To paraphrase an old catchphrase, we could say that the digital transformation of a country is nothing if we don’t counter the digital divide. We are talking about concepts that are relatively new to Italy, its institutions and its society. However, with the 21st century Twenties at our doorstep, nobody is allowed to ignore them, mostly because daily life itself requires more education on this topic.
Digital transformation in Italy has received a strong impetus with the creation, in 2016, of the Team per la Trasformazione Digitale (Digital Transformation), with manager Diego Piacentini at the helm for two years. With the advent of the second Conte government, innovation was made into a Ministry - led by minster Paola Pisano - and the team, which is now coordinated by Luca Attias, will work side by side with the new department.
Among the objectives is the technological conversion of the public administration, which in the last few years was provided with online and social tools, both for communication and carrying out customer care functions, thanks to the creation of the IO app . But the team’s approach doesn’t only aim to improve public services, but also to change the conditions of use and private access to the network: just think of the broadband plan or informational services for digital innovation.
And this is where the digital divide topic comes in, the gap between the single individuals or social groups (in this case within the country) in terms of access and conscious usage of online services.
A side effect of digital development that needs to be tackled as much as possible, as it could have some heavy negative effects on society.
Lets start with some data: according to the OECD, about 26% of people between 16 and 74 years old in Italy has never surfed the internet, compared to an average 14% in other countries in the organization. That’s 10 millioncitizens who do not use the internet.
To understand the consequences and find out which strategies are being deployed to reduce the digital divide, we need to start from the Digital Transformation team and its original special commissioner Luca Attias, who launched the Repubblica Digitale project. “Since 2006, the European Union - Attias explains - has identified eight key skills to properly live life as a European Citizen. They have been regularly updated, but the only one that never changes is digital competence. It is no small matter: it means that conscious use of the internet is a requisite to fully live as a citizen of the Union.
Contrary to what was happening year ago or what continues to happen in some parts fo the world, the cause for digital divide in Italy is only minimally attributable to an infrastructural problem. Of course there are some “white areas” where there is no internet or the connection is feeble - and on this Infratel (controlled by Mise) and Open Fiber (born from the joint effort of Enel and Cdp) are working - but these are not the true reasons for the divide.
Starting from schools. “If you don’t start from here you can’t hope to solve the issue - Attias says. We need to face the digital divide structurally, without relying on the single best practices that are all over Italy”. One way, for example, is to place suitable teachers and create appropriate courses: “We can’t think of an Italian or Maths teachers doubling as a digital skills teacher, it has to come from experts.”
We then have to educate people who are not in school anymore and who don’t use the internet. And here lay two paths: on one hand “voluntaristic” projects, in other words, trying to make people -especially the elderly - use certain services, on the other hand making filing certain types of paperwork online mandatory, perhaps gradually.
Today the digital divide is not so much an infrastructural problem as an educational one.
Attias looks favourably on a second strategy: “Lets take the case of electronic invoicing, that isn’t even a direct digital divide issue. It seemed that disaster was going to strike, but actually it was a positive cultural revolution. Sometimes we need to be a little heavy handed, take some disruptive” decisions. Without thinking of elderly people as of people who can never be taught digital innovation: “When I was at the Corte dei Conti (the Italian Court of Auditors) - the special commissioner remembers - we gave a few thousand decommissioned PCs to retirement homes. It was incredible how quickly they were learning how to use them, also because technology has some very useful everyday applications even for them, just think of the possibility of being able to talk to a doctor or to see a family member who lives far away.
In this scenario, Repubblica Digitale wants to contribute too: ‘We try to improve the digital services of the public administration, but at the same time we would also like to bring some of that 26% toGoogle Maps, for example.”
There are already around sixty projects deployed. One of these has seen the contribution of Tim, that has decided to invest various million euros to bring digital innovation to 107 areas of the country that have substandard use of internet. The company has decided to invest in this, with only a reputational benefit for itself, by touring Italy in RVs and reaching over 1 million people: “This type of operation, if successful, will have an enormous impact, that will be able to change our ranking”, Attias comments.
Another interesting project is made by the Trentino School of Management, which started a three-year training course to spread digital skills to the public administration staff in Trentino. But there are a lot of other involved parties: from Google to Facebook, to Intesa San Paolo and Linux.
Anyone starting a project each year will have to keep track of results, to do justice to the resources and energies that have been invested. On the other hand there is no alternative as, in Attias’ words, if we don’t break down the digital divide we will have to deal with serious problems. “A great number of unemployed will only find a job if they can use the digital world. We’re talking about data scientists, cloud architects, business intelligence, but most of all of hybrid jobs, those thousands of jobs that will be transformed due to the digital world”.
But employment is only one of the topics: “Another one is health. For an elderly person a smartphone can be life-saving, because it can monitor vitals and can allow them to communicate with family members and doctors”.