On 19 September, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi appointed me as “Digital Champion”, advisor for the digital economy. I was of course delighted – but when it was made official, my first thought was: “What do I do now? How do I get every Italian digital"?
I was already familiar with the role. Originally, the EU Commission called for member states to appoint Digital Champions – because (as Neelie Kroes put it) the digital world should be supported by “fighters, not bureaucrats”. And I had followed the successes of Digital Champions in other countries with growing interest.
I was particularly taken by one idea by Martha Lane Fox, UK Digital Champion: "Go On UK!", to help UK citizens lead Europe in digital skills.
It has been an inspiration for me. I launched ‘Go On Italia!’ at the annual assembly of the Italian digital industry confederation. Joining me was Debora Serracchiani, President of the Region of Friuli Venezia Giulia, who was also willing to play her part. As in the UK, the response from businesses was immediate and positive, so we quickly raised the funds for the first project. On ‘DDay’—‘Digital Day’— we "occupied" the region with dozens of digital literacy events, from schools to factories, from retirement homes to small businesses. Meanwhile, public bodies were helping us push forward projects that had been languishing for some time (quite literally: at one point we found hundreds of routers sealed and abandoned in a warehouse). Friuli Venezia Giulia launched an Open Data portal. And the number of WiFi hotspots doubled. DDay, 5 May, saw 112 events on a single day. This was highly visible, and festive: the long wave of digital courses lasted many weeks.
Elsewhere, in Basilicata, a similar event offered 148 events: with ultra-fast broadband brought to two major cities, fast broadband to 54 smaller towns, and a new online Open Data portal with over 200 datasets. Basilicata ended up trending on Twitter: a rare feat for that part of Italy.
In light of these two tests, then, it is clear that the “Go On!” format works: an accelerated programme to get a community and its administrators online, up and running. That showed me that grassroots, local action can make a difference.
In a sense, I have always been a Digital Champion. But my nomination increased my responsibilities and expectations. What more could I do? To “get every Italian digital” is a colossal challenge.
A few weeks ago, the total global population on the Internet reached 3 billion. So what, I asked myself, is the situation in Italy? In fact, Italy lags far behind the rest of Europe: 40% of Italians have never used the Internet. And the annual growth rate of internet users is just 2%: the same as digitally advanced Germany, where 86% of citizens are online. With about 800,000 coming online each year, it would take 30 years, until 2044, to get the remaining 24 million Italians online!
Can we afford to wait that long? I don't think so. And what's more: if we don’t “aim for the moon” with a collective national effort, we won’t even get there by 2044. Our economy won’t make it; our four million small businesses will be unable to compete; the bureaucratic machine will not become more efficient and transparent; Italians will not be able to create jobs.
So what’s to be done? How can a Digital Champion—I won’t say ‘change the world’— but how can one person help get Italy on the right path? Alone, it’s impossible. And not just because the role is honorary: no pay, no budget, no staff. If the role is just about attending the occasional roundtable and pontificating on what would be nice to have, then the real risk is that it will have zero impact. But, aside from King Arthur and his Knights, round tables never changed the world; at best, they’ve only created jobs for carpenters. Brussels was saying: “less talk, more action”: but how?
This is when the idea came from: for a network of digital activists, working together with the Digital Champion. Local champions in each village, town and city. Doing three things:
1. Work with public bodies to answer digital "Frequently Asked Questions". How to create an open data portal? How to improve transparency online? How to make WiFi easier to use; and evaluate its use?
2. Defend the digital rights of every citizen. Including their right to fast broadband and WiFi.
3. Promote digital training door-to-door, from ‘CoderDojos’ for children, to lessons for older citizens.
I can tell you exactly when I first launched the idea for 8000 Digital Champions: in San Francisco, in a Twitter chat, on 23 September. Reactions were instant and positive: just over one month later at the Genoa Science Festival, we made it real, and launched our digital champions website. Every day we saw hundreds of nominations on that website – and hundreds of powerful, beautiful stories that made a deep impression on me. In my work I have travelled the length and breadth of Italy, and met champions of innovation everywhere I go: people of all ages and huge talent, social innovators making themselves available to their own communities every day.
But now I see more than a few isolated cases: I see a movement. And I see a glimpse of another country: alive, passionate, optimistic, building its own future. A country that is no less real for being off the media’s radar.
I was clear to all those Digital Champions: I did not invent them, or create their passion. I did not invent their weekends spent creating start-ups, or their Sunday hackathons developing apps for the disabled. I did not invent their emotions when they see a child who designing his first videogame at a CoderDojo.
This Italy was already there. It was not waiting for anything, or anyone, to change the world. But give these people official recognition, and a forum to talk about what is happening in their own communities: and they become a truly effective network for change, from the bottom up. We have already nominated 100 of them, with more to be named very soon, and the goal of one for each town by early next year. Some as young as 13!
I have an image in mind when I think of local Digital Champions: Manzi the teacher. In the 1960s, for eight years, Alberto Manzi appeared on TV every dinnertime with his programme, “It is Never Too Late”, to teach Italians to read and write. It may seem a paradox: Italy in the 60s was a booming country, why was such a programme needed? But it was: and such TV lessons may have helped over a million people gain elementary school graduation, become full citizens able to exercise their rights and duties, and participate in building a better country.
Today this same cultural gap is before us: but it isn’t about reading and writing, but digital literacy. And it affects us all. This is why I see local Digital Champions as Alberto Manzi 2.0 – and why Manzi himself appeared on our banners as we appointed the first digital champions. Making this change isn't easy - how do you respond to a person or an administration that is still using fax machines? But the answer is clear: as they say in Matera: “the difference between saying and doing… is doing.”
A few years ago, I proposed the Internet itself as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. I did this after reading about another Nobel prizewinner, Rita Levi Montalcini, who, on the eve of her 100th birthday, was asked, what was the greatest invention of the 20th Century? She replied: “You need to ask? The Internet!”
The fact that a great neuroscientist said this opened my eyes to the true purpose of the Internet: it is a network of people, not just of computers. The first “Weapon of Mass Construction”.
The Internet was invented in CERN in Geneva. And another Italian, Fabiola Gianotti, recently took the helm at CERN, with some inspiring words: “we have great expectations for the future”. This is a beautiful, powerful phrase that few Italians have the strength and courage to say. We will try and do so, with humility, and determination. We will try and do so along with others, with every single person living in Italy, because the future is a path all of us must follow, or nobody will arrive there.
Playing on our national anthem we could say: “Brothers of Italy, awake, awake!”
Will digital champions be the alarm-clock?