Telematic Workshop: An Opportunity for Social Participation and Youth Entrepreneurship
Germano PAINI <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Since February 1996, the City of Collegno has provided a permanent structure with adequate technological resources, open free of charge to all citizens who wish to use the information and communications resources currently available. The Workshop, which is equipped with 10 workstations constantly linked to telematic networks, is managed by 18 operators employed within the framework of a workshop for socially useful jobs (Article 14 of Law 451/94 and Article 1 of Decree Law 31/95) under the coordination and supervision of a consultant in the person of Dott. Germano Paini. This structure has fulfilled the following goals and constantly improves them:
The development of information and communication technology is giving rise to a phenomenon of far-reaching social and economic transformation.
We are faced with the advent of a revolution capable of radically transforming our entire way of looking at society.
The concept used to represent and interpret this phenomenon is that of the "information society," namely a society in which the exchange of information and its elaboration, together with the expansion of knowledge, represent the essential driving force behind social, human and economic development.
In the knowledge that we must avoid simplified enthusiasm and a non-critical approach to the future that awaits us and the present society in which we live, but at the same time in the conviction that we must not fail to take up such important and significant opportunities, our project stems from an analysis of this comparison and the topics it involves.
In particular, within the framework of the debate on "information highways," one question is seen as being particularly relevant and decisive for the future: the possibility that everyone should have access to the services made available by "INTERNET."
Seen in this way, however real and urgent, the problem appears to be flawed by a fundamentally passive and passive-making approach.
Even in the most advanced discussions, the crucial question is conditioned by an implicit acceptance of the one-way direction of flow (from the producer to the consumer) in order to "check off" everyone's right to access the information market.
This, broadly speaking, satisfies the common right to be consumers and not to be isolated from consumption, but fails to raise the question or even imagine the possibility or rather the duty of intervening in the process of choosing, defining and distributing information.
In basic terms, the problem is defined by the question of whether full access to the resources offered by telematics should be referred to the use of services prepared by others or also entails the possibility of designing, elaborating, managing and offering services in the field of communications and the exchange of information and documentation.
In our opinion only the widest possible availability of the instruments and knowledge required for an active presence in the world of telematic networks will narrow the gap that places and will continue to place large sectors of the population on the margins of -- if not outside -- the intense flow of communications and information towards which we are now heading.
In this respect let us examine the problems concerning the difficulty of access to resources that the information society can offer.
The difficulties experienced by a large part of the population in obtaining access to telematic networks may be broadly attributed to three main factors:
In particular, those who would miss out would be precisely those (e.g., young people in training, weak subjects, etc.) who should be the reference point for the promotion of a new awareness of the potential resources available through telematics.
In this context, the Collegno City Council has provided, within the framework of a careful policy to support the city's cultural development and with a view to promoting a wider economic and social development, a permanent structure with adequate technological resources, open free of charge to all citizens who wish to use the information and communications resources currently available.
This Workshop represents the center of a process to produce, distribute and share an intense wealth of knowledge and information.
The initiative forms part of an approach to foster, through the expansion and distribution of cultural services to citizens, the capacity to recognize, understand and use the "opportunities" that are often masked by the problems and difficulties caused by the complexity of society.
The workshop, which is equipped with 10 work stations constantly linked to telematic networks, fulfils the following objectives:
The attention focused on the importance of the aim "to activate and stimulate skills usable in the workplace, aimed at both the professional qualification of young persons and the re-qualification of workers facing the phenomena of job transformation" has enabled promotional forms of job opportunities to be experimented with which are not restricted by welfare logic but rather are oriented to encourage job prospects in line with the evolution of economic and social events.
It appeared possible to achieve an interesting synergy by offering:
The Workshop will be managed by 10 operators employed within the framework of a project for socially useful jobs (S.U.J.) (Article 14 of Law 451/94 and Article 1 of Decree Law 31/95), which, as the project has evolved, has involved about 25 persons in all.
Originally instituted by a Trade Union decree which defined the contract in terms of ideation, design and realization of a project addressed to the problems of youth disorientation, the project was implemented following a competition open to unemployed individuals, in particular 6 unemployed school dropouts and 4 unemployed graduates (aged between 18 and 32 years old) who had to live in Collegno and possess the following skills, in order of preference, knowledge of English and computer programming, computer skills, knowledge of French (or another foreign language).
The S.U.J. Workshop was based on employment lasting 100 hours/month, which was subsequently reduced in accordance with amendments to the law, with a salary of Lit. 800.000.
