A provocative idea? In Italy, Habitat III stakeholders discuss the ‘city as a service’

The Urban Thinkers Campus in Sicily brings together more than 500 urbanists, city leaders and innovators.

Public art hangs outside the Palermo Zisa, a 12-century castle constructed by Arab craftsmen for King William I of Sicily. (Simone d'Antonio)

PALERMO, ITALY — In Italy, the lack of public services is often seen as a brake to the growth of the country’s most undeveloped regions. As such, bringing together urbanists, city leaders and innovators to discuss the “city as a service” could be seen as something of a provocation.

Nevertheless, during a recent Urban Thinkers Campus held here, the Sicilian city showed how the vibrant projects and ideas of its young professionals are contributing to make Italian urban areas, and the entire country, better places to live.

[See: Update: 28 Urban Thinkers Campuses announced]

Most of the 500 participants who took part in the campus — one of more than two dozen scheduled in coming months to offer broad public input into Habitat III, next year’s major summit on urbanization — were under 35 years old. This is taken as a sign of hope in Sicily, an insular region where the youth unemployment rate is over 60 per cent. Much of the event was taken up with initiatives and projects by young innovators, often born in Sicily and who have returned to their motherland after years of study and work abroad.

The wide range of challenges that Palermo faces is similar to the situation in many medium-sized cities around the world. Many of these are affected by chronic inefficiency of the public sector, endemic corruption, and poor links among public authorities, the private sector and the innovation community.

The key message that emerged from the Urban Thinkers Campus discussions was the need to see the formulation of efficient, digital service design as an opportunity to fill the gap between developed and deprived regions, as well as to create jobs and restore growth in times of crisis.

[See: Digital vs. analogue at Habitat III meeting on civic engagement]

City as lab

Using the city as a platform on which to test innovation, and putting residents at the core of this process, constituted a key point of interest for the campus’s international participants.

“The key message that emerged was on the need to see the formulation of efficient, digital service design as an opportunity to fill the gap between developed and deprived regions, as well as to create jobs and restore growth in times of crisis.”

Some compared Palermo’s projects and approach to their own programming back home. For instance, Ivonne Jansen-Dings, from Waag Society, noted that her Dutch organization is working to foster an increasingly active role for public authorities — such as the city of Amsterdam — to drive local innovation.

A similar effort is taking place in Palermo, except from the bottom up. Here, various projects and applications are seeking to combine innovation in ways that can assist marginalized groups, increase efficiency or bolster sustainability.

[See: Cities must be part of defining the New Urban Agenda]

Last Minute Sotto Casa, for instance, is a social marketing app that connects clients and retailers with the aim of reducing food waste. Over 1,000 people in Palermo, and thousands more at the national level, are using this digital platform to receive alerts each time a registered shop nearby has special offers or discounted prices on food that is about to expire.

After a period of start-up incubation in Turin, Italy, the co-founder of the platform, Stefano La Barbera, decided to come back to his native Palermo. “I want to be part of an historical moment,” he said, “where corruptive logic doesn’t exist any longer and new human potential is needed to restore the city.”

A similar enthusiasm imbues Claudia Rizzo, the co-founder of Orto Capovolto, an urban agricultural cooperative that involves children and individuals with disabilities in the cultivation of “edible landscapes”. In deprived neighbourhoods, the Incredible Edible project is a way “to make Palermo’s potential closer to European experiences, in order to get better services through a solid network at the local and global levels,” Rizzo said.

Many of these projects have been funded by national and European entities calling for social innovations “addressed directly to residents, with efficient solutions that overcome the traditional relations between public authority and stakeholders,” said Toti Di Dio, managing director at PUSH, a nonprofit “innovation lab” in Palermo that co-organized the Urban Thinkers Campus.

In 2013, PUSH launched TrafficO2, an app offering small prizes for positive actions by residents around urban mobility. Combining social computing with smart mobility, the app was tested by 2,000 local university students who took part in challenges aimed at fostering the use of bikes and public transport instead of private vehicles.

“Even though the social fabric able to attract talent to Palermo is still missing, we tried to collaborate on some simple solutions to problems that are common to other places in the world, such as Indian cities, where the presence of informal economies is an obstacle to local growth,” Di Dio said. “We showed that working together is possible to face problems in a completely different way than in the past.”

[See: Informal economy offers opportunity, not just survival, Indian Habitat III sessions urge]

Boomerangs and migrants

The three-day Urban Thinkers Campus, which ran 8-10 October, helped to place Palermo on the map of global actors in the run-up to Habitat III. In so doing, it also succeeded in moving  forward the international ambitions of Mayor Leoluca Orlando, who has led the city almost continuously for the past three decades.

As co-chair of the Safer Cities initiative launched by UN-Habitat, Orlando aims to bring international attention to Palermo’s innovative projects. These include an ambitious sustainable mobility plan that will increase car- and bike-sharing services in coming months.

[See: Toward a global action plan for public space]

Innovative service-design projects — such as the collective blog on urban mobility, Mobilita Palermo, and the previously mentioned TrafficO2 — are just some examples of the extent to which young people are supporting urban priorities through innovation in Palermo. Of course, that doesn’t mean cooperation with the local authorities is easy.

“Leave Palermo for a while and come back as soon as possible” Orlando urged young local innovators. He called such individuals “boomerangs” who can bring back to Sicily ideas and visions collected in Europe and beyond to solve some of the most urgent issues faced by Palermo — an urban context that the mayor called “a Middle Eastern city placed in Europe”.

What are some of the most pressing concerns that can be solved through effective service design? The mayor points to the inclusion of migrants, urban mobility and employment. “The city has to be meant not only as a service but also as a community of human beings,” Orlando said.

[See: ‘Obliged to cooperate’: What Hong Kong’s experience offers Habitat III]

Indeed, these are lessons drawn directly from Palermo’s recent history. Here, the decline of organized crime has coincided with the arrival of thousands of migrants and refugees, which are making the city increasingly intercultural and interconnected with the rest of the world. “We need to thank them for the contribution that they are giving to the city,” Orlando said.

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Simone d'Antonio

Simone is a Rome-based journalist who covers innovation, sustainability and urban issues.