While years of investment in digital infrastructure and skills have helped the City of Milan rapidly respond to COVID-19, the pandemic has also highlighted important gaps that must be closed for the future, Roberta Cocco, Deputy Mayor for Digital Transformation told Cities Today.
Milan is the capital of the Lombardy region that was the centre of the European outbreak earlier this year. Now, the city is beginning to look to economic recovery and what it can learn from the crisis so far.
“After six months of managing the situation, we are more prepared to understand which are the toughest areas to keep under control and how we can work with all the stakeholders in the city to manage the most difficult situations,” Cocco said. “We are in a period of trying to understand how we can recover from this terrible situation that we had to face.”
In July 2016, Milan adopted an integrated Digital Transformation Plan based on four pillars: infrastructure, services, digital education and digital skills. This foundational work put the city on a good footing as COVID-19 took hold, people were ordered to stay at home and schools and businesses were closed.
Cocco says, for example, that Milan found it relatively easy to shift over 7,000 municipal employees to working from home, ensuring services were not disrupted.
The Digital Citizen Folder is also a key example of digital transformation efforts paying off. Developed to help residents manage municipal services, pay bills and apply for licences online, the ‘digital wallet’ is a private, secure digital repository which acts as a single point of access for documents, information and data. In 2019, the service was accessed more than 2 million times and provided 67 percent of citizens’ certificates. This uptake meant that services were not interrupted and fewer people needed to physically travel to council offices during the lockdown, although they remained open.
Cocco’s team has a mantra of ‘mobile-first, one click’ and amid the pandemic, they quickly made the Digital Citizen Folder available as an app, allowing residents to access it directly from their mobile phones.
“The slogan is a reminder to us that we have to simplify, simplify, simplify,” Cocco said.
Another example of keeping it simple was the launch of a WhatsApp chatbot with Facebook, which answers citizens’ common questions instantly.
“The value of these digital examples is that we do not have to be too complicated,” Cocco commented. “WhatsApp is something that most people know and can use so this is the right way to reach a population.”
While the two technology pillars cover connectivity, Wi-Fi, cloud computing and digitalisation of citizen services, the other two culture pillars are just as important, Cocco said.
“It was clear that we couldn’t boost innovation without being sure that every single citizen could be able to use the new technology. Together with private partners and other public entities, we began a large project of digital education,” she commented.
For example, Samsung provided more than 100 telephone operators for Milan’s call centre, which during the height of the pandemic was receiving up to ten times the usual number of calls. The Samsung team specialised in helping older people and citizens who needed support with using digital services.
Milan also worked with technology consultancy firm BIP which created simple training videos on topics such as securing digital devices, creating strong passwords, navigating the internet safely and downloading documents.
For young people, Milan ran this year’s #STEMintheCity programme online throughout April with over 50 public and private sector partners, reaching 15,000 students. The initiative aims to promote STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education and careers to young people, with a particular focus on girls. It included courses, training, debate and technical sessions for young people from primary school up to university age.
“It’s very important to share the value, especially for youth, of having digital skills in order to be able to get a better job and to have a good career even in a tough economic situation,” said Cocco.
Reflecting on Milan’s COVID-19 response, Cocco said: “We wouldn’t have been able to react in such a short time without using digital technology as a lever and an enabler for reaching people. This was made possible by strong technological infrastructure.”
However, as has been the case elsewhere in the world, the pandemic has also exposed some weaknesses in Milan’s digital infrastructure. While Italy’s digital divide is well documented, Cocco said the city was still taken aback at the severity of some of Milan’s connectivity issues.
“During the pandemic, we discovered there are some areas in Milan that had no connectivity at all, and there are a lot of people who maybe only have one device in a family – just one mobile phone for the parents to work and the kids to be connected with their school.” Others had weak broadband which was inadequate for their needs.
“We were totally shocked about that and this is definitely the most important weakness that we have to face now,” she said, adding: “If you think of the period of the lockdown, people could only connect online, not only for work and education but also for personal relationships if you do not have connectivity, you are really alone.”
In the short-term, Lenovo provided over 200 devices and handsets for families with children who were most in need but Cocco said her team is working with telcos and others in the private sector to improve connectivity more broadly.
“Nobody knows what will happen in the fall,” Cocco said. “But we are all a little bit more prepared. I hope that we can lever what we learned about the users of technology and these new ways of working, studying and having relationships with people, and that this might be a milestone for the future.”
Further enhancements to digital infrastructure will be part of the ‘Master Plan 2030’ which Milan is working towards. It also includes reallocating street space to promote cycling, walking and micromobility and increasing adoption of low-carbon technologies.
“We know that the city won’t be the same after COVID-19,” Cocco said.