Chicago Digital Hub is a Big Opportunity (Opinion)

President Obama formally announced the deal Tuesday, and is committing $70 million from the Defense Department.

by Editorial Staff, Chicago Tribune, McClatchy News Service / February 25, 2014
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel David Kidd/e.Republic

A who's who of Illinois political leaders rose as one over the weekend to celebrate the selection of Chicago as the site for a new research hub to be financed in a broad government-private partnership.

The Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute coming to Goose Island on the North Side is "Olympic gold" for the city, said an effusive Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Gov. Pat Quinn and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin cheered their own efforts. President Barack Obama, who will formally announce the deal Tuesday, is committing $70 million from the Defense Department. The state will contribute $16 million.

Give 'em all credit. This does indeed look like a big deal.

The manufacturing hub could become a spawning ground for smart new companies. It could create thousands of high-tech, good-paying jobs. It could prove instrumental in maintaining America's ability to make things, using cutting-edge tools and techniques.

The nation has been searching for ways to reverse the long decline in manufacturing jobs and expertise over the past three decades. The small- and medium-sized companies so important to Chicago need the precision and speed of digital technology. The U.S. government has set out to play a bigger role in stimulating research and development for advanced manufacturing.

Along with Chicago, the Obama administration has identified Raleigh-Durham and Detroit for related research hubs. Germany, China, Japan and other competing countries spend a fortune on public-private ventures akin to these proposed projects, with some notable successes.

What's most exciting is that 73 companies, universities, nonprofits and research labs have pledged more than $200 million for the Chicago project. Among them are industry giants known for making smart bets such as General Electric, Procter & Gamble and Dow Chemical.

Leading the project is the respected UI Labs, a nonprofit affiliated with the University of Illinois. The organization will resemble a hub-and-spoke, with a brain center in Chicago coordinating R&D performed across the country.

That's affirmation of Chicago's significant advantages for commerce. It's a world-class business city with excellent international transportation and top-flight research universities.

Chicagoan in the White House? Well, yes, that didn't hurt. But the big private investment is probably what tipped this in Chicago's favor.

Now, critical question: Who will make the decisions on how the investment is spent?

Research dollars shouldn't be directed to support political agendas. Expect critics to whisper "SSSSolyndra...."

You remember the failed solar-panel venture the president backed early in his tenure with piles of taxpayer money.

The Chicago hub will be run by a board made up of corporate, academic and government partners. The key to its operations will be a technical advisory committee that makes recommendations on what to pursue. As long as that committee sets the agenda without interference, the opportunity for success is real.

It's difficult for private companies to establish partnerships and pool resources on a large scale for joint R&D projects without the catalyst that government can provide. It's similarly difficult for research labs to clear the thicket of intellectual-property concerns and other practical barriers so their best ideas can reach the marketplace. Government, too, faces big hurdles when trying to collaborate with private industry and universities.

Putting it all together under one roof — especially one roof on the North Side of Chicago — makes sense. Expect great things.

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