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By Sean Thornton • June 28, 2017

Say “Goose Island,” and most people will think of craft beer. But on Chicago’s North Side, there indeed is an actual island—a small 1.5 mile stretch of land embedded within the north branch of the Chicago River. For locals, it simply blends in with the urban fabric that surrounds it.

The island likely got its name from some of its earliest (human) inhabitants, a settlement of Irish immigrants in the 1840s. By the 1870s, with Chicago’s industrial boom in full swing, those settlers were soon replaced with coal yards, factories, and railroads, making it a hub of manufacturing for the city from then onward.

Today, Goose Island is transitioning from an industrial hub to a tech-focused one. In 2014, innovation accelerator UI Labs opened its doors on the island to bring together public, private, and academic partners to develop innovative new technologies in infrastructure and manufacturing.

UI Labs
UI Labs

Its arrival makes the island an emerging hub of smart city research and development as well. City Digital, UI Labs’ newest division, applies the Labs’ collaborative model to urban problems. By addressing urban issues related to water, infrastructure, energy, and transportation, City Digital helps positively build on Goose Island’s history by transforming it from a center of production to one of innovation and sustainability.

Now two years into its existence, City Digital is on the rise—and is embracing 2017 with a new executive director, an expanded slate of pilot projects, and a transforming neighborhood it calls home. The accelerator is poised to help make Goose Island known for more than craft beer, too: it aspires to partner with local governments and innovative partners across the nation and world so that its smart city technologies may be tested and shared.

If momentum continues, this means that City Digital-derived technology may be coming to a city near you. 

Learning How to Manage Innovation

To develop and deploy smart city technologies, City Digital’s most defining role is as a convener: It manages stakeholders in government, the corporate world, and academia to see how each can best address a given problem. At quarterly workshops, City Digital brings these partners together to develop ideas and strategize plans for a technological solution in a given issue area, with the goal of going from idea to prototype to marketable product.

To do this, City Digital’s hallmark is its “city as a testbed” approach. By working with the City of Chicago, the accelerator is able to test the viability of new developments by using the city itself as real-world grounds for experimentation. Within its first two years, City Digital has worked with Chicago to test two major pilots: one for its Underground Infrastructure Mapping (UIM) project, and the other for its Smart Green Infrastructure Monitoring (SGIM) platform.

The first of these, UIM, visually captures below-ground assets so that cities, utility companies, and other players may drastically reduce the time and cost required for street projects. SGIM, meanwhile, aims to provide cities with a tool to reduce costly urban flooding through a network of sensors managed by a central dashboard. Data from SGIM sensors was recently made publically available on Chicago’s Data Portal.

Both pilots, initially started in 2016, have required meticulous planning, patience, and stakeholder management on City Digital’s part. The process also requires regular collaboration with local government and an understanding of complex governmental processes and procedures that comes with it. City Digital’s newest executive director, a former city employee herself, provides the accelerator with a leader who’s well-equipped to do so.

In May, City Digital announced that Brenna Berman, former Chief Information Officer of the City of Chicago, would be coming on board to strengthen City Digital’s role as Chicago’s premiere entity for smart city research and development.

Brenna Berman
Brenna Berman of City Digital

Berman spent nearly four years as Chicago’s CIO and six years overall within Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration. As CIO, Berman was a key figure in launching the Array of Things, a citywide urban-scale sensing platform that collects real-time data about the city’s environment, infrastructure and physical activity, done in partnership with the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory. Berman was also a part of the pilot development process for City Digital’s UIM and SGIM efforts, giving her direct experience with City Digital’s methods and processes from Day One.

“What’s great about being two years in is that City Digital’s pilot process is now fully formalized,” noted Berman on the learning process for successful pilot execution, as seen in projects like UIM. “We have enough projects under our belt to move past that experimental phase, and really start ramping up production.”

Berman’s experience with such pilot work—now from both sides of the table—will be critical for City Digital going forward: under her leadership, the accelerator plans to considerably grow its number of active pilots. In addition to 2016’s UIM and SGIM efforts, and four smaller completed demos and technology validation projects, City Digital now has five large projects in development, with three to five more expected to emerge from 2017’s workshops.

More Pilots on the Way

While City Digital’s 2016 efforts were defined by infrastructure and water, 2017 brings two different domains into focus: transportation and energy.

Earlier this year, City Digital hosted a mobility workshop which included Chicago’s Department of Transportation (CDOT) and Transit Authority (CTA), as well as corporate partners Microsoft, Accenture, ComEd, HBK Engineering, and MasterCard, among others. What emerged from discussions were plans to develop technology that can help balance the supply and demand sides of the transit equation.

