Chicago’s leading thinkers discuss ideas for the future of the city

By Chris Loeber

An Internet connection is essential to many Chicagoans for day-to-day life, but even the country’s third largest city suffers from a substantial shortage of this basic amenity.

“5 Big Ideas for the 21st Century City,” an event hosted by the Local Initiatives Support Corporation on Feb. 28, brought four of Chicago’s leading thinkers together to present ideas on how to tackle some of the city’s biggest problems, including a lack of broadband Internet access. The event took place at the Chicago Hilton and Towers, 720 S. Michigan Ave.

“The forum was meant to be a catalyst for thinking about ideas and building relationships,” said Susana Vasquez, executive director at LISC Chicago. “There were more than 500 people there exposed to new ideas and having an opportunity to start thinking differently about solving problems.”

The meeting was structured in a two-part, fast-paced format that required each speaker to describe five innovative solutions to the broadband access deficiency using 15 images for 15 seconds each. The discussion was then opened to the audience for additional ideas, comments and questions.

The meeting was moderated by David Doig, president of Chicago Neighborhoods Initiative, and featured individuals such as Daniel O’Neil, executive director at Smart Chicago Collaborative, and Theaster Gates, director of the Arts and Public Life Initiative at University of Chicago.

“We had discussion about transparency [and] some of the issues related to a green economy,” Doig said. “It was very diverse, but I think that a lot of it was focused around access to technology.”

The city has been trying to provide broadband Internet access to all of its residents since the early ’90s, according to Doig, who is also a former first deputy commissioner at the Chicago Department of Planning and Development.

Many initiatives on both the local and national levels have been launched to address a lack of broadband Internet access in underserved areas mainly peopled by minorities and other low-income Americans, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

To find out where the city stands in terms of Internet connectivity, these initiatives gathered statistical data to determine how many homes have broadband access.

Approximately 45 percent of Chicago households lacked access to broadband in 2007, according to a report issued by the Mayor’s Advisory Council on Closing the Digital Divide.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Commerce reported that 68 percent of U.S. Households use broadband Internet access service.

Last year, the FCC introduced “Connect to Compete,” a $4 billion program that offers broadband Internet service and discounted computers to qualifying families across

the country.

Despite the ongoing efforts to close what the federal government and the city have called the “digital divide,” 68 percent of Chicago households are still without access to the Internet, according to O’Neil.

“We’ve talked about it for a long time, but somehow we have to get there,” he said. “Connection to the Internet is a utility that is as essential as light and heat in a modern city.”

However, widespread access to the Internet is only one part of the solution to Chicago’s problems, Vasquez said.

Those who need the most support do not have Internet access, so new ways have to be found to connect with those people, she said.

The Internet provides access to information and new ways to communicate ideas, but it is only a starting point for helping those in need, Gates said.

“Too many times, when people talk about technology and virtual experiences, they talk about them as if they were ends unto themselves,” he said. “My theory has always been that the digital world is just another way by which we connect with one another, and ultimately it’s a precursor to our desire to connect in person, to continue to be human together.”

While the panelists did not offer any comprehensive answers to the Internet shortage, Vasquez said a new approach is needed because simply providing Internet access will not solve the problem.

“Innovation is ultimately just about creatively solving a problem,” she said. “What is the problem? Because if we don’t identify that first, then it’s very hard to innovate on the solution.”