Carnegie Mellon University and The Heinz Endowments today announced a sweeping initiative to leverage the university's internationally recognized strengths in applied research to address longstanding barriers to equity and foster economic empowerment in the greater Pittsburgh region. The Center for Shared Prosperity aims to create a sustainable and replicable model for community-university collaboration, with a focus on deploying solutions for socioeconomic inequities and making measurable progress toward greater economic prosperity and overall well-being of residents.
The Heinz Endowments has committed $30 million over six years to fund the creation and launch of the center, as well as support for initial real-world projects identified by community partners that are grounded in the community. The grant, the largest in The Heinz Endowments' history, includes funding to develop, pilot and scale region-wide interventions to identify and address structural barriers to access and opportunity. A portion of the grant will be used to establish an endowment to support the center's work in perpetuity.
"As a university- and community-wide effort, the Center for Shared Prosperity will apply a comprehensive methodology to CMU's engagement across Western Pennsylvania and will leverage our unique expertise to help residents benefit from the innovation economy," said Farnam Jahanian, CMU president. "The Heinz Endowments and CMU have worked together for decades on projects that support Pittsburghers, and this new initiative will expand our community collaborations at a particularly critical moment. With both the pandemic and the rapid pace of technological change contributing to a widening opportunity gap, the solutions proposed through the Center for Shared Prosperity will help our region address societal barriers and will also serve as a model that can be replicated in communities across the country. We are grateful to The Heinz Endowments and its board for their generous support and partnership."
At the heart of the initiative is a new model of collaboration that unites the expertise of both the community and the university. The recently formed Center Community Committee will be charged with identifying specific equity, economic and social justice challenges facing the Pittsburgh region that will be the focus of the center's work, including in areas such as housing, education, transportation, healthcare, technology fluency and access to capital. It will include representation from Western Pennsylvania community organizations and residents; CMU faculty, staff and students; and Heinz Endowments staff.
In turn, solution-oriented working groups composed of community members and CMU participants across multiple disciplines will partner to study these issues, identify structural barriers to access and opportunity, and develop and implement social and technical innovations that address them. These working groups will harness community members' lived experiences and skills, alongside CMU experts in areas where the university leads, including data science, public policy, technology, humanities and the social sciences.
The Center for Shared Prosperity stems partly from discussions between Carnegie Mellon and The Heinz Endowments that began three years ago. Convinced that the Pittsburgh region's path to a sustainable economic future depends heavily on the people, discoveries and enterprises connected with its major research universities, The Heinz Endowments was considering major support for CMU — but only if the work would intentionally include the local community and its social, environmental and economic challenges.
"Around the world, a relative handful of major research institutions, Carnegie Mellon among them, are literally inventing the future, with significant global benefits and impacts," said Grant Oliphant, president of The Heinz Endowments. "But too rarely are local communities and complex social needs the real beneficiary or even the focus of the knowledge, creativity and wealth-creation flowing from these extraordinary engines of innovation. We wanted to see if Pittsburgh could reinvent that paradigm, and Carnegie Mellon — with its long history of tackling real-world problems — has risen to the challenge.
"This center will put the innovation talents of one of the world's best universities in service to community, and at the same time harness the insights of community on behalf of better innovation," Oliphant added. "We also hope it will send a signal to peer institutions nationally and globally that they too have a role to play in making sure the prosperity they help create is shared more broadly and equitably. Worsening inequality and social inequity are not inevitable byproducts of innovation, only failures of intention and imagination."
The initiative is ambitious in scope, speed and transparency. Multiple working groups tackling critical issues will be launched within its first year, with interventions developed and piloted in the community within months of the groups' founding. Publicly available stories that illustrate the projects' progress — using multimedia, CMU's EarthTime data visualization tool and voices from the community — will be regularly published on the web. The center plans to rely on and engage expertise from across all of CMU's schools and colleges, as well as interested alumni.
"Through its unique model of collaboration in which community members and university faculty and staff work together as peers, and the development and distribution of social and technological innovations with real-world applications, the center will help to dismantle barriers to shared prosperity and equity," said Illah Nourbakhsh, the K&L Gates Professor of Ethics and Computational Technologies in the Robotics Institute, who will serve as the center's inaugural executive director. "The Center for Shared Prosperity will be laser-focused on creating direct, sustainable impact on Pittsburgh by bringing research into practice."
For example, Nourbakhsh's Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment Lab (CREATE Lab) and its community partners recently used EarthTime to demonstrate how high rates of mortgage application denials and sharply increasing rental prices impact the ability of vulnerable populations to live and prosper in Pittsburgh. In partnership with The Heinz Endowments and the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, the team is now working on innovations to make mortgage programs more equitable, such as ensuring education debt does not disqualify individuals from accessing home financing.
The Center for Shared Prosperity represents a significant step forward on the university's commitment to deeper engagement with, and economic empowerment of, the broader Pittsburgh community. It also builds on a foundation of community engagement developed over the years by countless faculty, staff, students and alumni working with, and for, CMU's neighbors.
"What most excites me about the Center for Shared Prosperity is the tangible commitment from one of Pittsburgh's anchor institutions to be part of the solutions," said Jamil Bey, president and CEO of the UrbanKind Institute. The organization has worked with Nourbakhsh and is leading the collaboration behind the Equitable and Just Greater Pittsburgh platform, which is helping to guide the center's work. "By investing in community-driven goals and priorities, and providing funding to test and scale these solutions, it can create momentum that could begin to create needed structural change."
"Through the Center for Shared Prosperity, I hope we can come together and show other communities that we did it," says Terri Shields, executive director of JADA House International and member of the Center Community Committee. "We may not always agree, but we'll respect each other's opinions, get done what we need to do for Pittsburgh, and set an example for other cities."
While it will focus on issues of local importance, the Center for Shared Prosperity aims to become a national model for university-community engagement and the translation of research into practical actions for impact.
"The issues facing Pittsburgh are perhaps unique, yet our work to find solutions can provide an opportunity to share our approach and outcomes with regions across the country facing their own challenges," Nourbakhsh said. "We hope that the center's approach and continuing evolution will help catalyze other university-community collaborations as they work to advance a more equitable future."