Three thoughts on the politics of Italy’s cities

Rome! Image: Bert Kaufmann/Wikimedia Commons.

In a World Cup year, most Italians talk about one thing only: the national football team. But as Italy did not qualify for this summer’s tournament, the general elections in March and their aftermath have instead been the main topic of conversation for people in cities across the peninsula.

The international media coverage has largely focused on the implications of the new populist coalition government for Europe. However, the elections and their aftermath also raise interesting questions about the changing political outlook of cities across Italy, and the challenges this poses to national policy-makers. These issues have relevance to UK politics too - and in this blog, we unpack what we think are the three main takeaways from the Italian situation.

1) In a divided country, top-down policy-making is increasingly inadequate

Like the UK, Italy also has a North-South divide. But it is the other way round: in 2016 GDP per capita in the South was 44 per cent lower than in the Centre-North area.

This economic divide has given rise to a political divide, too. For the first time in Italian politics, no party can claim to represent the whole country. This has resulted from a clear north-south split. The League – a rebranding of the old Northern League – remains the party of the economically successful North, and it continues to make lower migration and lower taxation its main priorities. The Five Star Movement is now the party of the less successful South, where unemployment and low wages are the main issues.

That the parties in power represent different economic realities could mean that the national government takes into account the different challenges that places face, which would certainly be a positive thing. But it could also mean that national policy becomes the sum of different disjointed economic policies rather than a coherent economic strategy.

We see some of the latter happening already. For example, the agreement between the two populist parties proposes both a basic income, a policy of the Five Star Movement, and a flat tax, a policy of the League. The popularity of basic income results from high unemployment in the South. As our European cities data tool illustrates, more than one in four people in cities like Catania, Naples and Palermo is out of work. And a flat tax would mostly benefit Northern Italy, with wages highest in cities such as Bolzano, Milan and Bologna. This results in an incoherent approach to national economic policy.

What this points to is the difficulty of top-down policymaking in a divided country, and the inadequacy of a one-size-fits-all approach to policy in addressing the diverse challenges that different places face. Given the extent of the UK’s political and economic divides, this is a lesson policy-makers here cannot afford to overlook.

2) But Italian cities are better placed than UK cities to overcome national political gridlock

In Britain, since the vote for Brexit, many major policy issues have been put to one side so that the government can get on with negotiations with the EU, including the city region devolution agenda. Meanwhile, the Government has also been hamstrung by its failure to secure a clear majority in 2017 general election. Both of these factors have contributed to gridlock and stasis at the national political level, and a lack of clear policy direction for the government.

In Italy, this kind of instability and gridlock at the national political level is nothing new. The peninsula has had 65 governments since 1945, averaging a change in administration every 13 months. However, unlike in the UK – where political power remains largely concentrated in Westminster – decentralisation has been an essential feature of the Italian system since the early days of the post-WWII republic, and has been enhanced since.

As a result, regions and Italian metropolitan cities have powers over, among other things, infrastructure, strategic development, schools and integrated services provision. This means that in times of national stalemate – which in the Italian case is more often than not – places are still able to take action and tailor policy to their needs.

Despite the progress made in city region devolution in the UK over recent years, urban areas across the country still lack the powers and resources they need to grow their economies. The government should use its forthcoming Devolution Framework to as an opportunity to go further on this front, with the immediate priority being to extend devolution deals to the remaining big cities in England yet to agree one.


3)  Mainstream parties should not take cities for granted

While populist parties have made gains across Italy, the centre-left and left remain mainly in charge of large cities (Milan, Naples, Palermo) with the centre-right keeping control of a few others (Genoa, Venezia). And this is also what we saw in the recent metro-mayoral elections in the UK with Labour and Conservatives winning all the posts.

But mainstream parties should not take cities for granted. Firstly, while local elections are not isolated from national politics, they can also act as referenda on the candidate or the record of incumbent mayors/councillors, making them open to outsiders. And Italy provides an example of this complex relationship between local and national politics, as well as the possibility of a political shift at the local level.

For example, after years of poor administration by both the centre-left and centre-right in Rome, political control of the city passed into the hands of the insurgent Five Star Movement in 2016. And in the most recent local elections, the League has won cities in Tuscany that for decades have been the strongholds of the centre-left.

There are two lessons here for the UK. Firstly, there is no room for complacency among mayors and other city leaders, who need to deliver on their economic agenda and make the most of their mandate to avoid the kind of backlash against mainstream parties seen in Italian cities.

Secondly, the national government needs to empower city leaders with the tools and funding they need to address the challenges their places face. This will not only be crucial for the prosperity of their cities: it will also be important in staving off the political disillusionment which was evident in the vote for Brexit.

In both Italy and the UK, the political outlook for the coming years is deeply uncertain. But what is clear is that empowered cities, which have real scope to act on the issues that matter most to their economies, have the best chance of thriving in times of national political stasis.

Italian cities are well-placed to do so, but the same is not true of UK cities. This needs to change if people and places across the country are to prosper.

Gabriele Piazza and Elena Magrini are researchers at the Centre for Cities, on whose website this article originally appeared. You can hear them discussing the politics of Italian cities on Skylines, the CityMetric podcast, here.

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In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.