The experience of the S.U.J. project led to the start of an intense training program to enable the Workshop operators to acquire the skills and develop the capacities necessary, on the one hand, to manage, autonomously and rapidly, part of the Workshop activities, and on the other to be used at the end of the contract directly in the job market
In particular, this experience took the form of a genuine training and operative stage.
The initial phase was structured into modules of lessons/practical exercises, for management purposes, lasting a total of 60 hours to be completed within the first month after opening the Workshop.
Back-up and coordination activities took place over approximately 100 hours within the first six months.
Moreover, a further 30 hours of training for self-entrepreneurial skills were planned in relation to the aim of setting up a company and must be completed before the end of the Workshop in order to provide the tools and skills to transform temporary employment into an entrepreneurial activity.
The operators' tasks will be to support, guide and direct Workshop users in the use of the resources available on the network using instruments made available by access to INTERNET. Each user will be helped to use the "navigation" instruments in the telematic network to search for documents and information within the framework of the Workshop's institutional objectives and in a way that is increasingly targeted at the user's own requirements.
In this sense, the activities of guiding and directing are seen as a contribution to the user's gradual emancipation and the development of an increasingly active and autonomous approach to the resources available.
The Workshop is open from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. and, broadly speaking, allows access for schools in the morning and other types of users in the afternoon and evening.
The training opportunities and the methods of running the Telematic Workshop have evolved and developed in line with the project, interacting with the development of activities in which the Telematic Workshop has played an increasingly intense role.
The evolution of the experience highlights the entire range of activities undertaken by the Workshop both in the light of the contribution given to transformations involving the operators' skills, and the implications for the operating methods used by the Council.
From this point of view, the Telematic Workshop has opened the way to interesting initiatives which have gradually promoted the introduction of computer and telematic technologies in the city community and its neighboring areas, extending the project to the realization of Internet services dedicated to the management of local authority activities.
The consolidation of these activities has enabled the local authority itself to promote interesting developments which have recently led to the introduction of additional services, inspired by the typical requirements of a particular sector, with a view to encouraging a more integrated and distributed use of computer and telematic applications.
The back-up service providing advice for individual citizens is one of the Workshop's principal activities.
From 1.30 to 7.30 p.m., five days a week, the Workshop can be used by students, the unemployed or persons looking for new jobs, professional operators, "curious" citizens or anyone else interested in gaining access to the wealth of information made available by the Town Council.
Using a booking system which sets a maximum limit of 2 hours/day, it has been possible to guarantee about 40/50 passages every day since the Workshop opened, which allowed for a total attendance of around 15,000/16,000 since the activity began (March 1996).
The Workshop also manages the Municipal web site (http://www.comune.collegno.to.it) which enables both the inhabitants of Collegno and Internet users in general to obtain information regarding the Council activities, associations and the local business community.
Designed to provide inhabitants with new methods of exchange and communication with the Town Council, the telematic Workshop has become an instrument for improving the transparency and efficiency of its policies. The Internet server allows a remarkable quantity of information to be consulted online regarding the activities and means of contacting Council offices, administrative procedures, competitions, services available for citizens.
In this context, in collaboration with the competent Council offices, the Workshop has developed a number of services to foster the transparency of the local authorities.
The Self-Certification Guide is a hypertext document which permits Internet users to obtain all the documents required for Self-Certification, thus avoiding the need to visit the Council offices.
The Guide to Starting a New Business is a useful document addressed to anyone wishing to start a new business. It contains all the necessary information and, by following a clearly defined route, it is now possible to consult the city plan in order to select the best location, examine the characteristics of the retail development plan and the classified commercial tables, as well as obtain all the information and forms necessary to submit an application for authorization by the Mayor.
When the balance sheet was approved, the Mayor's report was published in the site, together with the Budget and Programmed Spending Report and a public service entitled "Your Questions regarding the Balance Sheet of your City".
The Mayor's Report is the document which presents the 1998 Budget and the Town Council's Projects, either realized or in the process of implementation; the Budget and Programmed Spending Report is a formal statement outlining the Council's choices, whereas "Your Questions Regarding the Balance Sheet of your City" is a service which, through the answers given by experts, acts as an effective mediator between the citizen and the technical information contained in the accounts.
Given that the Workshop tutors carry out a wide variety of activities, ranging from techniques for HTML coding to the use of telematic instruments, the translation of texts into the main foreign languages and the elaboration of administrative, political, legal and economic documents, this has led to the interesting principle of broadening the skills of operators, in parallel with the realization and management of numerous services.
By giving tangible form to one of the basic aims of the project, these methods have enhanced, in a specific setting such as that of the local authority, the use of leading-edge instruments and the presence of dedicated training, but above all they have enabled skills to be experimented with in the field, thus underlining the value of the "stage" for training purposes.
