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Margaret O’Mara discusses the changing relationship with Big Tech and cities at the 2017 GeekWire Summit. (GeekWire Photo / Dan DeLong)

Technology is a critical part of American history but it typically occupies little more than a marginal note in history textbooks. Margaret O’Mara, a history professor at the University of Washington, says that’s because technological innovations were developed in far-off suburban facilities for most of the 20th Century. But not anymore.

Big tech companies are increasingly at the heart of urban centers. In some cases, like Silicon Valley, the urban environment developed around these massive companies. In others, like Seattle, tech giants chose to plant their flags at the urban core to provide a metropolitan lifestyle for employees.

That shift, O’Mara says, is creating new and complex dynamics between urbanites and the tech titans they share their cities with.

“We have technology coming back to the city at the same time that technology companies — both large, medium, and small — are having an even more immediate, more giant, more recognizable impact on the way people live; the way they work; the way they communicate; the way they vote; the way relate to one another,” O’Mara said on stage at the GeekWire Summit Wednesday.

That combination makes big tech an easy target for frustrations that plague the modern urban dweller. Take Seattle, a city grappling with a housing affordability crisis and intense congestion. Those issues have created a complicated and sometimes fraught relationship with Amazon, one of the biggest and fastest-growing tech companies in the world. Many speculate that that dynamic is a motivating factor in Amazon’s search for a second corporate headquarters outside its hometown.

“Everyone’s talking about technology companies,” O’Mara said. “They’re the center of consciousness in a way that they were not in the earlier era and now they’re at the center of cities. All of the sudden these isolated research parks are now right in the middle of these very crowded urban places and suddenly people are saying, ‘well technology companies are the reason why this is going wrong, that’s going wrong.'”

Of course, massive fast-growing tech companies in the middle of cities do create some valid challenges, from traffic to diversity to displacement. But O’Mara also believes the increased visibilty of these companies will drive them to come up with solutions to some of society’s greatest challenges.

“The answer to where technology might go from here is in the people,” she said. “Because these are not just companies that are coming to cities to disrupt and displace but they are full of incredibly talented, incredibly socially-minded people who are thinking about these broader questions and wondering how their work can have an impact. Quite frankly — particularly because you have these companies growing to such size, the products are so ubiquitous — that it is time to step to the table and be part of the solution. I am bullish on tech.”

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