Italy has been on lockdown since 9th March as the government grapples with the persistent spread of Covid-19. During this time, we have experienced a rapid transformation of our systems of support. Social media, expansive transport systems and the constant march of globalisation have encouraged us to look ever further afield for our relationships. Friends, colleagues, family – we were able to build networks indifferent to geography. Life under lockdown has shown us, however, that these networks alone cannot provide the support we need in a crisis. Instead, we have relied on our neighbours, local businesses and communities to keep us going.
For a long time, many of us have been satisfied to be outsiders in our own communities. We might say hello to our neighbours or visit the local shops, but we had very little to do with the way our local community was designed, organised or improved. Now that the Italian government demands we become insiders again, we realise that the structures supporting community life need to be revitalised. While many have shown considerable resourcefulness in outreach to neighbours and hasty development of local initiatives, the crisis has demonstrated a severe need to invest more effectively in our communities in order to be effective in crises like the one we are living now. Considerable action is needed so we can build resilience for the coming decades.
The importance of local coordination has been clearly illustrated by our ad hoc attempts to organise during the crisis. Like many other parts of the world, we have seen groups popping up online and in-person offering to buy groceries for the elderly and at-risk individuals. In the towns and villages around Turin, local shops and market stall owners have united to promote nascent delivery services. Without the means to reach local people remotely, they have resorted to printing posters with a list of business phone numbers and plastered these around town.
The City Resilience Index (CRI), developed by Arup and supported by The Rockefeller Foundation, is globally recognised for its study of how individuals, communities and systems adapt, survive, and grow in the face of stress and shocks, has long respected the role these local examples of resourcefulness can play in a community’s long-term resilience. It points out that the ability of communities to “rapidly find different ways to achieve their goals or meet their needs during a shock… [is] instrumental to a city’s ability to restore the functionality of critical systems, potentially under severely constrained conditions”. For the CRI, however, resourcefulness is about much more than ad hoc action – it means “investing in capacity to anticipate future conditions, set priorities and respond”. This kind of investment was missing before the restrictive measures were put in place. The current crisis is showing us exactly where work is needed.
We must begin by making inclusivity a fundamental principle of the way we structure and govern our communities. As the CRI notes, “addressing the shocks and stresses faced by one sector, location or community in isolation to others is an anathema to the notion of resilience”. On this point, the attempts of the Italian Ministry of Education, University and Research (MIUR) to set up remote schooling proves illustrative.
While our remote teaching systems began as an online service, this quickly caused issues for households with limited bandwidth or just one computer for multiple children. Conference call systems were enabled to reach out to more than 250 participants, and live streaming lessons could be followed by up to 100,000 users simultaneously, but this solution was not inclusive enough. Instead, a ‘lower-tech’ but more inclusive system has been rolled out, in which parents are sent presentations and lesson plans and can teach their children at a time that suits them. This simple idea has prevented children from being excluded from essential education but is hardly an optimal solution.
If we want to rapidly build solutions that can serve all local people in the case of a crisis, we need to re-engineer our communities to be inclusive by design. This means developing systems that bring local people into the decision-making process. Whoever is responsible for managing a community – be it private developer or local council – should invest in communication platforms that allow citizens to coordinate with local businesses and government departments, giving them an opportunity to co-create solutions for governing where they live. What’s more, these platforms should empower local people to organise and build their own community initiatives, increasing their capacity for resourcefulness when issues arise that require deep local knowledge for solutions.
At a local level, community managers for Planet Smart City in Italy have found this inclusive approach to community governance an effective platform through which to enhance local activity. Where small businesses have begun offering home-delivery in the company’s neighbourhoods near Milan, a community message board, facilitated through the Planet App made available to all local people, has proved invaluable in promoting and coordinating services. More than just a means to contact customers, the app is also providing a communication channel with the community managers, who are able to connect local businesses with other people in the area to help deliver the service, such as van owners who may be able to loan their vehicles.
A similar model is helping to support local food banks. The community managers use both their physical and digital presence to collect information on local needs and supply that data to the food banks to allow better targeting of resources. What’s more, uniting real estate developers and citizens in the process of co-creation is helping identify future solutions. To enhance the ability of small businesses to provide delivery services, for example, Planet is now exploring the idea of community cool lockers, which would allow local vendors to fulfil orders even when recipients are away.
In Italy, the UK, US and around the world, the scramble to find local solutions in the face of Covid-19 has demonstrated in stark terms the need to retool our approach to community building. Our experience has shown us that top-down crisis response can swing from overly draconian to woefully fragmented – neither of which provide optimally for the needs of local people. Instead, we should be laying the foundations for a model of inclusive decision making – one that engages communities and empowers them to develop solutions tailored to their needs.
To learn from this emergency, it is crucial to collect data so we can prepare for the future. In this direction, I praise the effort of the National Research Council in Italy who has launched an online survey to detect social changes in place, entitled “MSA-COVID19” (“Social Changes in Act-COVID19”). While we wait for the results, we should be providing local people with tools for organisation and collective action in the knowledge that, when crises hit, it is communities on the front line. The current crisis has reminded us just how dependent we are on our neighbours – we must not forget them when it is over.
Chief Research & Urban Planning Officer