Goodbye Silicon Prairie, Hello Chicago School of Technology

For years now, the term “Silicon Prairie” has been applied to the Illinois and Chicago tech communities, in a forced bit of branding that plays on the ubiquity of the Silicon Valley name. It’s an awkward fit, implying an allegiance to a philosophy of thought that doesn’t comfortably apply to the unique tech ecosystem we have here in Chicago. Positing Chicago as the Silicon something-or-other is simply grafting an established system onto a new geographical center that doesn’t necessarily warrant or support it. But by virtue of there being no better term to describe the region’s tech community, we seem to have adopted the Silicon Prairie label by default. Well, it’s time for that to change. Now, thanks to Cohesive Networks’ Dwight Koop and Patrick Kerpan, we have something better, something true, something that reflects what we actually do here in Chicago.

Dwight and Patrick recently suggested to me that we should start acknowledging our community as practitioners of The Chicago School of Technology, in the tradition of other schools of thought named for our fair city: The Chicago Schools of Economics, of Architecture, of Sociology. Free-market economic theory, the modern skyscraper, and urban sociology were each born of their respective Schools, and by extension, the unique history and character of this city. Dwight, Patrick, and I all believe that this is the model we should look to when talking about Chicago tech of the past, present, and future.

So what defines the Chicago School of Technology? It’s more than simple geography, and there are certainly some organizations in this city to whom the term doesn’t apply—and that’s okay. This is a big-picture concept, a way of thinking about our distinctive tech ecosystem as a whole; it’s not a set of criteria to determine who belongs and who doesn’t. Broadly speaking, though, The Chicago School of Technology can be broken down into two facets: what we do, and how we do it.

Let’s start with the what. Illinois tech doesn’t look like California or New York tech because we’re concerned with fundamentally different industries in this part of the country. Our tech ecosystem grew from the industries that have been here for decades, centuries even. Transportation, finance, manufacturing: These are the infrastructure industries that transformed Chicago into an urban center throughout the 20th century, and as we’ve moved into the 21st century, our most robust and innovative technical practices stem directly from these foundational industries. Illinois and Chicago are where infrastructure happens, from the futures and options exchanges that defined the modern approach to structured finance, to the development of the cellular phone in the 1970s, to the perfection of the browser in the 1990s.

Unfortunately, this sort of foundational, ground-level innovation just isn’t that sexy, which helps explain why we lag behind other major tech centers when it comes to raising capital. There’s more private equity here than anywhere else in the world, more angel money than there’s ever been in California, and our exits generate the highest returns for VCs of any metro nation in the country—yet major funding announcements are few and far between in Chicago. Why? There are many factors contributing to Chicago tech’s cash-flow problem—too many to go into here—but a lot of it boils down to the fact that much of what we do here is about enabling large industry to succeed through foundational and one-of-a-kind inventions, rather than producing technology products or services sold at large.

Which brings us to the “how” of the Chicago School of Technology. The cliché of the Midwestern work ethic exists for a reason, and it handily applies to how we get tech done here in Chicago. The Chicago School of Tech emphasizes pragmatic, workmanlike practice, and a focus on customer collaboration and satisfaction over self-promotion. There tends to be a false conflation between showmanship and innovation, and Chicago tech’s national presence is a victim of that false conflation: We’re better workers than we are showmen, and we tend to be more concerned with getting it done than with telling you about it. The Chicago School is about realism and competency, which can unfortunately be a hard sell to those who don’t understand or embrace the Midwestern work ethic.

Ironically, the very thing that makes Chicago tech robust and unique has also had a negative impact on our perceived growth. Chicago-based companies, on the whole, have more dynamic resource allocation—in short, we can get more done with less. That’s unequivocally a good thing from a business perspective, but unfortunately, the current growth model is overly focused on large-scale hiring as a measure of success. Some Chicago businesses have adopted this model as well, but there’s no point in behaving derivatively with the competency foundation we have here. I would suggest that focusing on smart, step-wise growth, and using overall efficiency as a barometer of success, is an approach more in keeping with the Chicago School.

It’s easy to seem defensive when talking about Chicago tech in relation to Silicon Valley, and the industry-wide expectations it’s inspired—which is precisely why we need a new way of talking about Chicago tech. The Chicago School of Technology is not about reacting to what other people are doing, or think we should be doing; it’s about embracing what makes us different, and recognizing the value in a model that deviates from the industry norm. We’re not trying to be the next Silicon Valley, we’re not trying to be a Silicon anything—we’re succeeding in being Chicago, and the Chicago School of Technology is about recognizing and celebrating that success, in order to keep building on it. Dwight, Patrick, and I will be talking much more about the Chicago School of Technology in the coming weeks and months, so stay tuned for more. In the meantime, I welcome your assistance in refining and perpetuating this new terminology as it applies to our community.

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© 2020 | Fred Hoch

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