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New CityWorks Program to Focus on Urban Infrastructure

The goal is to use Chicago as a test bed of urban innovation, drive breakthroughs, and create proven technology solutions that can be commercialized, scaled quickly and replicated in other cities.

David Kidd
(TNS) March 23--UI Labs, the public-private research and development partnership soon to open on Goose Island, on Monday will announce its second program, called CityWorks, which will focus on improving urban infrastructure.

No funding amounts are expected to be included in the announcement, although Microsoft, Accenture, ComEd and Siemens will be named "founding members." Although privately funded, City Hall effectively oversees the effort with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Deputy Mayor Steve Koch and World Business Chicago Vice Chairman Michael Sacks playing key fundraising roles.

CityWorks will fund six to eight demonstration projects this year in four areas: energy management, physical infrastructure, water and sewer systems, and transportation and logistics, according to a news release.

UI Labs, which stands for universities and industries, was announced in 2013 but did not gain momentum until it won a $70 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to open the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute.

With CityWorks, that will make two.

"Infrastructure forms the backbone of our cities, our economy and our society," UI Labs Executive Director Caralynn Nowinski said in a statement.

"The goal is to use Chicago as a test bed of urban innovation, drive breakthroughs, and create proven technology solutions that can be commercialized, scaled quickly and replicated in other cities," she added.

Chicago-based firms HBK Engineering and Level-1 Global Solutions are providing technical expertise.

CityWorks is expected to be up and running this summer, according to the announcement.

Meanwhile, the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute has put out its first call for project ideas in the areas of cyberphysical security, advanced manufacturing enterprise, intelligent machines and advanced analysis.

UI Labs was envisioned as something akin to the famous Bell Labs with the goal of filling a gap in Chicago's economy.

"Surprisingly, given its history and the presence of IIT and Northwestern (University), Chicago was not as engineering-focused as the economy would make you think it should be," Koch said during a December meeting with U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker at Microsoft's Chicago offices. "You have a huge base of private-sector dependence on engineering leadership, but a lot of the engineering focus was either 200 miles away in Champaign or in Evanston. It just wasn't as focused as it could be."

Koch said city leaders spent a year "working very hard with relatively little effect to show for" on UI Labs until the federal grant.

"The federal match grant came along at the exact critical time, because we had spent a fair amount of time trying to raise private money to do this and frankly, if we had multiple years, we probably would have gotten somewhere," Koch said. "It was huge. I can't begin to overstate its importance."

The second program will be housed at the Goose Island facility, home to a former window factory. Much of the funding will pass through CityWorks' grantmaking process and head out to university and private researchers.

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