(October 10, 1998)

On-line On-Square
by Alessandro Giuliani

A computer terminal for every Italian city and town, where any citizen can use common software or log onto the Internet. All it takes is a renovated school or a disused museum. Some private companies are already ready to underwrite the project, but the government needs to step in, and better cables are required. October 8 a videoconference organized by Telematic Piazzas, an association, will present the plan

October 8 is a big date for the association "Telematic Piazzas for Development and Employment (http://www.piazzetelematiche.it)". It plans to hold a videoconference linking Rome, Frankfurt, Florence, Milan, Cosenza, and Oasi di Troina. The idea is to create a digital home for each of Italy's 8000 municipalities and help computer literacy, in order to increase Internet-related employment.

The basic idea is to install telematic stations in unused public buildings, such as schools and former museums and assembly halls, or in failed companies or those being restructured. This means that no new space is required, just the renovation of the most appropriate ones. The organizers haven't ignored the bureaucratic obstacles in getting approval and taking over unused spaces. Still, recycling public buildings is a good way to save money and a shortcut to achieve permanent computer training. This way, even those citizens furthest away from the new information technologies will be able to come into contact with mice, keyboards, and the Internet, at low cost or free.

The aim is to fall in line with European directives aimed at preparing the ground for technological development of acceptable services within the urban context. What's needed now is a big technological leap. At present, only the largest cities and a few pilot locations have the necessary cables in place to have a public civic network.

The issue of funding is even trickier, since no one knows for sure where it's going to come from. The Association claims that several partnerships, both public and private, are ready to support the project, through written agreements between local agencies and those who manage digital services. All these "actors" have good reason to participate in the initiative. Institutions, in particular, would, in promoting computer literacy, also be able to connect the principal centers of the country and most of its citizens (85% of Europe lives in cities). Private companies would benefit because of the low cost advertising reaching a vast audience. All they'd have to do is provide the equipment and software. For the first time, this would affect those strata of society which have hitherto been left out of the technological revolution.

In fact, building a national digital platform, according to Domenico Campana, head of the Piazze Telematiche newsletter, means "avoiding the gravest danger of inequality in telematic access. Here, rather than the Internet as a channel for democratic access, we're risking exclusion of the masses from computer literacy. Just as town schools once taught an agricultural society to read and write, these piazzas may work as schools for those on in years who will never go back to the classroom."

Another important role to be played by digital stations across Italy is that of collective socialization. "The telematic piazza," explains Campana, "should be understood not only as a space for virtual communication, but also as a chance for interpersonal exchange. Direct contact between those who meet in the piazza, to overcome that sense of loneliness and that need to speak face to face which anyone who telecommutes already knows well (link: www.mclink.it/telelavoro). In the center of town, the surfer is simultaneously involved both globally and locally, what that awkward "glocalness" expresses, adressing the world but keeping in mind one's own private place."

This is the aim of the Telematic Piazzas. Past experience is not encouraging, however. There are currently only two Italian civic Networks run by private companies and open to the public. One is in Naples, thanks to $6 million in EU funds. The second is in Colleferro, outside Rome, where the city hall in this industrial town paid $150,000 to fix up an abandoned school. A similar project is underway in Calabria, based on a territorial pact between the agricultural environment and the agroalimentary one. In each case the piazza was created to help working people, but the unemployed are finding uses for it as well.

These experiences don't add up to much, but it's too early to come to conclusions. "As long as the government devotes its resources to used-car buyback programs," complains Giuseppe Silvi, president of the association, "we can't be called a modern country in terms of innovation and research. The truth is that there are already all the technologies we need. All we need is a little organizational effort. But is anyone willing to put it in?" Maybe the conference will provide the answer.

Further information on the conference is available at the International Facilities Management Assocation at ifmait@tin.it or sending a fax to +39/02/76003919. The program is at www.piazzetelematiche.it/convegno98.

Translation by Jonathan Chaloff