The increasing specialization of the operators has allowed the Telematic Workshop to become the main reference point for planning a number of activities managed by S.U.J. operators, as well as a series of relations with bodies outside the structure which have been provided with telematic services and support.
We refer, in particular, to the numerous contacts between the Workshop and primary and secondary schools in the area which have used the structure to develop teaching projects involving teachers and operators.
The importance of these operations is borne out by the contribution given by the Telematic Workshop to innovative developments regarding teaching activities aimed at the execution of original didactic courses conceived and designed using the teaching experience of school teachers and the telematic experience of the operators.
The center is open to schools and training organizations from 8.30 a.m. to 1.30 p.m.
This experience has also prompted further reflection leading to the ideation, design and realization of the "Collaborative Learning" project.
Launched in October 1996, this project has two important objectives.
With this in mind, a specific project has been launched for the realization of a cooperative online game called "Play with the Great Magician" as an occasion for operative design, using synchronous communication instruments through telematic networks.
The players share a browser to navigate through the interactive map and the chat option to swap the answers to the various problems. The aim of the game is to become great magicians, namely acquire the necessary skills to communicate long-distance, overcoming the "obstacles" of computer communication.
The operators' experience has been considerably enhanced by the input from the new role of the Telematic Workshop in terms of the interesting results obtained through the services and initiatives implemented for the Town Council.
In particular, the design of the Collegno Town Council IT System, which has seen the involvement of the Workshop, has been structured to improve the sharing and distribution of documents and information produced by different offices, for the purpose of creating a resource which can also be accessed and consulted from outside the municipal structure.
In this context, while being, on the one hand, designed to improve communications between the offices, Intranet services may also be accessed by the Internet community. A case in point is the publication of the Council's Management Objectives defined by the local government.
The publication of these Objectives underlines the effort made to achieve the transparency of municipal policies: they present a synthetic and analytical view of the main objectives set by the local government. A description is given of each objective, including its starting and ending date, the project manager, and the number and description of stages required to attain the expected results.
Together with new services, the Workshop is involved in training courses for the council staff, taking the skills required for the use of the new telematic instruments and the relative computer applications into the various offices.
Increased contacts with the Council have given operators greater awareness of the need to comply with local authority rules and procedures, thus allowing the development of relational and organizational skills which are increasingly close to professional practice. The job training has linked the discipline of increased responsibility towards assignments and autonomy in the development of projects and contacts with the main customers, thus preparing operators for the business world just two years after the start of training.
As part of the objectives defined by the project, the Workshop is seen an a "flywheel" to generate the economic development of the city.
This function is based on the design and realization of:
In addition to representing a commitment for the Telematic Workshop in its current form, these services represent the field of action for the company which, according to the project, will shortly be set up (March 1998) by the group of young unemployed individuals who currently manage the structure (cfr. Objective 6).
The orientation towards the realization of telematic services for firms and for economic development allows the service company to identify diversified areas for intervention compared to services for the Council or individual citizens.
In particular, by focusing on initiatives able to respond to the need for "real services" which firms are increasingly aware of and by responding to their requirements, the public Workshop today and the telematic services company of tomorrow will help SME to make up lost ground in terms of using the resources and potential opportunities offered by telematics.
This role corresponds to that played by the Workshop in relation to the weaker groups of society given that the difficulties faced by a small company when accessing telematic networks can basically be referred (like the most disadvantaged groups of the population) to the three elements mentioned in the introduction:
On the basis of these observations, the Telematic Workshop has prepared and intends to develop "real services" for the small and medium-sized enterprises in the city, in order to make instruments available to companies which allow the small entrepreneur and/or the staff to interact more efficiently with the market.
Four categories of service have been identified in this direction forming part of the city marketing policies which the Council has decided to implement:
Within the framework of the above categories, it is worth mentioning a number of the "real services" provided on the City's Internet server.
It is also possible to define the type of offer which will be supplied by Workshop, and in particular the new telematic services company now in the process of being set up, to meet the requests of companies in this field.
We are left with the question of whether this innovative experience, in which the young tutors have shown keen interest and a willingness to work often much longer hours than requested, acquired in a protected and supervised setting, can be translated into a practical form of freelance work which, while relying on forms of promotion and support, will stand out in terms of initiative, autonomy and self-determination.
In short the challenge, which as far as we are concerned has already been overcome, has moved up a level and involves questions which will certainly be hard to resolve: the creation of new jobs in innovative areas to enter the market as protagonists.