2020: A year to imagine
2020 was a year like no other. Since early spring, life was turned upside down for most European citizens. The pandemic has shone a harsh light on the existing problems our cities face: poor air quality, insecure employment and lack of affordable housing amongst them. But it has also hinted at the future life we might have. It has been a year to imagine. That’s what Milan is doing, and bringing to life, through the UIA , WISH-MI project.
Imagine a city where all young people have easy access to education and cultural facilities. Imagine a city where young people are supported to reach their full potential.
Imagine a city where young people have codesigned the services that support them.
You are imagining the future Milan wants to make happen through this project.
But let’s start at the beginning.
Like many European cities, Milan has a wide and growing rate of inequality. Although average and median incomes in the city are higher than the national average, inequality rates within the city are wider. The Gini index for Milan stands at 53.2% compared to 38.2% for Italy. 30% of the city’s population are below the poverty threshold, a rate significantly increased in its poorer suburbs.
Milan’s young people are at particular risk. In 2018, 1 in 10 minors lived in absolute poverty – 21,000 across the city – but much higher numbers are affected by poor nutrition, health and housing conditions. Many suffer from social isolation, with a lack of spaces to gather – a situation exacerbated by the pandemic.
Access to education and other resources is an issue for the Milan’s most disadvantaged young people. Only 12.8% of those aged 6-14 participate in sports activities organized by the municipality whilst less than 50% read a single book per year. Children of migrants are particularly affected. The risk of early school leaving is 10%, but much higher in poorer neighbourhoods. This disproportionately affects migrant children who account for 40% of students in those areas. In Milan’s schools, these children are also more likely to be held back, by more than a thousand (2,255 vs 1,312) in the most recent data. In short, their life chances are dramatically reduced before their lives have barely started.
What’s the plan?
As we crawl from the rubble of the pandemic and look towards 2021, thoughts turn to the future. This is an opportunity to re-set, and EU and other funds supporting the recovery offer a chance to tackle long-standing chronic issues. For example, the EU’s proposed Resilience and Recovery Facility (RRF) can help Milan realise the ambitions set out in its compelling Adaptation Strategy. But pre-COVID, the city had already designed an innovative plan to improve the life chances of its children. This model, WISH-MI, was approved by the UIA’s fourth project call and is now under way. It adopts a radical fresh approach to this complex and long-standing set of issues, with the prize being a transformation in the wellbeing of the city’s young people.
What would this look like? Such an ambitious overarching strategy will, of course, take time. But within the lifespan of the UIA project, Milan has established indicators that would reflect successful progress. These include a measurable increase in the proportion of young children (0-6) participating in early childhood education and care (ECEC), particularly amongst the most vulnerable families. There would also be a quantifiable increase in the proportion of young people at risk of school drop-out participating in after school activities. Participation levels in out of school activities, for example sports and involvement in libraries, would also increase.
What would be the effect of these shifts in participation? To understand that, and to frame the scope of their work, the WISH-MI partnership has established seven pillars within its monitoring framework. These reflect the breadth of the wellbeing concept and they comprise:
WISH-MI 7 pillars of youth wellbeing
The partnership is gathering baseline data and developing a framework to monitoring progress over the lifespan of WISH-MI and beyond.
At the same time, project partners are busy implementing the actions designed to achieve these results. Although hampered by the impact of the pandemic through much of this year, the team is now making headway and building momentum. Four overarching actions provide the framework for this.
The first is a commitment to restructuring the repertoire of cross-cutting services supporting young people. This means working across municipal departments to establish a new collaborative culture. It also involves bringing on board other partners from across sectors which are involved in supporting young people. Perhaps most importantly, it requires a renegotiation of the relationship between the city authority and young people, with greater emphasis on dialogue and service co-design. The implications here are significant. For example, within the municipality alone, it will require a cultural re-set, professional flexibility and the design and agreement of shared metrics.
Two other headline actions will contribute to the aspiration to engage young people differently. One is the commitment to design and implement a digital hub with a multi-purpose function that includes space for self-expression and service co-design. The other is the plan to establish a network of physical hubs across the city, also co-designed with young people.
The fourth and final strand of activity involves the establishment of a visual identity for the WISH-MI project.
What do we mean by visual identify and why does it matter?
Creating of a distinct visual identity for WISH-MI features as an early priority for the project. The intention is to establish a brand reflecting the values and principles underpinning the UIA project. As you might expect, this will mean engaging with young people to harvest their inputs, and through autumn 2020 the team has been running a series of events with this in mind.
Alongside this work, the “DCxW" (Communication Design for Welfare) team from the Department of Design (Politecnico di Milano) have conducted a comprehensive review of effective practice in visual branding designed to connect with young people. One of the issues is that today’s young generation are a highly sophisticated audience used to being bombarded with messages and multi-media campaigns. As savvy consumers, creating a visual identity they can trust will be a major early coup for the project.
The research team applied a number of filters to their scanning work. They adopted a territorial perspective, comprising Italy, Europe and the rest of the world. The scope of the interaction, relating to WISH-MI’s seven wellbeing pillars was also a factor. They also considered the quality of the visual identity and the communication channels employed. This sweeping review has harvested rich material and inspiration for WISH-MI to build upon. Benedetta Verotti di Pianella from Politecnico di Milano explained what this work has given the project:
“We are pursuing a path of shared and participatory design to reach young people from a wide age group – from 0- to 18-year-old – and to engage with physical and digital platforms. This requires a hybrid dynamic visual identity to facilitate the relationship between institutions and young citizens. We also want to make services and opportunities more accessible to everybody, regardless of their socio-economic background. Through the research process we analysed current leading approaches working with young people. The findings will inform our own design pathways, helping us create an overarching visual identity with channels adapted to different sub-groups.”
The WISH-MI visual identity aims to become a trusted concept amongst the city’s youth. But they are not the only target group in its sights. The project aims to transform the way Milan, as a city, works with its young people and achieving this will require winning the hearts and minds of professionals working across a range of policy areas, including education, health and welfare. The visual identity also has a role to play in sending a signal to them. As Cosimo di Palazzo, Social Policies Director puts it:
“ For us, the digital identity is a statement of intent. It is not just for us, the city authority, but must be something that creates a much wider sense of ownership in the project. And this is something we have to do at the start: it can’t be some cosmetic communication afterthought. That’s why we’re doing it now – which to some may seem a bit strange – and why it’s so important that we involve young people in the right way, from the very beginning.”
How you can follow our journey
No one can accuse Milan of a lack of ambition. Although other cities have embarked on journeys of this kind, none the size of Milan has tried to fundamentally overhaul its children’s services in this way. The goal was far-sighted when conceived in 2019, and may seem even more so in the wake of the pandemic. But Milan has identified important structural problems in its service offer to children and young people, alongside escalating needs amongst its most disadvantaged. If COVID has taught us anything, it is that nothing is impossible, so perhaps the moment is right to embark on this innovative pathway.
You can follow our progress in the coming months on the UIA website as well as on the WISH-MI social media channels. We’ll be reporting back through our articles and journals, as well as reaching out to cities whose experience resonates with Milan’s. We look forward to seeing you on the road.