The Chicago Tech Plan: Building a Model for Cities and Technology

By Sean Thornton • September 25, 2013

The City of Chicago just released its first-ever comprehensive technology plan to provide long-term strategies to enable communities with technology in order to enhance social and economic opportunity.

John Tolva, Chicago’s Chief Technology Officer, unveiled the Chicago Technology Plan in an address this month by opening with a quote from mid-20th century Chicago writer Nelson Alger.

“’Big-shot town, small-shot town, jet-propelled town—by old-world hands with new world tools, built into a place whose heartbeat carries farther than its shout.’ That’s us – even if it’s from a long time ago,” said Tolva. “It’s time for the shout to catch up with the heartbeat. It’s time for us to actually tell the world what’s been going on here – and that’s the Chicago Tech Plan.”

Tolva’s opening makes it clear that Chicago wants others to understand its successes and learn from its ideas. The 115-page document shows how the “Chicago model” of tech policy works, and how it plans to expand going forward.

The Plan: An Overview

The Tech Plan covers five broad strategies, and provides 28 targeted initiatives to support them. These main strategies include building a next-generation digital infrastructure, fostering tech education through “smart communities,” and providing for efficient and open government, civic innovation, and tech sector growth.

Of these five strategies, the first two provide an essential foundation for any place that seeks opportunity through technology. The other three are growth strategies that build on this foundation to foster positive outcomes.

The Plan is clear about these expected outcomes as well, with seven impact areas listed. On the government side, the Plan calls for reduced costs and improved services. Most goals, however, are geared towards social and economic opportunities for Chicago’s residents. The plan lists increased resident engagement, access, and skills, as well more jobs and STEM professionals (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), as top objectives.

“Technology is critical for both job creation and improving quality of life for our residents,” Mayor Emanuel stated in a press release with Tolva and Chief Information Officer Brenna Berman. “Both of these areas are top priorities in the city of Chicago, and this framework will help us realize our collective potential. I see the development of technology in Chicago as a key area of focus for the future.”

Building a Foundation

The Plan’s foundational strategies boil down to two goals: making sure everyone has access to the internet, and ensuring they know how to use it.

“After he took office, Mayor Emanuel told me, ‘I want Chicago to be the Seoul, South Korea, of North America,” Tolva said during his announcement of the Plan at Chicago’s City Club.

Emanuel was referring to Seoul’s reputation as one of the world’s top cities for broadband connectivity. Chicago’s already had some success here: as part of Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, it has doubled the number of low-income households receiving discounted high-speed broadband, making it Comcast’s largest program in the nation. The city also sits at the convergence of massive Internet trunk lines, making it a key node in the web’s worldwide infrastructure.

However, widespread connectivity can only go so far if residents don’t have the skills to use it. For the past several years, Chicago has run a program with federal stimulus funding called Smart Communities (SC). The program works to increase digital access and use by families and businesses in five low-income neighborhoods. Operations include computer training classes, family and business centers, and public computer centers.

To implement these SC operations, Chicago teamed up with the Smart Chicago Collaborative and Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC), and received additional support from the MacArthur Foundation. While federal funds have largely ended for the program, Chicago plans to build upon its original five neighborhoods by making “every community a smart community,” expanding such services citywide.

Planning for Growth

The next three broad strategies build upon the first two, and unite several initiatives that have already been in progress.

Early on in his term, Emanuel called for open government initiatives and data-driven innovation to be hallmarks of Chicago’s municipal tech policy. The Plan’s third major strategy encapsulates these ongoing commitments, which have been managed by the City’s Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT). DoIT’s Open Data Portal and predictive analytics platform have transformed how the City uses data, and will continue to grow.

While DoIT is a key player for government-specific initiatives, much of the Plan goes beyond the department’s mission and capabilities. In the past few years, Chicago’s number of “civic hackers” has exploded, along with the city’s startup and tech scene. The Plan’s fourth initiative is meant for civic tech innovators to develop solutions to city challenges with city data.

This brings us to the Plan’s fifth strategy: maintaining a growing startup and tech scene to ensure its place in the Chicago economy.

“What can the mayor’s office do to encourage tech sector growth?” Tolva postured. “Half of it is getting out of the way, but the other half of it is attracting and retaining companies, and promoting a culture of entrepreneurialism.”

Chicago’s Model

Although its 115 pages make it appear complex, the Plan’s essence is simple: Chicago is identifying its strongest tech assets, building partnerships with them, and embracing a structure that favors cross-sector collaboration over unilateral action. The model is one that can be carried out by cities across the country.

To start, Chicago has many assets. It is an intellectual and research hub, giving it a strong base for talent. Chicago also has a diverse business community and broad customer base. It even has favorable physical and geographic features for technology, such as being a crossroads for the Internet and having a favorable climate for data centers.

These attributes, however, are unique to the city’s history and geography, and are not particularly replicable. The key to Chicago’s model is a deep coalition of organizations that are collaborating to improve the city. These include the city’s many universities, research centers, corporations and nonprofits, as well as World Business Chicago, the city’s main nonprofit arm for business attraction.

Chicago’s model also includes the civic-minded Smart Chicago Collaborative, a startup that was founded in part by the City to improve lives in Chicago through technology. While operated and supported separately from the City, Smart Chicago has been a key partner for many public initiatives. Its efforts are visible throughout the Plan.

Lastly, as an inclusive, citywide roadmap, the Plan rallies businesses, nonprofits, and residents alike to take part in its implementation.

“This document is not the final word, but the start of a rich, spirited, passionate discussion on how to build a smarter Chicago. It invites everyone to use the Tech Plan as a jumping off point for adding their voice to the conversation,” CIO Brenna Berman said.

Chicago hopes that by building on its technological strengths, it can address its weaknesses over the long term—and with the help and input of everyone involved, make Chicago a better city.

Those with questions or feedback about the plan can email

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 and working in partnership with the city's Department of Innovation and Technology, 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.