One mobility pilot, currently being planned, is focusing on “employer congestion relief.” This would involve working with local companies to devise commuting plans for employees that prioritize avoiding highest-volume times—so that large numbers of people aren’t all rushing to get to the office at the same time. A similar pilot in the works, currently referred to as “disruption demand shift” among City Digital staffers, is focused on developing strategies to mitigate congestion during acute events such as concerts, sports games, and parades.

“For most urban transit systems, trains and buses are often filled to capacity, or even beyond it,” Berman noted on the effort. “If we can create incentive programs to smooth these peaks and valleys in ridership, we can reduce the overall burdens that city transportation environments face, making it easier for everyone to get around.”

City Digital also has plans for an upcoming transportation workshop focused exclusively on developing solutions to the “last-mile problem,” the all-too-familiar leg of a commute between individuals’ homes and their nearest transportation hub.

On the energy front, City Digital is developing a pilot program with energy provider ComEd that aims to better connect low-income consumers with energy-efficient service options. By doing so, energy providers will be able to provide more sustainable, low-cost service to a wider number of users.

These pilots, along with several others still in the works, will all use Chicago as their real-world testbed. Yet as they come to fruition, these innovations will not be exclusive to City Digital’s hometown. A major goal of Berman’s is to establish working relationships with other cities to develop design solutions with more global applicability. The effort, already in progress, provides City Digital with an opportunity to scale impact of its work, as well as to learn from other city knowledge centers.

“While Chicago’s built environment is generalizable to many other cities, no two places are exactly the same,” Berman noted. “There are details everywhere that need to be accounted for –from climate, to the built infrastructure, to the local culture. What many of our corporate partners bring to the table is experience across these variables—they’ve worked with cities around the world, and know how to adapt to those distinct differences that we see in cities as well.”

To date, City Digital has engaged with Atlanta and London in pilot and workshop planning, forming the Chicago-London Data Alliance with the latter in fall of 2016. Furthermore, it has been hosting webinars for other cities on identifying opportunities for engagement. Past participants have included New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and Detroit, as well as Lahore, Pakistan and Reykjavik, Iceland.

As City Digital Grows, a Changing Neighborhood

City Digital’s expansion under Berman also comes amidst one of the most transformative eras in recent memory for the Goose Island area. This neighborhood transition provides unique opportunities for City Digital to continue establishing itself as a leading innovation player.

On February 21st of this year, Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD) hosted a highly-attended community meeting at UI LABS. At the top of the agenda: The North Branch Industrial Corridor Modernization Project—a plan to structuralize the area’s shift from traditional industry to technology, innovation, and advanced manufacturing. The plan itself, dubbed the North Branch Framework Plan, was released in May by the Chicago Plan Commission, a division within DPD that manages urban planning efforts.  

The plan, which covers a substantial 760 acres along the Chicago River, was assembled with input from city officials, local residents, and other stakeholders. It will guide the city’s efforts for years to come, with major changes in tow.

“As a fellow stakeholder in the manufacturing and innovation community in Chicago, UI Labs was pleased to see that Chicago’s advanced manufacturing agenda and the goal for the area to become a business innovation district were the top two redevelopment principles,” said Caralynn Nowinski Collens, UI Labs’ Chief Executive Officer, in a letter of support to the Commission.

“Although Goose Island is not within the boundaries of the River Works Plan, we realize that the surrounding area that comprises the plan shares many attributes with Goose Island – specifically the limited transportation options reducing accessibility. The Plan’s efforts ensure the site drives economic development that would benefit UI Labs, our community, and Chicago.”

More high-tech economic development means more potential partners for UI Labs and City Digital. And in regards to accessibility, some of the plan’s recommendations include building new bridges, an “intelligent” stoplight system, an overhaul of the area’s train station, and an eastward extension of the 606, Chicago’s rails-to-trails elevated park.

The plan also calls for sustainability features related to energy, waste, water, transportation, and green space to become an integral part of all new developments in the area. This means that the Goose Island area could potentially become a model for sustainability akin to City Digital’s innovations. UI LABS’ offices already include a host of sustainable and technologically enhanced features, such as a water-absorbing bioswale that also serves as a pilot site for SGIM.

Looking Forward

Many of the changes that the River Works Plan calls for will take years to materialize—after all, Goose Island wasn’t built in a day. Yet the area’s growth, and UI Labs’ central role in it, is undeniable.

“We’re definitely optimistic,” Berman noted on her work ahead. “We have more workshops lined up, our portfolio is growing larger, and most importantly, we’re learning more and more as we go. I’m really excited to see what the future holds—for City Digital, for Chicago, and for advancing innovation in cities around the world.”