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Supporting a Vibrant Civic Tech Community in Chicago

Author: Pat Maher Posted In: Culture

Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.” — Daniel Hudson Burnham (1846-1912)

Those of us who know Chicago as our long-time or adopted home have many reasons to take pride in the City of Big Shoulders. Rising out of the ashes of the Great Fire of 1871, Chicago grew like no other city in the nation to that point. Entrepreneurs, innovators, skilled tradespeople, laborers and thrill seekers arrived in Chicago to make their way. The building boom post-fire spurred dramatic improvements in urban building principles as well as dramatically higher expectations among Chicago’s leaders and citizens of what a modern city could be.

The Burnham quote above embodies the widely considered father of urban planning’s perspective on life, work and making an impact. A partner in the architectural firm of Burnham & Root, he was instrumental in developing and enacting the 1909 Plan of Chicago, a wide-ranging group of interconnected and strategic initiatives to make Chicago the most beautiful and livable city in the nation. At its heart was a citizen-centric perspective that set it apart from previous efforts to design cities. Burnham and his colleagues had a vision that cities could be much more than concrete, iron, and asphalt – they could be living, breathing, vital environments in which their citizens could thrive and achieve great things. While not all of its elements were realized, the Plan had far-reaching impact on Chicago and its citizens.

The City of Chicago Technology Plan
With this auspicious history of forward-thinking urban planning, it seems academic that Chicago should again be a leader in reshaping the modern American city. The City of Chicago Technology Plan is emblematic of efforts to establish a strategic, wide-ranging and citizen-centric series of technology-centered initiatives that should continue to shape our city and its potential for years, if not decades, to come.

The plan is far-reaching and takes a couple of readings to digest – at least it did for me. Much like the 1909 Plan, it begins with infrastructure and establishes connections through historically fragmented parts of the whole. In this case, the parts are data, government, citizens, technology and the start-up and developing business technology community.

The plan is broken into 5 high-level strategic areas; next-generation infrastructure, every community a smart community, efficient/effective/open government, civic innovation and technology sector growth. There are multiple initiatives associated with each of these strategies. As you would expect with 28 initiatives, there’s also some overlap and shared objectives between them. But ultimately the strategies and initiatives do build fairly elegantly one on the next to form at least a picture of a comprehensive, long-term strategy to assure that Chicago remains a leader in applying and exploiting technology to support infrastructure, citizens and the vital tech industry.

Making Tech Accessible to All
One of the core commitments of the plan is to assure that all of Chicago’s citizens have access to high-speed, broadband internet service – and access to education in the wise use of such technology. Those of us who have had the luxury of access to high-speed internet in our homes and businesses for years can’t appreciate the advantage that offers over those in underserved areas. The lack of access to reliable, fast internet service prevents you from accessing working knowledge, a global network of others contributing to this global repository, and the opportunity to establish your own identity through social and business tools most of us take for granted. By including all Chicagoans who want the opportunity to access, digest and apply the array of knowledge available at the dawn of The Internet of Things, the plan is helping to assure its own success. Citizens who can experience the hard-to-fathom opportunities that are becoming available to engage the world through the strategic and coordinated application of technology are more apt to buy-in to its potential and embrace this knowledge. This brief Microsoft produced video offers a prospective vision of what elements of this might look like in the not too distant future.

Civic Innovation at Work in our Backyard
Many of us working in the tech industry in Chicago have become aware of an increasingly engaged civic technology community. Initiatives like 1871, Smart Chicago Collaborative, BLUE 1647, the Digital Manufacturing Lab, or even the BigBelly smart trashcans peppered through the city are evidence of an ecosystem that is moving well beyond its infancy.

BLUE 1647 is a grass-roots civic tech effort that grew from a unique vision one person had for a community in need. Emile Cambry, Jr., BLUE’s founder, is a Northwestern professor turned social entrepreneur who recognized a need to bring technology to the south and west sides of Chicago. Eschewing the knee-jerk response to getting kids in troubled neighborhoods out of the potential violence of the streets – another designer basketball league – Emile looked to create something more impactful. Like so many entrepreneurs, he’s not only continually learning, but continually doing.

He had launched the 21st Century Youth Project in 2011 as an after-school initiative to train middle and high school kids to code by giving them access to computers, a safe place to learn and instructors who were passionate to teach. Emile notes that he began thinking about access to technology resources in historically resource-poor communities like Pilsen and Lawndale after reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, which examined key factors to success. The book is the source of the now well-known 10,000 hour rule suggesting that it takes at least 10,000 hours of practice to develop a level of expertise in any endeavor. Gladwell has authored other seminal texts such as Blink and The Tipping Point, which explore how we really think and make decisions and the phenomenon of the moment an idea, trend or innovation truly takes hold.

BLUE was launched in the historic Pilsen neighborhood in 2013 and is noted in the City of Chicago’s initial Technology Plan. Much like Emile himself, the mission of BLUE is highly aspirational – “As a beacon of resource through physical space and curated programming, BLUE1647 provides impactful individuals and organizations the resources to realize their ideas for a better world.” With workshops, internships and creative lease space for start-ups, this part tech incubator, part accelerated training program is a welcoming space for Pilsen and surrounding neighborhoods. This 150 year-old immigrant community is once again thriving with an influx of artists, students and young families, and BLUE1647 is a welcome addition.

Another notable effort to get the community engaged is Open Gov Hack Night Chicago which brings together both tech and non-tech communities in the spirit of solving shared civic challenges. In the brief window that Chicago’s civic tech community has been in place it has already made an impact on the well-being of its citizens. In the past two years alone Chicago’s hack night has 143 projects under its belt addressing challenges as wide-ranging as food contamination and pothole repair. That’s a vigorous effort by any standard.

An SPR Investment in the Civic Technology Community
Clearly the term Civic Technology Community embraces a wide range of initiatives, collaborations and targets. However, one unifying principle or thread through all might be a core social consciousness – the belief that the thoughtful application of technology combined with a human need to support the well-being of a community can be profoundly impactful.

SPR has been engaged in this type of effort since 2008 when we launched ITKAN – Information Technology Knowledge and Abilities Network, as a professional development initiative directed at candidates and professionals with disabilities in the tech field. We wanted to establish a vibrant, robust and sustainable initiative to encourage the disability community with a passion for technology to stay on top of emerging trends, processes and tools in the IT field. With our partners from the Illinois Technology Association, Illinois Technology Foundation and Microsoft Technology Center Chicago we have presented on such diverse topics as SharePoint, Kinect and Technology Megatrends. Perhaps more significantly, our own members have presented on topics that they are passionate about and apps or games they’ve developed.

In late 2014 we launched our ITKAN Advisory Team with the mission of supporting a training-to-hire initiative for our membership. This has clearly established ITKAN as a true Civic Technology effort with Advisory Team members representing the corporate, civic tech, training, academic, service and government sectors. We plan to have candidates in training by the spring for placement before the fall…make no little plans!