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Chicago’s Hands-On Approach to Innovation Accelerators

Chicago, Illinois

Chicago, Illinois

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More so than maybe any other city government, the nation’s third-largest city is heavily invested in testing startups’ urban technology.

UI Labs is unique among innovation accelerators because of the degree to which a municipal government—in this case Chicago’s—is involved with developing, deploying and testing its urban solutions.

Established in 2014, the accelerator brings together more than 300 university and industry partners—hence the “UI”—under two labs: the Digital Manufacturing & Design Innovation Institute, focused on improving American competitiveness, and City Digital, centered around smart technology.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel lured DMDII to Chicago during a competitive bid process coinciding with UI Labs’ founding, and the city is an active City Digital government partner.

“Chicago is a great headquarters for a number of reasons, including the Midwest’s strong ties to the manufacturing sector, skilled engineering and science talent emerging from nearby universities, and technological infrastructure,” wrote Steve Fifita, City Digital executive director, in an email to Route Fifty. “The city has a vibrant startup culture, which aligns with our mission of innovation and technological advancement.”

Chicago’s deputy mayor and chief information officer sit on City Digital’s executive board, while senior-level officials like the chief data officer, chief resilience officer and water management and transportation commissioners, have assisted with pilot projects monitoring smart green infrastructure and digitally mapping underground assets.

In September, Emanuel gave London Mayor Sadiq Khan a tour of UI Labs showcasing the international applications of its work in demonstrations.

"London, like Chicago, is a world-class city, but we also have challenges in making sure all neighborhoods are participating in economic opportunities and growth," Emanuel said, according to the Chicago Tribune.

The accelerator aims to improve lives by creating jobs and boosting the region’s competitive advantage, while testing its technology in a real-world environment.

For instance, City Digital’s underground infrastructure mapping platform uses advanced scanning tools to store location-based data on water and gas pipes and fiber-optic lines securely in the cloud. Every 60 seconds an underground utility line is struck, according to the American Public Works Association, so knowing where they are to avoid them will prevent construction delays, accidents, disruptions in residents’ service and loss of money.

Another partner at City Digital is Tyco Integrated Security, which specializes in smart building technology and is creating analytics pilots leveraging sensing systems to generate data leading to new insights in efficient service delivery.

“We take video as a sensor for something besides security like heating and cooling,” said Matt Frowert, Tyco IS strategic marketing manager. “Chicago is one of the toughest cities to work in, so we picked it to prove out our technology.”

Multiple agencies can benefit from shared access to video feeds. A sanitation department might use them to ensure streets are snow-free during the winter months, while a transportation department can monitor and control traffic.

Sensors have been installed throughout the UI Labs Innovation Center piloting smart building data analytics monitoring things like energy use, and a 24,000-square-foot manufacturing floor is open to startups looking to digitize the modern factory.

“We are monitoring stormwater quantity and quality at UI LABS with an onsite IoT ecosystem as part of our Smart Green Infrastructure Monitoring pilot, and deploying JCI’s ShopperTrak retail analytics to capture data on the building’s usage,” Fifita wrote. “We plan to continue using Chicago as a testbed to demonstrate digital technologies’ effectiveness in an urban environment.”

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington D.C.

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