Italy has recently joined other European countries that have named a so-called “digital champion“.
The individual chosen for this task is Riccardo Luna, a former sport journalist who has a sharp interest in anything digital and previously headed the Italian version of the Wired magazine. Unlike others in his role, he has immediately called for one digital champion per town to be named (there are over 8,000 towns in Italy). This was based on the recognition that this was the only way to address the peculiarities of very different parts of the country. In an event held in Rome last week, the first hundred digital champions were named. This is a very diverse crowd, including some old-timers who have been around previous incarnation of e-government programs, all the way to some minors (as young as 13-year old), which some have seen as just a marketing move.
All digital champions – including Luna – are not paid and have no budget. This can be seen as both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because in previous times the availability of money through national or European programs has led to a dispersion and waste of resources, often consumed by (or under the auspices of) an army of self-appointed experts and various consulting outfits: having no budget means that people who do this join will do so because they have a genuine passion. A curse because this may lead some of them to pursue the research of funding sources sooner rather than later.
As usual in the country, this appointment and the subsequent events have polarized opinions between those who believe this is going to be a game changer and those who criticize the choices and some lack of transparency in how things have been handled so far.
I believe that the very role of digital champion is not what the country (and Europe as a whole) need right now. Or, better, the challenge is not to evangelize and sing the praises of everything digital, but to understand how digital can help overcome those very issues it has created. With youth unemployment heading toward a staggering 50%, continued recession and now deflation, Italy is a poster child of a country that has been somewhat victimized by digital technology. Plagued by infrastructural issues, weak political support for technology investments and the inability or unwillingness to group and share resources and best practices across cities (due to historical competition among them), Italy keeps slipping behind in terms of GDP, income per capita, IP creation and practically any other indicator that measures the wealth of a country.
This is why the role of a digital champion as it has been conceived by the EU years ago is no longer current. The challenge is to both understand the structural and sustained disruption caused by digital technologies to economy and society and to devise how they can help face such disruption and change the course. This requires to analyze loads of data to identify trends and patterns that would tell policy-makers what industry sectors can be salvaged and transformed, which cannot, and which new industries can emerge. It requires to take a hard look at how to transform primary, secondary and tertiary education to prepare new generations to a world that is very different from the one we grew up in. It requires to rethink the way government is organized, looking for massive aggregation of local authorities in the same way countries like Denmark did it years ago, and rebalancing of responsibilities across government tiers.
Digital needs to be taken far more seriously or its champions will be nothing else than the band playing on the deck of a sinking Titanic.