If a ranking of major data producers were to be drawn up, few would put cities at the top. Yet it is precisely cities which – with their administrative and procedural data on the one hand and those that are the result of the countless processes that need to be traced on the other (from environmental monitoring to waste control, from traffic flows to entries into ZTL areas, not to mention what is produced in schools, hospitals and public offices) – generate terabytes and terabytes of data. Data which, it should be said, almost never become information, and least of all knowledgeable or what Davenport already called in the 1980s “packaged useful knowing”: that is, intellectual capital. In a nutshell: a missed opportunity. However, in the era of big data, the hope for public administrators to recover this opportunity and actually succeed in extracting value from the data that cities produce, and often fail to provide as they could, exists. It is no coincidence that more and more people are talking about “Data Driven Governance”, that is, public governance based on the ability of cities’ technical and political administrators to make informed decisions based on the generation of significant data sets.
With a life spent between public and private sectors (he was Vice President of IBM Italia, ran two important in-houses such as CSI Piemonte and Insiel, and worked in the top ranks of numerous ANCI structures active in the informatization of Italian municipalities), Stefano De Capitani gave us his point of view about what it means for a local public administration to handle the complex but important challenge of digital transformation.
To start with the concept of Data Driven Governance: fantasy or reality in our country?
“When we work with local administrations, – begins De Capitani – we must always keep in mind that we work in complex conditions, both from the organizational as well as technological and regulatory point of view. So today it’s hard to say that when speaking about data driven governance models, we’re speaking about existing and operating realities, unless we want projects that are often not data driven governance to be seen as such. However, neither must we make the mistake of thinking that if it’s not a matter of reality, it’s fantasy. I’d rather speak about trend. In other words, local administrations have long understood the role and importance of the data they manage. On the other hand, managing them based on data driven governance models is not at all trivial: municipalities are equipping themselves to do so. There is a need for interoperability is between different systems (and often between different administrations), integration of databases produced over time and on systems for which it is difficult to guarantee coexistence, compliance with ever-changing regulations, and communication and collaboration between different entities. And to do all this takes time and resources. Time and resources that municipalities increasingly often and with ever greater conviction are trying to devote to these issues.“
However when talking about data, to say it the Facebook way, what exists between municipalities and data is a complicated relationship.
“Yes, that’s true, and in this also phenomena such as the great hype there has been around open date certainly has not helped. Much has been said about open data, their role, their importance, but this almost never – except for very few virtuous and cutting-edge administrations – really led to the development of projects that went far beyond the simple publication of datasets to create a true ecosystem based on data, as hoped for and as many have wished. This doesn’t help because the cultural dimension of administrations on the role of data has to be built, and this is certainly not a simple job. Sure, administrations are understanding the central role of this issue, and that can only be positive, and in this system projects like PON Metro have and will play a central role.“
But will PON Metro really manage to free municipalities from the conception for which digital funds can be used to build cycle lanes?
“There’s a lot to do, but the preparation of PON Metro, which explicitly recalls the service dimension operated through the implementation of digital logics, is definitely of great use. Again, the problem is cultural. What is lacking in administrations, and which PON Metro should have promoted strongly, is the concept of self-sustainability of services. From the perspective of the Smart City, some services should have their own business model so that they can be sustainable over time without cutting into the public budget. This obviously requires strategic vision on the one hand and planning capacity on the other, which – from the point of view of the integration of digital services into the city’s service offer – is often still lacking in Italy. Indeed, I believe that the self-sustainability of services is one of the main elements if we really want to see smart services realized and operating in our cities. Not by chance is it one of the main value propositions of Municipia: supporting local administrations in developing services that are self-sustaining over time, thanks to a model that allows the system to walk on its own legs without affecting the resources of the city, apart from in the startup phase. Otherwise, if the principle of self-sustainability of projects is missing, the principle of sustainability of the Smart City as a whole is missing.”
But how can this approach be reconciled with design logics, often based on long, cumbersome and complex tendering?
“This is also a matter of great importance, and here at least two considerations come to mind: the first is that today there are much more flexible tools available in the Project Financing field, such as procurement for innovation or pre-commercial procurement. They are formulas that better match the characteristics of the digital projects that our cities need, because they give great flexibility to the administration. Municipalities often struggle to adopt such tools, but here too awareness-raising work is required because their adoption is a real advantage for municipalities. The second consideration concerns the choice of suppliers and partners. If you choose a partner, definition of the partner cannot be just formal. A partner is someone who takes part in the risk, otherwise they’re a supplier. So – besides the obvious but not to be taken for granted need to choose technically valid and reliable partners – it is important that for its digitization projects the municipality chooses players who on the one hand have the financial strength able to handle the inevitable complexities they encounter by working with the Public Administration and, on the other, are able to develop projects that are not only technically valid, but – as we said before – also designed to ensure their self-sustainability over time.“
In short, the challenge for innovation in the PA is not simple, because it does not concern just technologies.
“No, it’s not just about technology, but I want to stress how I increasingly don’t like to talk about innovation, because the term has now been inflated and is now viewed with suspicion in the public administration. We’ve been talking about innovation for years and we’re not doing it. The real problem today is not so much innovation, but supporting municipalities in their complex and delicate daily work. For this, digital is a valuable tool. Flanking the PA means providing digital solutions that are designed with knowledge of their problems and needs, and not wanting to provide technological solutions to problems that the vendor often does not even understand. Digital transformation of the PA is based on deep understanding of the problems of public administrations and interpretation of their role for interlocutors: whether these are citizens or businesses.“