December 22, 2017

Last week, City Digital, a UI LABS collaboration in urban infrastructure innovation, formally announced their merger with Smart Chicago Collaborative, a civic tech organization devoted to improving lives in Chicago. For years, both organizations worked to improve the lives of Chicagoans in their respective networks, but now, the two are joining together to transform cities into testbeds for new ideas.

City Tech CollaborativeThe City Tech Collaborative team is comprised of Executive Director Brenna Berman; Director of Strategic Partnerships Kyla Williams; former City Digital staff Katie Olson, David Leopold, Alex Frank, and Elle Ramel; and Smart Chicago Collaborative staff Sonja Marziano, Denise Linn Riedl, and Leslie Durr.

“Our team is super creative,” said Alex Frank, who has been with City Digital since October of 2016. “We have natural boundaries and are individually limited in our subject matter expertise, but together, our ideas are boundless.” David Leopold agreed. He added that regardless of each unique perspective, every team member fosters a genuine passion to serve the City of Chicago.

“Joining forces only enhances each of our previous missions,” Frank said. “Smart Chicago Collaborative brings a wealth of experience in taking tech and getting it into citizens’ hands, which fills a blind spot our team had.”

Leslie Durr, previously with Smart Chicago Collaborative, anticipates working together to humanize digital technology in Chicago. “I am really grateful that we have come together,” she said. “I am certain that we will be able to infuse a more human, community-facing component into the smart city space.”

Though merging the two organizations has streamlined the smart city initiative in Chicago, there are still many unique challenges in working in the smart city space.

“It’s a considerable challenge just to define ‘smart city’,” Sonja Marziano shared. “There is no one definition of a ‘smart city’, or what it all entails, and that obstacle introduces challenges in defining expectations, performance metrics, and successes in the smart city space.”

In fact, each team member defines success differently. For Leslie Durr, success is when residents display that the city is working for them. For Sonja, success means giving people more access to hardware, internet, and skills. For Katie Olson, success is defined by continued investment from Chicago and City Tech’s partners.

Beyond defining smart cities and their needs, there are many misconceptions regarding the nature of smart city work. Many Chicagoans aren’t familiar with the freedoms and limitations of government, the implications of inefficient energy use on the power grid, and the vast gaps in understanding of digital technologies.

This lack of familiarity makes the team’s mission to collaborate with so many players – city, government, industry, and university, increasingly complex. “But,” Leopold said, “All these players can be aligned with the help of the team. They all generally come from the same place.”

Regardless of nuances in definitions and performance metrics, each player, whether government, industry, or university, is critical to City Tech’s ability to improve cities and the lives of their residents through collaboration and technology. The City Tech team looks forward to working as a merged team with even more cross-sector partners in 2018!