Digitalisation of services and measures for migrant integration: Are the inner areas losers or winners?
By Irene Ponzo (FIERI)
How can digitalisation help inner areas to improve integration services and initiatives? This was one of the key questions addressed during the three-day training (22-23 September 2021) co-organised in Turin (Italy) by Welcoming Spaces and the AMIF-funded national-based project “CapacityMetro Italia”. The aim was to identify common challenges and solutions and support inner areas in catching the opportunities offered by the Next Generation Fund to improve integration opportunities.
During the first day participants worked in sub-groups to identify common challenges, in the second day experts and inspiring local experiences provided food for thoughts, while the final day was aimed at exploring possible common solutions through the drafting of fictional projects.
Potentials of digitalisation emerged as substantial for inner areas. Since services require a critical mass of potential beneficiaries to be economically and politically sustainable, in smaller municipalities they are either physically distant or provided on part-time basis (even only once a week) and accessing them may be problematic. These hurdles could be partially overcome with the development of online services. Yet, we can’t sell the fur before killing the bear.
Participants pointed out how so far in Italy digitalisation of services has been a process promoted by the central government and limited to nation-wide services while it is not even an issue of debate in the vast majority of inner areas. This brings about the risk of a top-down digitalisation of services with a little attention for the specific necessities of local communities and a consequent mismatch between actual needs and proposed solutions. Hence, a diversity-sensitive mapping of needs and demands should be the first step of service digitalisation. To underevaluate the implications of digitalisation for services’ internal organisation is another likely risk: if workload could decline on some tasks, it may increase on others so that a revision of tasks, competences and ways of working is necessary. An example brought during the training was that of the Italian App to track Covid-19 contagion, “Immuni”, which miserably failed since the it was developed without considering that the already overwhelmed local health services, not properly enhanced, would be unable to carry out the additional task of inserting the infected people’s data into the Immuni database. Furthermore, we have to consider that small organisations and services of inner areas may not have the human resources to plan and implement the necessary internal reorganisation.
Concerning the individual level, the lack of digital devices and skills appears as a problem shared by both service employees and service users, especially elderly people and migrants. Language is another hurdle: on one hand, people with a migrant background may have a poor knowledge of the Italian language which further hampers the understanding of online instructions; on the other hand, services tend to use a bureaucratic language unsuitable for online communication.
Another critical factor is the underdevelopment of support services. The possibility to have face-to-face support is particularly important for recently arrived and/or marginalised migrants to make up for the lower knowledge of the context and the possible misreading of situations due to cultural differences.
Solutions identified by the participants in our training event are diverse, among which: “digital mediators” that could bridge either digital gaps or cultural gaps; a mixed approach to digitalisation with info points scattered over the territory providing device-sharing options and support to access digital services; the systematic inclusion of digital components in adult education and vocational training.
Finally, the drafting of a fictional project for people with health problems, including asylum seekers, highlighted how online communities of users could complement the provision of digital services to connect medical staff and patients living in inner areas where health units are scarce. Rather than rating service quality, user communities may allow their members to increase awareness and acceptance of health problems (especially across different “health cultures”), share difficulties and offer mutual support in a community-welfare perspective.
To conclude, according to the stakeholders convened in Torino, depending on concrete measures adopted, digitalisation can either reduce or widen inequalities in service access between large cities and small municipalities. Risks of a negative outcome are high and cannot be neglected. Many Italian inner areas are not yet equipped to catch the train of the Next Generation EU Fund and risk to be on the losing side of top-down digitalisation processes. Hence, it would be crucial to conceive digitalisation as a social rather than a mere technical process and foster participatory planning where inhabitants of inner areas, including newcomers, may have a voice and develop tailored solutions where needed.