Reimagine Pittsburgh Disney-style – Pittsburgh Quarterly

Donald Bonk interviews Brian Gaudio, Co-Founder and CEO of Module, as part of the Pittsburgh Tomorrow podcast series. This interview was conducted before COVID-19. The transcript is shortened and edited for the sake of clarity.

View the episode archive here. View Brian Gaudio’s profile here.

“We have AI and robotics here, and that’s a big part of our 21st century economy, but it’s not big enough. What if we time travel here in Pittsburgh? “- Brian Gaudio, Module Co-Founder and CEO and former Disney Imagineer

Donald Bonk: This is Donald Bonk from the Pittsburgh Tomorrow Project with Brian Gaudio, Co-Founder and CEO of Module.

Brian Gaudio: I’m originally from Pittsburgh – the South Hills. I trained as an architect and worked for Walt Disney Imagineering outside school on the West Coast for several years designing the Disney theme parks. It was super fun and super creative. I spent time in Biloxi, Mississippi, building disaster recovery houses, and in the Dominican Republic doing a Fulbright doing research on green infrastructure and civil protection.

I found my way back to Pittsburgh in 2015 to start Module, a company based in the East End. We are redesigning home ownership for the 21st century. We’re taking vacant lots in the city of Pittsburgh and turning them into productive, sustainable housing.

Bonk: There are these empty or empty vacant lots that don’t necessarily have to be taxed or when they have very low taxation. You’re adding a value-added product, but you’re also looking at a creative solution to the Pittsburgh housing problem.

Gaudio: Right. When the steel industry collapsed, at least in the US, there was a lot of divestment that left us with about 30,000 vacant lots. That was maybe two years ago.

Bonk: And you’re trying to find creative, maybe even a Disney imagineer’s mindset, on how to use this space for residential purposes.

Gaudio: Yes.

Bonk: That really helps to define the picture. Now we’re going to dig a little with our focus, which is Pittsburgh Tomorrow. What would make Pittsburgh the ideal city or the best city in the world?

Gaudio: I asked my team at work today. I asked them that question too. I think what Pittsburgh is up to right now is quality of life. There is a high quality of life compared to some other cities, but what we lack is sunshine. We are one of the rainiest, cloudiest cities in the country.

We have a great quality of life here. We have some smart people here. We have a unique history in Pittsburgh. And I love the character that Pittsburgh has. Can we keep that up and have 340 days of sunshine a year?

Bonk: How would that be possible? I know China and other countries have looked at climate and weather change. Do you think about it

Gaudio: That could be an option – a kind of climate adaptation to create a microclimate here in Pittsburgh. I’m sure we could develop a weather device at CMU that could bring sunshine to Pittsburgh. The other possibility is, could we take a knife and cut out Pittsburgh and the rivers, remove that from our location and put it in a sunnier longitude or latitude?

Bonk: OK, so these are great science fiction answers, but that’s what we have this series for. To make Pittsburgh the ideal city, we either bring the sunshine to Pittsburgh by magical or creative scientific means, or we bring Pittsburgh to the sunshine.

Gaudio: Right.

Bonk: This is definitely new for our series. The next question we have is the Moonshot idea. Give me a great idea that is changing the direction and narrative for Pittsburgh in a really creative way.

Gaudio: US Steel and Andrew Carnegie were Pittsburgh’s first moon shot. So I thought that something of this magnitude had to happen. We have AI and robotics here, and that’s a big part of our 21st century economy, but it’s not big enough. What if we time travel here in Pittsburgh? What if we created a vehicle here in Pittsburgh that people could use to travel time?

Bonk: As we are currently trying in our imagination. But you’re talking the real thing. You talk to the levers about HG Wells (The Time Machine) and can visit or see the past, present and future.

Gaudio: And the portal is here in Pittsburgh. So this is the key – you are coming to Pittsburgh to visit the future or the past. That can be very powerful. That would attract jobs, that would attract growth, and it would only put Pittsburgh on the map. I mean, even the monetization, that the way steel was monetized would be astronomical.

Bonk: So is it like Stargate (TV show)? There’s this portal you can enter or exit, and Pittsburgh would be the landing dock for it or whatever you want to describe it.

Gaudio: Yes.

Bonk: Wow, that’s a moon shot across the moon and literally into time and back and into the future, in both directions.

Gaudio: There could be so many economies that emerge from time travel. If you could visit there it might be about visiting family properly, in the past or in the future. There are just so many opportunities, so many companies, and so many things that could be created or solved from them.

Bonk: You said you were an imagineer at Disney, and that’s definitely a Disney Imagineer-type idea for Pittsburgh. I mean, this really is a game changer, if ever there was.

Gaudio: I think so.

Bonk: Now let’s go to the more practical level. The practical level is from 1990 to 2050, equidistant; Over the next three decades, the 2020s, 2030s, 2040s, through that magical date, 2050. During that time, are there three down-to-earth, practical ideas to think about to move Pittsburgh forward?

Gaudio: This is another one I asked my team about. Three things: First, an improved light rail / subway system from downtown to Oakland. It could be above or below ground – just a high-speed transit system that is a kind of light rail system.

And then to bring that to some of the other parts of the city because I think that connectivity in our city because we have rivers and hills is a challenge.

The second would be the rivers. One of my co-founders, Drew, moved to Pittsburgh from Seattle, and Seattle makes very good use of its water space. Pittsburgh has obviously come a long way … How do we transform rivers from industrial to recreational? We’re not really there yet. How many restaurants do you know right on the banks of the river?

That would be the second: bringing relaxation, leisure, food and culture to the water.

The third brings more cultural and racial diversity to Pittsburgh. I am a white man who runs a business in Pittsburgh. When people come here from New York or elsewhere they say, “I think Pittsburgh is great, but I would love to see more people who look or feel like me and or are from another country.”

So it would be interesting to see a new subway line going to Oakland and see, speak and hear all the different types of people who live here.

Bonk: Is there anything else you would like to share about your vision of what Pittsburgh can or should be like in the future?

Gaudio: Part of the reason I returned to Pittsburgh was because San Francisco saw explosive growth in terms of technology companies. That growth put Silicon Valley on the map, but it also made it uninhabitable for many people in the city.

My question would be, how can Pittsburgh grow responsibly and sustainably? That is the biggest question I have for our city tour and the people who live and work here.

Finally, thank you for documenting all of these stories from people from the region. I think it’s really exciting.

Bonk: It’s a passion project and as I said, I would like to see this project as a tour guide for the future. We talked about time travel earlier in this discussion, but this is a form of time travel. We speak to people of different ages, races, ethnicities, and job descriptions with the idea that, if you will, we get the best imaginative thoughts from the Disney Imagineer about the future of Pittsburgh.

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