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Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto speaks at GeekWire’s HQ2 closing party. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

Cities with booming tech economies around the country face an existential crisis. How can they maintain their cultural identity and diversity amid job growth that contributes to wealth inequality and population homogenizing?

But Pittsburgh — and other small to medium-sized cities seeking to grow their tech sectors — is uniquely positioned to confront that challenge head-on. Unlike cities like San Francisco and Seattle, where tech took off faster than anyone could anticipate or plan for, Pittsburgh has the benefit of foresight. The city can look at bigger tech hubs as cautionary tales and perhaps learn from their mistakes. It’s something that has been on Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto’s mind during GeekWire’s month-long “HQ2” project, where our reporters have been covering Steel City’s innovation economy.

“These guys spent a month here and they’ll tell you, there is something unique and really incredibly special … so as we go down this trail, we have to be ever mindful,” Peduto said on-stage during the closing party for GeekWire HQ2. “How do we keep that Pittsburgh, that special place there? It goes beyond brick and mortar. It goes down to the very culture of the city.”

Peduto believes Pittsburgh can mitigate tech growth better than some of its west coast counterparts because of the city’s history reinventing itself.

“We have the opportunity to take all of this that’s happening in Silicon Valley and happening in places like Seattle and put the Pittsburgh spice on it,” he said.

Once a booming industrial town, Pittsburgh suffered massive job loss and depopulation when the steel industry collapsed. The city’s universities and medical institutions helped bridge the gap from near economic ruin to the emerging tech hub Pittsburgh is today.

Carnegie Mellon University. (Photo by Elan Mizrahi for GeekWire)

“It didn’t happen overnight and it didn’t happen by chance,” Peduto said. “It was the Pittsburgh way of rolling up our sleeves and going to work. It happened because people organized in mines and mills. It happened because corporations led an effort to clean the air and to clean the water. It happened because people never gave up during the 80s and the 90s. Instead, they said that there’s something worth fighting for.”

Today, the challenge Pittsburgh and other growing tech hubs face is ensuring prosperity is shared, not concentrated among a small group of elites.

“We want to make sure that there’s a place, not just for the Ph.D. in this economy, but for the GED and that we’re being proactive in order to make that happen because it isn’t going to happen by itself,” Peduto said. “We want to make sure that there is an opportunity for everybody to be a part of that economy.”

In GeekWire’s hometown, Seattle, we’ve seen first-hand the rapid transformation a booming tech economy can have on a mid-sized, quirky city with blue collar roots. Seattle’s housing market is consistently scored the hottest in the country and at times it has been rated the nation’s fastest-growing city. That growth is driven, in part, by Amazon and other thriving tech companies but the rising tide has not lifted all boats.

“That is what I read when I read these articles,” Peduto said of GeekWire’s HQ2 coverage. “What a fun little quirky place you have there in Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh. It’s certainly growing and it’s a location that people don’t really know that much about but boy if they find out, they’re really going to like it. But beware because with that comes the challenges of losing that special thing that you have and also not allowing everyone to be a part of your prosperity. So take these articles Pittsburgh. Learn from them and be proactive in making sure that that doesn’t happen.”

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