Expert article
Edit 07 January 2021
by VALERIA Ferraris, UIA Expert

Not all evils come to harm: Insights on how the ToNite project is dealing with the Pandemic.

On line meetings
The resurgence of Coronavirus cases in recent days, making it clear that this second wave is upon us in Europe, is a good opportunity to focus our attention on how the ToNite project was able to deal with this unexpected situation last spring. Many UIA projects are addressing Covid-19; let’s look at one example.
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ToNite is a project with seven partners (Anci, EFUS, Engineering, Experientia, Espereal Technologies, Fondazione Torino Wireless, and Socialfare) led by the Municipality of Turin.

The project is aimed at enhancing the perception of urban safety at night-time through collaborative policies based on social empowerment and the active participation of residents and stakeholders. With night-time activities constantly on the increase, the police force is pretty much the only public service available and the project aims to intervene on this shortage of services.

As the project has a strong focus on participation, the current pandemic certainly represents a significant challenge, due to the resulting restrictions on movements and on opportunities to meet.

Between March and May 2020, Italy was one of the countries that opted to close almost all face-to-face human activities and to impose severe restrictions on movements. Yet, at the end of October, the ToNite project has completed all its planned activities, without delays.

How can this be possible? Have the activities been significantly changed?

The project began in September with the Initiation Phase. While continuing with the fulfilment of administrative and legal requirements, training, and project revision, the partnership decided to perform the actions that were ready. Therefore, between Autumn and Winter 2020, the baseline research on the perception of security and the preparation of the launch event began. The preparatory work allowed the project to be launched on 14 February 2020, the same day as the end of the previous UIA project run by the Municipality of Turin. On 8 March, when the city of Turin and the whole of Italy went into lockdown due to Covid-19, as regards the baseline research the online survey was the only activity not yet completed. The health emergency hampered the promotion in-person of the online survey. Therefore, Experientia contacted a survey company so as to be able to obtain a significant number of answers. In the absence of that early start, rather than merely having to make these small changes, the research and the overall project would have needed to be significantly reviewed.

The lesson learned

This is the first lesson learned from the project. The initiation phase is an excellent feature of UIA projects as it allows the project to be re-calibrated, avoiding any mistakes made in the proposal being dragged into the implementation. However, if some activities are ready to be implemented, it is worth taking a risk and starting work. Given that UIA invites public administrations to take risks and be innovative - 'if you have time, do not wait for time' - it seems like a calculated risk worth taking.

The most interesting aspect of the work during the pandemic was the re-design of the activity aimed at listening to people living and working in the territorial areas of the project. The Covid-19 lockdown entailed the risk of losing contact with people engaged in the launch event or met during the research activities or somehow informed of the ToNite project.

Let’s talk online

What could be done to remedy this? As we had all switched over to smart working, the project attempted to organise online meetings.

This answer may seem obvious but, in fact, most of the people and organisations the partnership met were not used to carrying out meetings online and it could not, therefore, be taken for granted that this would be a success.

The project manager told me in an interview that “somehow we discovered that we had more time, and we spent this time listening”. This is not a celebration of distance calls. Face-to-face interaction is much more effective in grasping the nuances in how the speakers express themselves in their speech and body language. Online platforms have well-known limits, but some positive aspects did emerge from the project:

1. Punctuality;

2. Straight to the point, no wordy introduction;

3. Call etiquette. Participants did not interrupt each other. A high level of respect was shown.

Frequently, during personal gatherings, people talk over one another; it is difficult to make yourself heard and, to be quite frank, it can be exhausting. Often, after a personal public gathering, you go home with the feeling that you have no more information than you had before and that the people you met feel depressed as they could not express themselves as and when they wanted. It can be tiring and sometimes disappointing.

It is not known why the meetings went well. It may be the case that nobody felt competitive with each other so every meeting was fruitful and resulted in suggestions to be discussed with other people. Nobody felt that they needed to legitimise themselves. They were already legitimised as they were there, connected.

The attitude of the municipality was also different. The municipality invested time in order to speak one by one, with more openness to listening and to dialogue. There was undoubtedly a greater investment of time but the time spent was also more efficient and effective. There was no feeling that it was too time-consuming. In fact, in terms of hours, the time spent was certainly longer than the time required for two or three in-person meetings. Ultimately, from 13 March to 19 May 2020, the municipality, with the valuable support of the partner Espereal, held twelve online meetings with the local communities and the organisations working in the area.

As stated by the project assistant: “We would not have obtained these results in face-to-face meetings and we would not have had the time to meet all these people”. But they found the time; it was just a different time.

Certainly not. The impossibility of going repeatedly into the field where the project aims to intervene can hamper the possibility of involving new and untapped resources. For the future, the challenge of the project will be to rediscover public discussion, which is currently lost. To do so, given the persistence of the problematic health situation, it will be necessary to be genuinely creative and innovative.

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