Milan's mayor Giuseppe Sala, New York’s chief digital officer Sree Sreenivasan and Milan’s councilor of Digital Transformation Roberta Cocco.

MILAN — A digital bridge is now crossing the world and linking Milan to New York.

The two cities have signed a partnership agreement with the goal to exchange and mutually benefit from each others’ ideas and initiatives in the technology area. Milan’s councilor of digital transformation Roberta Cocco unveiled the collaboration this week as part of a wider program called “Roadmap to Milano Digitale” at the city’s Science and Technology Museum. Milan’s Mayor Giuseppe Sala and New York’s chief digital officer Sree Sreenivasan were also present at the event.

“Our roadmap to make Milan digital starts with this project we wanted to call Digital Bridge,” said Cocco. “[We asked ourselves] how Milan could become a real, international guiding light and a reference point for all of Italy, drawing inspiration from those that have already achieved what we are dreaming to do. So New York was the first,” she added.

In particular, New York will offer to Milan its experience in digital services aimed at citizens while Milan will detail its skills in cyber security, developed during the international Expo last year.

Cocco explained how she considers digital an enabler tool and not the final goal of what the municipality is trying to achieve. The plan she presented to digitally transform the city moves in two main directions. “There’s an internal plan where we will try to integrate and orchestrate all the digital infrastructures and an external plan, in which simplification is key. This means that we will try to harmonize all the procedures, make all the services and information available [to the audience], making it easier to be a citizen of Milan,” she explained.

Cocco also mentioned three main projects the municipality will work on. “First of all, there will be a wide process of reorganization to reach a real interoperability of the systems, which is at the core of all the things we want to do,” she said, explaining how they want to substitute the current 22 different portals to create one main digital platform gathering all the information a citizen needs.

Next on the agenda is the creation of a personal digital dossier, where “every citizen can access privately and in a safe and protected way to find all the interaction he has made with the city” in one place.

Digitization of the processes is the third main effort. “The goal is to create just one layer, one sample procedure that enables [the people] to get all the digital documents and simplify the interaction between different sectors,” Cocco said.

“Milan’s municipality needs to make some steps forward on digitization,” said Sala. “We have an excessive complexity on the inside and citizens demand a different way to dialog and access services,” he added.

Some innovators, entrepreneurs and digital experts of public administration and private companies have joined with Cocco and Sreenivasan to share ideas and help find better solutions for the city. From the discussion, a specific manifesto was compiled which “has helped us to overturn the relationship between institution and citizens, putting the people at the core of everything,” said Cocco. “So what we have imagined to be a digital manifesto became a manifesto for the rights of digital Milan.”

The document lists six major points: the digital rights to innovation, to access, to knowledge, to simplification, to inclusion and equity and to collaboration.

This recalls a format already compiled by New York’s municipality, called “NYC Digital Playbook.” Sreenivasan explained it is a list of 12 principles, which are at the core of every project they want to engage with, and includes tasks like putting people first, making things more transparent and mobile first, testing with the audience and going with what works already.

Sreenivasan, who was hired by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio to “make New York the most tech friendly, transparent and digitally equitable city in the world,” mentioned different public projects that have been implemented to help all the citizens have a better relationship with the government.

Among these, he illustrated a new program called LinkNYC, thanks to which all the city’s phone booths are being replaced by modern, 9-foot-tall kiosks offering WiFi, phone calls and chargers for smartphones or tablets. “The idea is to give some of the world’s fastest WiFi free on the city,” explained Sreenivasan. “We have now 450 kiosks and we will hit 10,000 in the next couple years,” he added, mentioning how the project is possible thanks to the partnership with Alphabet Inc., the parent of Google.

But WiFi is not enough, according to Sreenivasan. The city is developing a new priority program, named NYC Connected, to enhance the broadband coverage, since there are vast parts of the city which are underserved. “We want to get people access to broadband because today if you’re not on the Internet you have very little access to so many services,” he said.

Sreenivasan also talked about the social role digital plays. The city’s municipality is working with people with disabilities and with other impediments in accessing information and technology. For example, NYC Well has been created to offer 24/7 free mental health support in almost 200 languages. NYC Tech Talent Pipeline is yet another program that aims to add 50,000 jobs to the city’s 300,000 current employees in technology in the next few years. As part of the project, the Computer Science for All program has been created to start the training from kindergarten.

According to Sreenivasan, some challenges also involve the attitude people have towards technology, as he mentioned that only 35 percent of the American citizen above 65 years uses a smartphone. “Some of it has to do with money. We have a big digital divide, poor people living next to rich people, so how do we give them access?” he said, stressing how the rest is due also to a reluctant attitude toward the latest tech innovations. “I think this is an opportunity for changing not just technology but also attitudes and showing people the value of technology in their daily lives,” he said.

New York is planning to partner with other cities as well, including Amsterdam and London, while Milan is expected to build other digital bridges with Barcelona and Paris. This cooperative attitude may help in the regulation of another key element, according Sreenivasan, which are the start-ups.

“We want to attract start-ups in New York[…]and we think that the more they connect with each other around the world, the better they’re going to be. But the other part of my job is to think about the sharing economy and the gig economy,” he said, underscoring how the governments should have a say in how the start-ups do disruption and fit in some guiding principles, like fair pay for workers and fair treatment for consumers, in addition to safety and health precautions. “We, as the cities, cannot change every few minutes based on some new start-up coming up but we can work with them for a general framework,” he concluded.

In general, there’s another issue that has been repeatedly brought up to Sreenivasan during his trip. “I have only been here for two days and every Italian is always asking me just one thing: how did Donald Trump happen? Why did Donald Trump happen? What is wrong with you?’” he said, answering with a joke that he “would explain anything about Donald Trump if [Italians] explain to me the Referendum.”

On a serious note, he said that there’s no exact answer to the question at the moment but “we have to see what happens.” He also reported how the day after the election, de Blasio gathered 300 members of his team in New York City Hall to make sure everybody works even “harder and smarter and faster” to defend the multicultural city. “Our mayor has been very clear and active in what he believes, [which is that] cities are going to have a big role and be more important than ever, and that New York is going to defend its values no matter what happens in Washington,” Sreenivasan concluded.

load comments
blog comments powered by Disqus