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Sustainable Ecosystems:
Chicago's Multi-Stakeholder Commitment Boosting Innovation and Entrepreneurship

A factor critical to the development of any mission-driven brand is the nature of the ecosystem to which it belongs. A community that holistically embraces the philosophies of sustainable development offers ideal grounds for development of the business ideologies, spirit and camaraderie vital for propagation of any sustainable brand.

The metropolitan Chicago area, also known as Chicagoland, is proving to be one such community in the U.S. Driven towards creating a sustainable economy and region, these considerations are taking center stage in the region’s regulatory, business and community development policies and strategies.

As America’s third largest metropolitan region, Chicagoland is home to nearly 9.5 million people of different race, ethnicity, age, religion and nationality. A vibrant hub of global commerce, it is the world’s fourth largest regional economy in terms of GDP. A number of Global Fortune 500 companies, including Boeing, Motorola, Grainger, Navistar, Baxter and McDonald’s, are headquartered in Chicagoland. Chicago’s rich historical, architectural, natural environmental and cultural heritage attracts millions of American and international tourists to the region. And according to a 2011 Brookings Institution report, Chicago has the third-largest concentration of sustainability-related jobs in the U.S.

Despite its rich heritage and global predominance, grave economic, environmental and social challenges exist in the region. However, Chicagoland stakeholders are determined to combat those challenges. Through individual and collective efforts, they are creating an ecosystem that promotes sustainable innovation, entrepreneurship and jobs in the region, and offering conditions that stimulate development of more mission-driven entrepreneurs and brands from this region.

Chicago’s 24x7 Sustainability Commitment

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his dedicated sustainability team, led by Chief Sustainability Officer Karen Weigert, are determined to make Chicago a healthier, more livable and more prosperous city by 2015. The team is operating on an ambitious 24x7 plan that aims to make Chicago as the most sustainable city in the U.S.

The Sustainable Chicago Action Plan 2015 is strategically organized around seven areas critical for the city’s sustainability mission: economic development and job creation, energy efficiency and clean energy; transportation options; water and wastewater; parks, open space and healthy food; waste and recycling; and climate change. Around these seven strategic areas are set 24 goals to drive Chicago’s current and future priorities on sustainability. Public and private investments worth over $8 billion are being made over the next decade to achieve Chicago’s sustainability vision.

Sustainable Mobility Solutions

Chicagoland has been recognized as a leader in sustainable transportation by the Institute for Sustainable Communities. In order to encourage Chicagoans to adopt public transport as their preferred mode of transportation, the city has initiated a $1 billion project, with the help of federal, state and local funding. The goal of the project is to rebuild Chicago Transit Authority’s (CTA) infrastructure, and improve train and bus transit services for 79 million CTA riders annually.

One of the city’s other 24x7 goals is to make Chicago as the most bike- and pedestrian-friendly city in the country.The Chicago Department of Transportation started a bike-sharing program called Divvy. Safe and environmentally friendly, Divvy offers 4,000 bikes at 400 stations throughout the city. The bikes are available for rent 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Green Buildings and Energy Efficient Infrastructure

Chicago introduced skyscrapers to the world in 1884 with its iconic Home Insurance Building; now the city is emerging as a leader in the green-building and energy-efficiency movement. Chicagoland has 5.5 million square feet of green roof space. Approximately 282 buildings in the metropolis are LEED certified and more than 2600 employees in the region have LEED credentials. O’Hare International Airport hosts America’s first LEED-certified air-traffic control tower and the largest green roof in the U.S.

To further encourage development of greener buildings, Mayor Emanuel introduced an energy benchmarking ordinance in September. Impacting approximately 3,500 commercial, residential and municipal structures, the ordinance will steer the energy-efficiency drive in Chicago. Buildings having more than 50,000 square footage of space are now required to track their energy consumption and authorize the city to publicly disclose their energy performance.

Such measures promoting green building and transparency in energy performance will not only stimulate investments in energy-efficient technologies in buildings, they will aid in energy cost savings, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and generate new jobs in the region. During 2012, Chicagoland employed approximately 139,800 people in clean economy jobs.

