Chicago: Tipping Point or Turning Point ?

By Steve Sewall at

This piece written for this conference.

Preface. I attended this day-long conference along with 700 other Chicagoans who paid $95 each to hear what ALL Chicagoans need to hear. It was a huge disappointment, as I say in the post script to this piece. What I saw was Chicago’s elite once again calling the shots while leaving 2.7 million Chicagoans utterly voiceless in defining and solving the multiple crises that threaten the city’s future. Voiceless, that is, in addressing social crises that cannot possibly be solved without the intelligence, experience and engagement of its citizens.

For decades Chicago has had no comprehensive plan to defuse its multiple crises. So is Chicago truly helpless to shape a future that works for all its people? It’s not. Far from it. To move itself from Tipping Point to Turning Point, Chicago needs to make constructive use of its most powerful resource: the intelligence and experience of its people. Chicago will solve its multiple crises when the print and electronic media that constitute its political discourse system act decisively and creatively to engage Chicagoans in the problem-solving process.

To see the city’s media can do so — and do so profitably — this short piece jumps ahead 10 years from the catastrophic election year of 2016 to show how Chicago was able to exploit the disintegration of political discourse in America to move its affairs from Tipping Point to Turning Point, thereby setting an example that other cities eagerly followed. So let’s jump.

It’s year 2026 and Chicago is moving forward. So, by all accounts, is America itself. The national mood has changed for the better. Cities and states are safer, happier and more productive places to live, work and raise a family in than they’ve been in decades. People and politicians everywhere are listening to each other. Government, astonishingly, is working again.

What happened? In a word, the “I Will” city — Chicago —used its media to reinvent itself as a “We Will” city. And other cities, and then America itself, followed suit, each in their own way. The nation had no choice. In the tumultuous election year of 2016, it finally became incontrovertible clear to Americans that the nation’s top-down, money-driven system of political discourse was leaving them voiceless in the political decisions that affect their lives, and doing so all levels of government, local, state and national. At a time when America needed to bring out the best in its people and its politics, this rigged system was bringing out the very worst.

Nowhere was this more evident than in Chicago and Illinois, which for years had been poster children for broken politics and broken government. Something had to give. And in Chicago, something finally did. By looking its multiple crises with fresh eyes, it created a problem-solving, citizen-participatory system of political discourse whose uncanny ability move the entire city forward towards solving seeming insolvable problems was quickly replicated nationwide. Almost overnight, this system produced a sea-change that moved Chicago from a problem-obsessed city to a solution-driven one.

In 2016, things looked bad in Chicago and Illinois. Government gridlock had caused bond ratings to plummet, borrowing costs to soar, key social agencies to go bankrupt and citizens to flee city and state alike. As the summer of 2016 wore on, Chicago’s chronic mood of helplessness intensified at the sight of street violence soaring to levels unseen in years. To follow media accounts of almost any issue in 2016 was to see continual replays of a single, overriding dead-end story: fresh reports of daily fights and shootings, woefully inadequate efforts to deal with them and, finally, the predictable blame game being played all around.

At length the question arose: “If Chicago had a new kind of media — one that actually succeeded in reducing violence and making government work again — what might it look like?”

In response, a former Chicago gang member’s request went viral. “Let the media show people building things up instead of tearing them down.”

Pondering the utility and profit potential of this constructive, outcome-oriented media, forward-looking city planners and members of Chicago’s media jumped at the chance to create it. Program by program and app by app, they assembled a multimedia, citizen-participatory media dedicated to making Chicagoans and City Hall responsive and accountable to each other in shaping Chicago’s best future via ongoing, dialogic searches for solutions to Chicago’s worst problems.

By 2018, Chicago had in place a rigorously non-partisan, outcome-oriented, prime time Civic Media. Financially self-sustaining, it held a mirror up to Chicago from the get-go in ways that confronted Chicagoans and their leaders with the city’s plight while at the same time enabling them to connect with each other as effective problem solvers.

Overnight a new story of Chicago politics began to compete with the old story of Chicago’s mayor and a handful of city leaders pointing fingers at each other. The new story showed Chicagoans and City Hall working to define and solve intractable problems with advisory, voter-driven solutions that were non-binding to City Hall.

Lest we forget.

Within two years, the I Will City felt more like a We Will City. Gun violence and gang membership were down. Police and communities were on the same page when it came to reducing neighborhood crime. Families felt stronger and better informed. Parents, students and teachers were reinvigorating Chicago’s beleaguered public schools. And feuding politicians in Chicago and Illinois were resolving their fiscal crises equitably and publicly. The end result? Among other things, bond ratings rose and Illinois saw an influx of new businesses.

Every one of these outcomes hinged on Civic Media’s carefully honed ability to foster trust between citizens and governments. This meant strict adherence to three key principles: transparency, responsiveness and accountability.

By 2020, Chicago’s turnaround was prompting cities and states nationwide to create their own problem-solving Civic Media. Americans from coast to coast now used these rule-governed public forums to define and solve intractable problems — and to discover and implement community-renewing opportunities.

By 2024, all Americans were electronically connected in all three communities — local, state and national — of which every citizen is a member. The nation’s network and cable media competed with each in developing dynamic, non-partisan, rule-governed Civic Media contests whose audiences and fan bases were as large and loyal as those of professional sports teams.

Americans now had access to two distinct yet interdependent voter-driven systems of political discourse, traditional and modern, that simultaneously competed and complemented each other. Americans could access both the nation’s two-party, election-centered, leader-electing political media and its non-party, issue-centered, solution-generating Civic Media.

Today, in 2026, dynamic Civic Media contests — some modeled on voter-driven reality TV shows like The Voice, others sports contests like the NCAA tournament — have given Americans a new sense of belonging and patriotism. Americans take pride in them and cherish their high standards of order, fairness and integrity. But most of all, they value their uncanny ability to generate — most of the time — solutions that work.

So who funds these prime time Civic Media programs, publications and productions? It’s a broad spectrum of public, private, and non-profit Civic Media funders that includes limited funding from corporations eager to tap the Market of the Whole of all members of a community.

America, in closing, is moving forward. Its dual, voter-driven system for electing leaders and for resolving issues is being replicated with success in democracies around the world. The cycle is now virtuous.

Basis of this piece in the history of city planning in Chicago. The intellectual, mental (and media-based) infrastructure proposed here — a new, citizen-participatory system of political discourse — uses the miracle of modern communications technologies to recapitulate on an appropriately grand scale the natural, physical (and architectural) infrastructure that Daniel Burnham gave Chicago in 1904. See this Post Script for details.