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By Sean Thornton

This article will be featured in the Civic Media Reader, forthcoming in 2015 from the MIT Press.

As civic technology matures, a key challenge is the field’s lack of leadership and structure in a diverse, multidisciplinary landscape. In Chicago, a small but effective civic organization has a blueprint to address this and help guide the field. 

Through a cross-sector partnership among philanthropy, government, and others, the Smart Chicago Collaborative, a nonprofit dedicated to improving residents’ lives through technology, anchors Chicago’s growing civic tech scene. Its unconventional model shows how philanthropy drives the organization’s ability to catalyze growth in local civic tech, and offers considerations for any potential replication efforts. 

Smart Chicago’s Model

Smart Chicago’s mission revolves around three areas: increasing internet access, improving technology skills, and fostering civic tech growth—that is, expanding the innovative use of data to improve lives. To meet these goals, Smart Chicago administers programs and funds sponsored by its public and philanthropic parent organizations and, increasingly, others. Its most innovative work includes providing support for developers and ensuring citywide participation in the civic innovation process. 

Smart Chicago’s seeds were planted in 2006 when Chicago created the Mayor’s Advisory Council on Closing the Digital Divide to unite public, private, and nonprofit leaders around this challenge. In 2007, the Council published a report titled “The City that NetWorks: Transforming Society and Economy through Digital Excellence.” One recommendation called for collaboration among philanthropic, municipal, tech, and community leaders. In 2010, Smart Chicago was formed based on this recommendation.

Its creation and design represent a departure from traditional philanthropy. The entity was founded by Chicago’s Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT) and two foundations, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust (CCT). Plans called for Smart Chicago to be housed within CCT, a community foundation, and to have a three-seat board with leaders from each organization.

Smart Chicago’s first Executive Director, Dan O’Neil, was hired in 2011. O’Neil, co-founder of neighborhood news portal EveryBlock, brought a multidisciplinary background in technology, public policy, media, and law—an advantageous skill set for organizing diverse groups around common goals. 

Once formed, Smart Chicago’s co-founding organizations needed to determine which initiatives to take on. DoIT had recently received Federal grants for tech projects under 2009’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  Specifically, funding for a Sustainable Broadband Adoption program, designed to spur economic development in disadvantaged neighborhoods, and a Public Computer Center program, made to expand and modernize public computer and training facilities, were mission-aligned fits.  Smart Chicago continues to administer them today. 

These programs exemplify how Smart Chicago’s model works.  While Smart Chicago itself manages funds, it partners with multiple organizations, including community development-oriented LISC (Local Initiative Support Corporation), to serve as long-term implementers.

Smart Chicago’s convening role, led by O’Neil, is also evident in its myriad civic tech initiatives. The organization supports developers in many ways, including acting as a fiscal agent that manages development and funding sources for innovative products. By doing so, Smart Chicago has hired talent via startups DataMade and Azavea to design tech solutions that address civic problems. Some of these projects, such as the Chicago Health Atlas and Chicago Works for You applications, have become successful resources for residents, nonprofits and small businesses citywide.

Such operations show how Smart Chicago’s model depends on each founding partner’s unique assets. DoIT, in addition to its federally-funded initiatives, provides a wealth of city data via its open data portal that fuels Smart Chicago’s civic tech projects. As host for the organization, CCT provides a home and community-driven pulpit for Smart Chicago. MacArthur, meanwhile, sustains crucial Smart Chicago initiatives and investments that help create and maintain a strong civic tech network.   

Philanthropy’s Driving Force

Smart Chicago would not be possible without philanthropic investment. Two philanthropic strengths help drive the model in particular: convening power and the ability to make risky capital investments.

As institutions with the resources, clout, and experience needed to build coalitions, MacArthur and CCT provide support for Smart Chicago that provides it with credibility and leverage. Moreover, Smart Chicago’s nimble operation and acknowledged leadership make it flexible. From a techie’s perspective, flexibility is crucial as rapid technological advancements mean old methods become outmoded quickly. 

Adopting Smart Chicago’s model is not without risks. While leanness provides financial and strategic flexibility, it also puts more pressure on leadership. Without communicative, patient and even passionate management, problems can ensue. Convening a diverse group of partners means that not all parties see eye-to-eye; harmonious collaboration is far from a guarantee.

Moreover, Chicago’s tech-driven political leadership and access to a variety of capital and talent set it apart from localities without these features. To make a robust civic tech network possible, political support for open municipal data is a necessary first step. Without open data, there would be little for a civic nonprofit to work with to foster civic innovation, no matter the amount of philanthropic support. 

The Future

Smart Chicago, in its third year under O’Neil, continues to help expand and provide structure to Chicago’s civic tech sector.  Yet Smart Chicago’s design raises some key questions—among them, how dependent on philanthropy the organization is in the long term. 

With little precedent for the model’s long-term vitality, the full answer is unknown. Over time, however, Smart Chicago’s partnerships have grown stronger, helping increase its influence. LISC, for example, is a fully-committed partner for many Smart Chicago digital inclusion efforts. 

Yet Smart Chicago has other issues to address for long-term sustainability. One question is its ability to define, produce and report visible, measurable successes. Without doing so, Smart Chicago may lose leverage needed to tap into a diverse pool of partnerships and support. Another is that the organization must confront an underlying tension between its need to strategically invest its efforts and its broad, all-inclusive mission. Smart Chicago needs to develop a more focused long-term vision that balances both aspects.

While some unanswered questions persist, Smart Chicago’s successes have ultimately been driven by philanthropy’s ability to invest in innovative, new models. It has provided a mechanism where leadership, partners and resources can align to help civic technology meet its full potential. As such, Smart Chicago offers important lessons for localities that wish to develop their own local civic tech capacity and community.  

About the Author

Sean Thornton

Sean Thornton is a Program Advisor for the Ash Center's Civic Analytics Network and writer for Data-Smart City Solutions.  Based in Chicago, Sean holds joint Masters’ degrees from the University of Chicago, in Public Policy and Social Service Administration. His work has spanned the city's public, philanthropic, and nonprofit sectors. 

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