The Art of ComEd’s Community of the Future

Commonwealth Edison (ComEd) is a company with a long-standing history of scientific innovation that traces its roots back to Thomas Edison and the lightbulb. But as one of the nation’s leading electric utilities, serving over four million customers in northern Illinois, ComEd is not only continuing a tradition of innovation by developing and deploying the most cutting-edge energy technology; it also pushes the envelope when it comes to transformative, educative, and community-centered art.

Since 2016, ComEd has been partnering with the Bronzeville neighborhood to create one of the greenest, most connected, most resilient communities in the nation, redefining the role of the urban utility and transforming lives in the process. ComEd’s Community of Future is a “smart community,” that leverages innovative technologies, like microgrids, to enhance the lives of everyday people. ComEd’s identification of microgrids as a crucial technology for increasing the resilience and sustainability of the electric grid was the genesis of Community of the Future.

Bronzeville emerged as the ideal location for the nation’s first utility-operated microgrid, Bronzeville Community Microgrid (BCM), and the heart of Community of the Future. The presence of critical public institutions housed in Bronzeville, like the Chicago Public Safety Headquarters, weighed heavily in the decision to select Bronzeville as home for the microgrid and the surrounding Community of the Future. But beyond the metric selection that would allow ComEd to fully demonstrate resiliency through the BCM, Bronzeville also offered the opportunity for ComEd to build on a tradition of thought leadership within the community

Over the past year, ComEd developed an augmented reality mural and a student film festival, both designed to shine a light on the neighborhood of Bronzeville, its foundational past, and its innovative, resilient future. The Bronzeville neighborhood, just south of Chicago’s central business district, has long been an epicenter of African American culture, art, and business, and was home to highly renowned figures throughout history such as poet Gwendolyn Brooks, musician Louis Armstrong, and civil rights leader Ida B. Wells. Today, Bronzeville is poised to become a leading community in clean energy and smart city innovations through ComEd’s Community of the Future programs.

Rivalling New York City’s Harlem as the pulse of African American culture, Bronzeville’s seven-mile strip from 35th and State Street to 47th and South Parkway Boulevard led the country in art and music from the roaring 1920s until the late 1950s. The Regal Theater, which opened in the 1920s, was a hub for glamorous, talented entertainers.

Building on that history, ComEd began development of the first Bronzeville Film Festival in 2019, a student film festival that offers young artistic filmmakers the opportunity to submit 15-minute films for a scholarship competition, competing for the chance to win $5,000 and sponsorship to the Cannes Corporate Media and TV Festival in France. The theme of this project encourages young high school and college students connected to the Bronzeville community to leverage the neighborhood’s unique history to meet emerging challenges. Short documentary films were made by students on the theme, “Community of the Past; Community of the Future.” Students were asked to consider the history of Bronzeville juxtaposed with its future, recognizing that the road toward progress isn’t a straight line, and that we as a culture haven’t reached an ultimate destination. Films focused a lens on a path littered with obstacles, hardships, and even setbacks, but with an overall theme that asserts by studying and celebrating the accomplishments of the past, we have the opportunity to commit toward future progress. Two winning projects, from a high school track and a college track, will be selected this year.

It’s no coincidence that the Bronzeville Film Festival was targeted toward high school students. A major component of Community of the Future includes leveraging the impact of smart technologies through educational programs and engaging local stakeholders to ensure optimal benefit for each project. Innovating within the fertile cultural ground of Bronzeville, ComEd is also partnering with artists and local institutions such as climate focused non-profit Before It’s Too Late, local design school Little Black Pearl, and historic Gallery Guichard to develop an artistic mural in Bronzeville. Advanced technology, art, and community engagement are converging to create the Bronzeville Augmented Reality Renaissance Mural. Utilizing AR to provide STEM opportunities, highlight decarbonization, and promote electrification efforts in Bronzeville, this mural will serve as a model for stakeholder engagement and the visualization of smart, connected, resilient, and sustainable communities.

From a scientific perspective, public art like the Bronzeville Film Festival and the Augmented Reality Renaissance Mural also works to improve public health. The public health benefits of art are numerous, but we will highlight three mechanisms here. First, public art improves and expands access to art, which has individual-level psychological benefits. Second, public art can increase physical activity by creating a destination accessible by walking and improving perceptions of personal safety. By encouraging community members to engage in physical activity, and increasing physical activity among active individuals, public art can reduce the population-level risk for chronic diseases. The third mechanism, which is bi-directional in nature, is improved population-level health via economic development. Beautification of business districts, and increased foot traffic to businesses as a result, can lead to better economic performance. Economic development can boost the health of individual residents by improving economic determinants of health like employment, health insurance coverage, and household income. Economic development can also lead to improved availability and quality of health resources in a community. A healthy community, in turn, boosts economic development.

It’s through art that we experience deeper meaning of life, which is why ComEd’s Community of the Future initiative is focused on improving lives and finding ways to appreciate and honor the vibrant history of Bronzeville. Art also has the power to convey powerful messages, to function as a platform for raising awareness and informing the public. Both Bronzeville Film Festival and the Augmented Reality Renaissance Mural serve this purpose, functioning as educational tools for raising awareness about climate change and providing the public with the information they need about what emerging energy technologies can do to impact the impact of this global crisis.

History shapes who we are today. The past contributions of Bronzeville citizens rippled beyond the community to help shape the nation, and ComEd’s goal is to enable Bronzeville to continue to have lasting impact.

By: Emily Kean, A Manager of Smart Grid Programs at Commonwealth Edison (ComEd), Chicago and Leila Mouri, A Senior Business Analyst at Commonwealth Edison (ComEd) in Smart Grid Programs.

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