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Infrastructure Plannning

Chicago is committed to making itself the testbed for urban innovation

In 2013, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel put forward a technology plan aimed at making the city a living platform for smart innovation and infrastructure. Over the past five years, Chicago has aggressively adopted new approaches, and new partners like City Digital, to bring those plans to light.

While at ITS Montreal, we announced our partnership with City Digital, Chicago’s powerhouse for testing and building new infrastructure solutions. Along with several other technology partners, HERE has signed on to play a big part in procuring and tracking the location data that will drive smarter decisions as the city continues to revitalize and grow.

However, the projects that City Digital is taking on go well beyond roads and subways. For an insider’s perspective, we spoke with Katie Olson, Director of Program Design at City Digital to learn more about the efforts they’ve undertaken to make Chicago a leader in smart city innovation.

City Digital’s first step was defining the scope of the projects they would take on to an actionable scale. The result was that the plan would begin with the built environment: energy, water, physical infrastructure, and mobility. Ms. Olson shared how these areas were developed further.

“We had to think about what the process would be to design new solutions. Tactically, we created a workshopping process, where we chose one of our topics: energy, water, physical infrastructure, or mobility. Then, within that topic, we would narrow down to a very specific challenge. For example, in mobility, it might be last mile delivery of goods. We brought together all of our partners and spent 2 days really crystalizing what the problems and solutions are, identifying the pain points, and what are the solutions we can find to address those pain points.”


Green Infrastructure

One of the first points that their team took on was how to address some of Chicago’s weather issues with smarter infrastructure. Certain areas of the city have become prone to flooding as they experience an increase in heavy rain events each year. The city’s sewer systems aren’t keeping up, and to rebuild them represents invasive, expensive projects. Enter, Green Infrastructure.

“That looks like permeable pavement, that looks like planting trees that have absorbent roots – and it’s much cheaper than traditional gray infrastructure to install and maintain. But, before we totally rely on that, there’s no comprehensive data on how effective that infrastructure is. So we worked with Microsoft and Opti, to create an IoT ecosystem that captures information from green infrastructure elements and reports how well the various types of green elements are performing.”

The reporting data coming from the sensors isn’t limited to occasionally compiling performance over time. Utilizing Chicago’s Open Data Portal, City Digital and the City of Chicago are streaming real-time data on the performance of green infrastructure sites around the city. That monitoring could lead to future phases, such as active control of the sewer system to create capacity where it’s needed most.

Better data, smarter deliveries

Another pain point for Chicago lies in how the design of its streets intersects with an on-demand, same-day-delivery economy. Narrow streets in residential neighborhoods are already congested, and made worse by service and delivery vehicles.

“Trucks will double-park, or block roads entirely. We see that there’s a way to improve. If we have the location data, that traffic information, which is what HERE can provide, you can identify optimal places for trucks to stop for curb-side delivery or parking. Using the better data about curb-sides, we can contribute to the correction of traffic congestion.”


City Digital’s projects are rapidly growing, testing green infrastructure, improving traffic congestion, and even helping Cubs fans get an easier ride to the stadium. We asked Olson where she feels the future of the program is headed.

“There is a combination of two things. One, we started the program to look at challenges that the city of Chicago faces, and will continue to do so. But, we are also looking at other areas. As we continue to extend a global reach, and as other cities are joining our workshops and programming, will start to address the immediate challenges that cities and residents are identifying to us. That will always be primarily what we do.

“A second component to that is responsibility. We and all of our partners have a passion and a responsibility to be forward thinking. We are all looking at the technologies that are coming down the road, and we’re all helping to push cities to get out ahead and take advantage of those things. As much as we’re addressing immediate challenges, we want to help cities focused on the near term to see a bigger picture in the realm of what’s possible.”


We would like to extend our great thanks to Katie Olson for speaking with us at ITWSC.

Urban Mobility

Optimize on-demand and scheduled mobility operations to enable seamless intermodal journeys.

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