"Rust" connotes decay and neglect—and indeed, the Rust Belt's decline coincided with a massive brain drain. But in the past half decade, the region has retained more of its homegrown talent while drawing the best and brightest from across the country. Why? Yes, it's cheap—a big deal when the economy's in the toilet. But more important, many onetime manufacturing centers are now home to industries that cater to people with advanced degrees: Pittsburgh's got education and a flourishing start-up scene. Buffalo has health care and IT. Even Detroit has Tech Town, a business park in its growing Midtown neighborhood. Unemployment in many of the region's metropolises—including Buffalo, Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Pittsburgh—is below the national average. Not surprisingly, a Brookings Institution report found that cities like Pittsburgh and Columbus have increased their college-educated population in recent years, and Cleveland and Buffalo are on their way—having stanched their decades-long outward migration.

As a result, the region now boasts a lively marketplace of ideas in which Rust Belt experts tackle Rust Belt problems. Independent editions of the popular TED thought conference have flourished in Cleveland, Columbus, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo. Last year's Detroit event drew 1,500. The Motor City also has the IDEA conference, an entrepreneurship summit keynoted last year by influential local ad exec Toby Barlow—a New York City transplant. In Cleveland, Eric Kogelschatz founded the think tank shark&minnow with his wife, Hallie Bram Kogelschatz, after both fled high-powered marketing jobs in Boston; besides organizing TEDx CLE (last year's sold out in two hours), the organization collaborates on events with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Cleveland Museum of Art. What prompted the move? "We really didn't know what we were getting into," Eric admits. "But we were tired of Rust Belt cynicism."