Going from smarter to smart: Putting the pieces together

Chicago’s West Loop and Fulton Market: A nexus for smart technology

Formerly dotted with meatpacking plants and warehouses, the West Loop and Fulton Market are now home to corporate headquarters, high-tech startups, world-class restaurants, retail stores, a host of businesses and attractions ranging from the United Center to the WNDR Museum, along with thousands of new residences.  So why is this area just west of Chicago’s better-known Loop business district booming?  You can thank corporate relocations and expansions, tech industry trends, the need to be near a tach-savvy workforce, demographic changes and lifestyle trends – and a robust digital infrastructure.

According to the CBRE Group, Inc., the world’s largest commercial real estate services and investment firm, tech firms have nearly doubled their West Loop office space in the past four years to more than 13.5 million square feet – about 10% of downtown Chicago’s total office space.  Seeing the array of businesses flocking to the West Loop – and the associated, rapidly scaling residential development – and anticipating more, three years ago, Comcast Business significantly expanded its advanced network infrastructure, installing several additional miles of fiber optic and coaxial cable in the neighborhood and laying the groundwork for future-leaning smart technologies.  As a result of the expansion, Comcast is able to serve existing and new developments, including The Old Post Office, a symbol of Chicago’s economic future and a catalyst for additional West Loop growth, attracting tenants ranging from Uber Freight, Walgreens and PepsiCo to the Chicago Board Options Exchange, among others.  The availability of Comcast Business’ most advanced network and services will help the West Loop and Fulton Market not only continue to attract new businesses, but also attract and support a burgeoning workforce.

Residential development is just as crucial to the West Loop as commercial development.  In fact, the neighborhood’s population has grown to over 30,000.  According to Curbed Chicago, dozens of residential and commercial projects are planned or underway in the neighborhood.

According to Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council, which is committed to equitable and sustainable growth in the city and region, the West Loop has two keys to sustainable growth, access to public transit and a robust digital infrastructure, both of which promote connectivity.

“In the past, the fundamental pillars of developing communities, like affordable housing options and public transit systems, helped break down barriers among West Loop residents and build valuable connections between them and residents of other neighborhoods,” said MarySue Barrett, president of the Metropolitan Planning Council. “What we’re seeing now is an extension of the concept of ‘connection’ into the digital space.  Now, to thrive, communities, businesses and homes need a smart, robust digital infrastructure.”

Residents demand state-of-the-art technology

The growing corporate and tech sector in the West Loop and Fulton Market is attracting new talent to the city and the Chicago area at large.  More talent equals increased demand for state-of-the-art living spaces and amenities.  Developers and property managers are responding to tenants looking for smart 21st-century technology experiences.

“Technology is rooted in every aspect of development, from lobby signage that shows when the next train or bus is coming, to apps that help users navigate and control building amenities,” said Andria Winters, CBRE’s Senior Director of Business Services. “Technology also gives users a seamless experience no matter where they are – they can work from home, from a coffee shop or in the office – and their technology moves with them.”

This demand for connectedness is growing. Connectivity has become a key selling point in real estate. Property owners and technology providers share the opportunity to develop and implement solutions that consumers and tenants demand from technology.

Advanced communications services are especially important at the recently opened 45-story 727 West Madison Apartments, currently the tallest building in the West Loop.  A good portion of building residents work at tech startups or Fortune 500 companies.  Many of them work at home and rely on advanced technologies for telecommuting, participating in video conference calls and accessing data and applications in the cloud.

“On a typical workday, dozens of residents work from the building’s lounge spaces and conference rooms,” said Beth Argaman, General Manager. “High-speed internet service from a quality provider differentiates 727 Madison from the competition and helps us attract and retain residents.”

Ensuring that current buildings have the appropriate technological infrastructure to support their tenants is only half of the equation.  Solutions not only need to meet current demand, they need to be adaptable enough to support technologies coming down the pike. WiredScore, a company that evaluates the quality of connectivity within buildings, recommends that developers work with telecommunications providers to incorporate smart building technology during the planning stages.

“It’s critical for developers and internet service providers to work together to future-proof new development projects,” said Andrew Smykowski, Engineering Manager – North America at WiredScore.  “Municipalities that prioritize access to high-speed connectivity will have a leg up in attracting businesses that are relocating and expanding.  Commercial tenants are looking for spaces that offer a 21st century technology experience and allow them to better engage with and retain employees.  Without access to reliable, high-speed connectivity, businesses are forced to look elsewhere or suffer the cost of lost productivity.”

“Smart Cities”: Putting the puzzle pieces together

So, what’s next? Chicago already has several pieces of the smart cities puzzle in place, an advanced network infrastructure, WiFi networks, smart home and smart communities platforms and an array of state-of-the-art consumer and commercial products and services from companies like Comcast.  Add in Comcast’s MachineQ, which offers connectivity built for the Internet of Things (IoT) via a low-power, long-distance IoT wireless network (LoRaWAN) that covers much of the Chicago area, and you have all the pieces of the smart cities infrastructure.  The West Loop and Fulton Market would be a great place to put the pieces together and create a smart city platform that can play a role in everything from crime prevention, public safety and healthcare to sustainability and transportation.

With all the pieces out on the table, and with companies, workforce and residents capable of finishing the puzzle working together, the West Loop and Fulton Market are a nexus for smart technologies that are fueling the neighborhood’s growth and setting an example for neighborhoods and cities across the country and the globe.

Sean McCarthy is the Regional Vice President of Business Development and Strategic Initiatives at Comcast