13, 2000, in the fifth Post-Gazette story referencing the term Roboburgh.
“Aside from RedZone, which employs 26 people, and McKesson HBOC, which employs 450, the employees from the handful of other companies the Journal story named could barely fill a softball team,” she continued, adding that over 80 percent of CMU grads were leaving the region for jobs elsewhere.
Today, the numbers of jobs involving robotics here has grown.
RE2, a Lawrenceville-based company founded in 2001, employs at least 40; Delphi, which is creating autonomous car technology employs between 50-60 and will expand that with 100 more employees by next summer; Argo AI is more than halfway to its goal of employing 100 engineers; Uber doesn’t disclose the number of employees at its Advanced Technologies Center, but it’s probably in the hundreds; and over 20 other companies in the Strip District have laid claims to “Robotics Row.”
While the Roboburgh term has been used by the Post-Gazette 42 times in 35 stories, according to an analysis of print archives (not including this article, which will surely double the usage), most uses merely referenced the Wall Street Journal’s description.
But the term may pre-date that much referenced article.
William “Red” Whittaker, famed CMU professor at the Robotics Institute who led Tartan Racing to a 2007 victory in the DARPA Grand Challenge, said in an email that he and his colleague David Pahnos made up terms like “Roboburgh” and “Robot Valley” long before 1999.
Mr. Whittaker said he and Mr. Pahnos, who had served as assistant director of the CMU Robotics Institute’s Field Robotics Center, used the terms in presentations and interactions with visitors. Sometimes they dropped the terms into interviews, though there weren’t many of those at the time, he said.
In an email, Mr. Pahnos said the term “Roboburgh” might go back as far as 1987 or 1988, when the duo wrote a renewal proposal to NASA for the Ambler Project, a proof-of-concept prototype for a walking Mars rover, that eventually won them a Smithsonian award for innovation.
That earned the pair some positive press and at the urging of a local businessman and philanthropist, they looked for ways to brand the burgeoning robotics sector.
“While visiting RedZone [Robotics] one day, I ran into Henry and Elsie Hillman,” Mr. Pahnos said. “Mr. Hillman mentioned that we were beginning to get recognition for the work and suggested that we promote the regional opportunities for economic growth.
“Red and I never did settle on, or as I recall even again discuss, a single name for a regional vision, but over the next 10 years, our talk to visitors was lightly sprinkled with Robovalley, Roboburgh and Robocity.”
The Great Recession may have dampened some of the attention paid to robotics. The term only made the Post-Gazette once after 2009 despite a number of wins in the technology sector, largely due to Red Whittaker’s contributions in self-driving car technology and robotics, Google’s move to Bakery Square in 2006 and the 2015 opening of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center in the Strip District.
Phrases like the “robot belt,” or “brain belt” can come off as pejorative, said Laura Mahalingappa, assistant professor of sociolinguistics at Duquesne University.
“Rust Belt is about decline but robo is about renaissance,” she said, noting that while some people would no doubt identify with the names, others might poke fun at them. “If you think of Pittsburgh as a working class neighborhood, but then call it the robot belt, you’re talking about an elitist technology sector.”
Regardless, Ms. Mahalingappa said for a term to stick, it must be used widely, outside of industry, by everyday people from various generations.
“Language gets spread when you see it outside of print and you start speaking it,” she said, noting that linguists consider 16-year-old girls to be the “innovative language users” who decide whether a word will last or not.
Laura C. Brown, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Anthropology, echoed that.
“If they make it into contexts where the economic focus of the region isn’t overtly at issue, say sports or weather reporting, that’s a sign that the new label may be catching on.”
After KDKA’s TechnoVation event Downtown last Friday, Mayor Peduto referred to usage of Roboburgh, which he often hashtags on Twitter with related technology articles, as “organic branding.”
“Roboburgh goes back over a decade … it’s something that was talked about in hushed tones because it really only applied to a certain part of Pittsburgh on Carnegie Mellon University’s campus and with the first expansion into Lawrenceville with NREC (National Robotics Engineering Center). But now it seems to be so much more,” he said.
“It really has become legitimate … we’re on that global stage when it comes to being the robotics capital of the world.”
Mr. Peduto’s use of the term is likely meant to garner support for Pittsburgh’s growing technology center, Ms. Mahalingappa said.
“Mayor Peduto is very savvy when it comes to communication … he wants to see innovation and change,” she said.
Branding the tech town
Jackie Erickson — founder of Jackie Group, a communications company focusing on robotics — said a February 2014 Politico article, “From Steel City to Roboburgh,” helped her to fall in love with the term. That, and hearing then-President Barack Obama use it in April of the same year at the Community College of Allegheny County’s West Hills Center campus in Oakdale during a visit to discuss jobs training.
“Very smartly, as most presidents do before they come into the city, they look at the most recently covered news,” she said. “When he walked up to the podium to start his first remarks, he said something like, ‘Hello, Pittsburgh, or should I say Roboburgh?’”
Formerly a spokeswoman for Astrobotic, the Strip District-based lunar logistics company, Ms. Erickson was looking for a branding strategy.
“You have to sell the city sometimes,” she said. “In marketing and communications, you try things out to see what sticks.”
She didn’t opt for “Silicon Strip,” a term that also originated in 1999, though she does claim to have coined the term “Robotics Row” for the Strip District.
In 2015, the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership and a group of developers informally tossed around the alliteration, hoping to highlight the innovation corridor connecting Lawrenceville and Downtown.
Ms. Erickson preferred Roboburgh, and told her clients to start using it, especially on Twitter.
“As we start to sort of build this community and keep up all aspects of it, it’s important to keep up that hashtag,” she said.
With the mayor and industry pushing for the term, it might last. It’s unclear whether that will be as a moniker for a new industry or as a sarcastic phrase used to mock automation and its potential to take away jobs in the long term.
“If what you care about is the reputation of the region, the question may not be whether or not people will start calling us Roboburgh, but if anyone pictures gleaming robots when they hear Pittsburgh described as the ‘steel city,’ said Ms. Brown.
Mr. Whittaker doesn’t seem concerned about where the term came from. He just thinks Pittsburgh is learning that its technology skills are vital, as summed up in a story about a conversation with the late chairman of the Steelers.
“After a visit and chatting application of robotics to the future of sports… Dan Rooney once told me that the two things that Pittsburgh does best are football and robots.”
Courtney Linder: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1707. Twitter: @LinderPG.