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Tech industry experts debate Chicago's place among technologically advanced cities.

Experts say Chicago can be nation’s next tech hub

by Jonathan Greig
Jan 24, 2013

Chicago has been reinventing its economic base as large manufacturing companies have declined. Technology industry experts and government officials say Chicago has the perfect base to make it the next technology hub of the Midwest, and maybe even the country.

At a gathering Thursday sponsored by the Urban Land Institute of Chicago, experts talked about the digital infrastructure of Chicago and how it is building off of, and changing, the physical landscape of city structures.

“I think we can finally put to bed the notion that the Internet is somehow making spaces and places less vital,” said John Tolva, chief technology officer for the city of Chicago. “It’s actually the opposite,” he continued. “It brings people together.”

The panel focused on the intersection between business, the Internet and property in Chicago and how the city is uniquely positioned to be a bastion of a combination of the three.

Chicago’s vast number of former manufacturing buildings offer tech startups advantages they won’t find in New York and Boston, the panelists said. Under the expansive factory floors there usually are basements that can house wiring and servers, keeping the equipment backbone of the operation in the same place as the employees.

“By lowering the cost of access to the Internet, it’s us laying the foundation to let the market do what it will,” Tolva said.

The critical mass of Internet businesses has forced the city to work with these technology experts not only to improve Internet connectivity citywide, but also usher its own services into the digital age. As an example of its efforts to improve digital transmissions, the city has installed buried fiber-optic cables while updating its sewer system.

Tolva also described how the government is in the process of releasing more of its information so app-makers can tap into it and create businesses that provide needed services to a new age of smartphone and tablet users. The city has offered prizes to Chicago web and app developers who developed the most consumer-useful apps using city data. Examples include one that helps drivers find their car if it has been towed and another that shows streets with snow parking restrictions.

“Once you have an ecosystem established, you have all of the things that start to support the workers that are going to use the space,” said Todd Heiser, design director for Gensler, a Chicago-based architecture and design firm.

These tech businesses have also had an effect on the marketability of the classic buildings in Chicago. In adding a digital backbone to old buildings, these companies are silently updating much of downtown Chicago’s Internet landscape.

Dan Lyne, executive director of Chicago NEXT, said that Chicago has a leg up on other major cities because Mayor Rahm Emanuel is not just focused on creating jobs, but “he’s creating the conditions in which jobs will arrive and thrive.”

The panelists said that in making Chicago a technology hub, the city could attract a new generation of businesses looking for a place with enough space and bandwidth to support their work.

“So they ask us, ‘how do you become the next Silicon Valley?’ And I say, ‘we don’t’” Tolva said. “They started from nothing. We already have a great base to build from.”