National and local media have been taking quite an interest in Chicago’s technology ecosystem and TechNexus over the last month. Stories focused on our vibrant startup scene and the city’s infrastructure initiatives. In September at least, the city had a lot more to offer tech reporters other than Groupon and its stock woes, personnel changes, and payment announcements, as important as they are to the city.
The Atlantic’s prolific senior technology editor Alexis C. Madrigal visited the city, on tour for the publication’s Start-Up Nation, and filed several reports on Chicago’s technology ecosystem, including a visit to TechNexus and interview with cofounder Terry Howerton, “How did Groupon’s rise and fall change Chicago’s startup scene? Not much.” All of Madrigal’s posts are worth reading. They’re listed in “An Atlantic Reporter’s Chicago Startup Odyssey.”
Chicago’s New Digital Infrastructure
Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s announcements that Chicago drew both national and local coverage for his announcement that Chicago tech firms committed to create 2,000 jobs over the next few years. While noting that some of the jobs had been announced and would have been created anyway, Crain’s Greg Hinz wrote that the announcement nevertheless “constitutes a testament of sorts to the city’s emergence as a tech hub, and it comes on the same day that the mayor announced efforts to expand free Wi-Fi in public locations and to lure superfast Internet service to emerging business districts.”
Local coverage tended to focus on free wi-fi access at Millennium and other city parks, secondarily featuring the importance of super high-speed access in 15 commercial corridors. Read details of the broadband proposal in the SunTimes.
GigaOM, the tech news and analysis blog, featured Google’s role in the proposal, putting it in the context of Google’s Fiber initiative and giving the story a Silicon Valley spin. The Mayor noted that he’d had a conversation with Google Chairman Eric Schmidt about the city’s overhaul of its water systems, when Schmidt suggested that Chicago lay new data lines as well as water pipes.
GigaOM alluded to the how the city is building its digital future on the remnants of its manufacturing past: “Emanuel’s aim is to convert industrial zones lining Chicago’s miasma of waterways and railroad tracks—once devoted to slaughtering livestock, packing meat and manufacturing cocktail weenies—into high-tech zones.”
Earlier in the month, Crain’s Chicago Business reporter John Pletz took that as the focus on his Sept. 17 piece, “How Chicago became one of the Nation’s Most Digital Cities.” As Crain’s Morning 10 email summarizes the article, “For nearly two centuries, the twin benefits of geography and infrastructure made Chicago an economic powerhouse. Now, some of those same forces position the city as a hotspot in the digital economy.” The map of the country’s digital infrastructure is really cool, awesome in today’s parlance.
Chicago Magazine‘s Whet Moser pointed to Pletz’s article and expanded on the theme in “Inside Chicago’s Startup Scene, and Its Tubes,” written in his wonderfully personable and readable style. He includes this warning: “And just like Chicago’s position as a transportation center—long the case for similar geographical reasons—is at risk because of insufficient infrastructure investment, its digital future is in a similar juncture.” Mayor Emanuel’s fiber initiative may help in that regard.
The Internet’s Physical Presence
Moser begins with a note about Andrew Blum’s book Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. If you’re interested in the physical infrastructure of the internet—Chicago is a critical hub in that regard—and don’t want to read a book, listen to Barbara Nichol ask the simple question: “Where is the Internet?” It was rebroadcast Sept. 27 on CBC Radio’s “Ideas” show, presented by WBEZ. Nichol interviews internet pioneers on the how the physical internet was built, where it exists, and why it seems to ephemeral and magical. Also covered is the internet’s telecommunications roots, as a means of communications designed to carry information without regard to its content—so-called “net neutrality.”
Some of Chicago’s own technology pioneers, as well as a few great new faces, appear in Crain’s Tech 50, announced in its Sept. 24 issue. Congratulations to TechNexus collaborator Fred Hoch for making the list.
In his Sept. 28 Forbes blog post “How to Build the Most Connected City in the World,” Howerton fleshes out the importance of the Mayor’s broadband initiative and paints a more strategic picture of a public-private partnership:
“Chicago has sold off its parking meters, its toll roads and even considered selling its airports to private companies, and got nothing more than cash in return for those city assets. If this new plan comes at minimal cost to tax payers and leverages idle city assets, jump starting a coordinated private sector initiative that makes it easier and cheaper for companies to build or access super high speed networks, it is critical and forward thinking public policy.”
One hallmark of Chicago’s technology ecosystem, Howerton told The Atlantic‘s Madrigal, is that many of its technology companies, both established and emerging, serve complex B2B markets. One result is that many of the city’s most important tech companies do not draw much major media attention either locally or nationally, though specialized publications do take note.
Chicago Technology Rising
One September example is coverage of the acquisition of TechNexus collaborator OK Labs, a provider of mobile virtualization software that improves phone security, by General Dynamics. Local media all but ignored the story. Given the importance of the acquisition of a major Defense contractor’s strategy, it’s not surprising that the most insightful coverage came Sept. 25 from Washington Technology, in “Inside GD’s Latest Buying Spree.”
“OK Labs filled out the corporation’s mobile capabilities, becoming part of General Dynamics Broadband, a subsidiary of C4 Systems. With the acquisition, General Dynamics Broadband can cater much more to those expanding public-safety broadband and mobile device markets, fitting the acquisition into a larger plan.”
What all this coverage shows, however, is not so much that Chicago now has a robust technology industry or ecosystem. It’s had that for years. What’s happening is that the rest of the country is taking notice.
One day soon, we hope, we will no longer react with that unfortunately typical Chicago lament—what about us?—when reading in the national media about the nation’s tech centers: Silicon Valley, Boston, and New York City.
– Collin Canright