Corporate Sustainability Leadership

A number of global corporations in the Chicago area have committed themselves to sustainable business development and some have proven themselves to be the leaders in the industry. Abbott Laboratories ranked highest in the healthcare equipment and services industry in the 2013 Dow Jones Sustainability Index. The company’s superior economic, social and environmental performance in the industry was recognized. Abbott received 100% scores for its various business strategies, including those to improve access to drugs, supply chain management, innovation management, and environmental reporting.

The country's largest retail drug chain, Walgreens, based in Deerfield, is building the nation’s first net-zero energy retail store in Evanston. The store will run on energy produced by a combination of renewable energy equipment and technologies, including more than 800 solar panels, two 35-foot wind turbines, geothermal technology, LED lighting and ultra-high-efficiency refrigeration. It is estimated the store will consume 200,000 kWh of electricity and produce 256,000 kWh of energy per year.

Two of the world’s biggest aviation industry players, Boeing and United Airlines, both headquartered in Chicago, have taken a leadership role in promoting research on, and application of, aviation biofuels. The collaboration between Boeing and United Airlines led to America’s pioneering commercial biofuel flight by United Airlines in 2011. The two companies also led the development of the Midwest Aviation Sustainable Biofuels Initiative (MASBI), which is utilizing the rich agricultural, clean-tech and airport infrastructural base and capabilities of the region to foster advanced collaboration on commercial development of aviation biofuels.

Social Entrepreneurial Movement

Chicagoland is home to a large number of committed and passionate social entrepreneurs, such as Brenda Palms-Barber. Brenda started Sweet Beginnings in North Lawndale in 2007 with a desire to help ex-offenders in Chicagoland. With the help of $140,000 support from the IL Department of Correction, Sweet Beginnings hires former inmates and trains them to care for honey bees, produce raw honey and honey-based body and skin care products, and carry out the administration of the company. Sweet Beginnings’ products, including lip balm, body cream and shower gels, are now sold in Whole Foods Markets and O’Hare airport. Not only is the company profitable, it has been socially transformational: Less than 4% of Sweet Beginnings’ staff has returned to prison, as compared to the national average of 65%.

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn recognizes the contributions and potential of such socially beneficial entrepreneurs and ventures in solving problems of the state. Issuing an Executive Order in November 2011, the Governor established the IL Task Force on Social Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Enterprise. This Chicago-based task force elicits the help of citizens, for-profit, not-for-profit and government agencies throughout the state to advise the Governor on issues around social entrepreneurship investment opportunities; social entrepreneurial capacity-building needs of nonprofit organizations and governments; and strategies for development of innovative, scalable and financially sustainable social entrepreneurial ventures in the state. Frameworks promoting adoption of Social Impact Bonds and Low-Profit Limited Liability Company (L3C) in the state are currently being pursued.

Clean Technological Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Collaboration surrounding clean technological research, innovation and commercialization are also advanced in the region. The world-class Argonne National Laboratory, based in Lemont, was awarded a $120 million grant last year by the Department of Energy. Argonne and its project partners are using the grant for research and development of a revolutionary electric battery technology. Smith Electric Vehicles, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of all-electric commercial vehicles, is opening its electric-vehicle manufacturing facility in Chicago.

In addition to the government and corporate entities, not-for-profit groups in Chicagoland are also playing a prominent role in encouraging clean technological business innovations, especially those by small entrepreneurs. In September, Chicago-based Global Midwest Alliance, in partnership with the Midwest Research University Network, organized a Clean Tech Innovation Competition that drew participants from across the U.S. and overseas. The top three finalists were awarded a cash prize and the winner of the competition, Global Green Products, LLC, won a Tech Startup Legal Service Package worth $10,000. In addition, the Illinois Institute of Technology extended to all the five finalists opportunities to lease laboratory space valued up to $8,500 at a reduced cost in their Technology Park.

Indeed, individuals, governments, business, not-for-profit agencies and academia throughout the Chicago area are individually and collectively promoting more sustainable business ventures and innovations with the goal of developing a more sustainable region. As the region's infrastructural, intellectual and entrepreneurial capital continues to grow and encourage sustainable innovations, we can expect many more socially and environmental ventures and leaders to emerge from Chicagoland.


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