Despite making definite progress in the field of mobile technology, Italy is still seriously lagging behind in the transition to digital, warns a report from the European Commission.

Italy: Digital Lag a Cause for Concern?

In 2003, L’Atelier numérique (L’Atelier Digital) interviewed Italian expert Luisa Bordoni, a Senior Advisor on Information Technology and Services at management consulting firm Accenture. At that time, she pointed to the progress her country had made in the field of mobile technology. In fact Italy was one if the first countries to launch 3G. Surprisingly however, that same year a survey from Italian website Libero revealed that close to 91% of Italians were unaware of the existence of WiFi. Twelve years later, where does Italy stand when it comes to digital technology? The European Commission has carried out a thorough investigation into the different attitudes people in the Europe Union have towards digital. And in this regard, the country of Dante is undoubtedly trailing behind.

Infrastructure and habits not well suited to digital

The latest report from the European Commission on the Digital Single Market highlights the same paradox that existed back in 2003. When it comes to mobile, Italians are generally well-equipped, but apart from that, the use of up-to-date digital tools is far from being a given. Some 66% of the country’s inhabitants own a smartphone, compared with 67% ownership of Internet-connected phones among the European Union population as a whole. However, only 21% of Italian homes enjoy high speed Internet access, at a time when the average figure in Europe is over 60% and close to 100% of homes in Belgium for instance are fast broadband connected.

               Fast broadband coverage in Italian homes (red) compared to the EU average (blue)

Moreover, in addition to the actual equipment, the report underlines that both people and companies are lagging behind in the way they use digital technology. Close to a third of all Italians have never used the Internet, compared with a European average figure of around 18%. There are even companies that seem reluctant to make use of the Internet. A mere 5.1% of small and medium-sized firms sell their products and services online, versus a figure of 25% for Germany.

A top-down problem?

So how can these gaps be explained? A recent survey from the Sda Bocconi School of Management in Milan indicated that the problem – as regards companies, at least – stems from top management attitudes. Over half the business people polled said that their managers were very conscious of the slow pace of transition to digital technology, but were not adopting any policies to push forward in this area. The Sda Bocconi report comes to the conclusion that the main reason for these hesitations can be summarised in three ‘Cs’: cost of investment, change in ways of working, and competence in the use of digital technology. Italian companies, more than those elsewhere in Europe, seem reluctant to invest money and change their ways of doing things. The GE Global Innovation barometer, which every year surveys managers worldwide, also highlights this issue. Some 66% of the Italian managers polled cited in-house inertia as the main obstacle to moving to digital, compared with a world average of around 57%.

Companies’ internal inertia: one of the obstacles standing in the way of Italy’s shift to digital

Nevertheless, efforts have been underway for several years at public authority level. The Agenzia per l’Italia Digitale (Agency for Digital Italy), founded in 2012 under the Mario Monti government, is pursuing the goal of modernising the equipment used by the authorities, encouraging them to bring in digital tools so as to ensure more efficient, better coordinated public services. So digital policies in Italy appear to be dependent on an underfunded external agency. Meanwhile governments all over the world are still struggling to integrate ICTs into their policies

By Guillaume Scifo