Can Chicago Make Itself Safe in a Digital Age?

Chicago Civic Media
6 min readFeb 7, 2019
Graphic courtesy Chicago Sun-Times 2/24/19

by Steve Sewall (2/26/19 — election day)

Mayoral candidates have spent some $25 million this year trying to win the votes of Chicagoans. So what is that chance that one or more candidates will come through with a public safety plan to give Chicagoans have wanted most for decades: a plan to make Chicago SAFE?

The chance is zero. Because every candidate has already bought into the violence-reduction public-safety mindset that has made and kept Chicago violence for the past six decades. Ever since the rise of Chicago’s heavily armed, drug dealing, youth victimizing street gangs in the 1960's.

And what has violence reduction given Chicago during all these years?

Wartime levels of violence with no end in sight.

Fact is, violence reduction annually directs literally billions of taxpayer dollars into futile attempts by undermanned resources — mostly police but also non-profits and public health professionals — to prevent, contain, curb or crack down on violence.

And the net result over the years? Thousands of lives saved. But tens of thousands lost. Hundreds of thousands fleeing the city. Public schools devastated or struggling. Racism aggravated. Low voter turnouts. Lower birth rates. Shorter life expectancies. City finances drained. City Hall widely mistrusted, often dysfunctional. Citizens inured to violence as they are to brutal Chicago winters. And for the business community: Chicago’s global brand tarnished word-wide, as all of the mayoral candidates have reluctantly agrees.

So where can Chicago go from here?

First, we can pull our heads out of the violence reduction sand.

Then we can commit, as a city, to solving violence.

New York did it. Made itself safe.

So can Chicago.

In a uniquely Chicago Way. One that gets Chicagoans of all ages, races and backgrounds doing precisely what they never thought they could do: work together.

Work, that is, to address violence not as a fragmented, hard-working, industrial-age I Will City but as a unified, intelligent, digital-age We Will City.

Addressing violence as a city means doing what Chicago has never done: it means integrating its two most powerful anti-violence resources: the People of Chicago and the media that comprise Chicago’s public communications system.

Failure to address violence as a city is behind the misunderstanding, ignorance and apathy that holds Chicago in its grip today.

Historically, Chicago has addressed violence in two ways: as a public health problem and a public safety problem. It has yet to realize that violence is, equally, a public communication problem centered on massive communication breakdowns among Chicagoans (e.g. among races and between citizens and police, Loop and neighborhoods, Chicagoans and City Hall).

Chicago’s media have ample resources to inform and enable Chicagoans to think and act as a large, connected, intelligent, caring digital-age community.

Media resources can also tap deep into the experience, insights, wisdom, energies and love of neighborhoods and city of Chicagoans of all ages and backgrounds, especially those most directly impacted by violence.

Chicago’s media have yet to see how they can profit by bringing out the best in all Chicagoans who are determined to solve violence.

They have yet to realize that the market for violence solution — a Market of the Whole of Chicagoans of all ages and backgrounds who are affected by violence — is literally a market of all of Chicagoans.

They have furthermore yet to realize that today’s apathy is less a matter of apathy towards violence itself than a matter of apathy towards decades of tedious media stories underscoring Chicago’s inability to address violence effectively.

All this can change overnight. I look to the day when Chicago’s media are covering and critiquing the city’s drive to solve violence as profitably and as effectively as they now cover and critique the championship drives of Chicago’s beloved sports teams.

So how, more precisely, can Chicago’s media help Chicago solve violence?

This challenge is for media-savvy Chicagoans from all over the city. It’s for students, coders, politicians, city planners, academics, foundations, businesses, police, citizens, faith and neighborhood groups, and (especially) Chicago’s media.

Once this challenge is met, Chicago will have created a digital infrastructure that does for the city precisely what Daniel Burnham’s physical infrastructure has done ever since it first appeared in his 1909 Plan of Chicago. In both instances the objective is to strengthen citizenship. For Burnham insisted that “after all has been said, good citizenship is the prime object of good city planning.”

To this civic end, and with violence solution in mind, here are three suggestions. The third is for a prime-time TV program, Chicago FIXIT, that incorporates the first two.

First. Above all, honor Burnham’s exhortation to “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized.” Encourage all members of Chicago’s media, not some, to engage Chicagoans in a truly citywide drive to solve violence. Given television’s unmatched efficiency to reach all Chicagoans, center this drive on prime-time, public forums — digital town squares, televised citywide — that earn the respect and trust of Chicagoans and City Hall alike.

Create a digital infrastructure to do for the city precisely what Burnham’s physical infrastructure has done for Chicago since his 1909 Plan of Chicago. Above all, follow Burnham’s lead in strengthening citizenship. For “after all has been said,” as he insisted, “good citizenship is the prime object of good city planning.”

Second. In order to “stir men’s blood” to civic-minded action, create programming and content that is consistently

  • Dynamic, exciting and inspiring. That brings out the very best in Chicagoans and instill civic pride in Sweet Home Chicago,
  • Rule-governed and impartially refereed. That earns the respect and trust of Chicagoans and City Hall alike,
  • Smart and inclusive, so that not some but all Chicagoans can learn from each other. In an era when politics tends to “dumb down” citizens, appeal to the native intelligence of all Chicagoans.
  • Ongoing, issue-centered and outcome-focused, so Chicago can accomplish great things, like making itself even safer than New York,
  • Dialogic and public-spirited, in ways that make Chicagoans (including City Hall) responsive and accountable to each other in shaping Chicago’s best future.

Third. Prime-time Chicago FIXIT incorporates the above principles.

It’s riveting. Tweaking the format of voter-driven reality-TV shows like American Idol and The Voice, FIXIT pits small teams of smart, telegenic Chicago problem solvers competing and cooperating with each other to find best solutions to violence, large and small, with winning teams and solutions decided by expert analysis and, ultimately, viewer votes.

FIXIT puts Chicago in touch with itself in productive, rule-governed ways that keep Chicagoans on the edge of their seats.

Its unique rules make informed problem-solvers of everyone. They keep FIXIT impartial, non-partisan, non-ideological, issue-centered and 100% transparent.

Reality TV for Real. Note the Audition and Training Phases, 1 and 2

Once it airs, FIXIT transforms Chicago politics overnight. It’s a Chicago event, the talk of the town, a turning point in Chicago history.

Who foots the bill for programs like FIXIT? Among other supporters, socially-responsible corporations rush to sponsor FIXIT and its huge, city- and region-wide audience.

That’s it. A wakeup call for media-savvy Chicagoans. And a way for Chicago’s next mayor to enable a fractured, post industrial-age I Will City to reinvent itself as a connected, digital-age We Will City.

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Steve Sewall, Ph.D., is a Chicago educator and Director of Chicago Civic Media.



Chicago Civic Media

Making citizens and governments responsive and accountable to each other at all levels of government with impartial, problem-solving political discourse.