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Government / Local politics

To build the cities of tomorrow we must listen to citizens

When you walk into Duomo di Milano (Milan Cathedral), you cannot help but look up. You realise Milan is a city that has never been afraid to think big.

Duomo di Milano is the biggest church in Italy – the larger St Peter’s Basilica is in the State of Vatican City – and the third largest in the world. It took nearly six centuries to complete: We are a city that plans well into the future.

Sharing Cities is a European programme which is also not afraid to plan for the future and think big. Working with cities across the continent we are helping to realise the transformative potential of new smart technologies. We are looking at how innovators, investors and citizens can be brought together to design the cities of the future. Cities that we can all enjoy: that make better use of public spaces, that have cleaner air and shorter commuting times from homes to offices. Cities that are designed around the way we want to live rather than forcing us to live around them.

In 1386, when Archbishop Antonio da Saluzzo began construction of Duomo di Milano, thinking big meant building big: creating a monument that future generations would be in awe of. He achieved his aim.

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Today, in the Sharing Cities ‘lighthouse’ cities of London, Lisbon and here in Milan we do not have a blank canvas to project our grand vision onto. But we don’t want that anyway. We are proud of our cities and history built up over centuries. The days of the Roman and British Empire are behind us. It is no longer enough for distant elites to make decisions and then foist them onto a grateful citizenship. For change to work it has to come with agreement: it is about engaging citizens, listening to their ideas and working with them.

Today, thinking big is about thinking small. It is about creating small changes at a local level and then scaling up. It is about testing and replicating what works and rejecting what does not. It is about listening as much as talking. It is about enabling solutions rather than offering them.  

In Milan over the last year we have engaged with thousands of people from 250 local organisations Through engagement, people have taken a keener interest in how their city works. Where once local government was seen as something only retired people got involved with today I see young people wanting to know how they can transform Milan. Where once they were passive now they are engaged. They care if there is rubbish on the street. They want to know we can reduce pollution levels. They feel important when they are listened to and they take better care of the city because they feel their views are being heard.


The feedback we have got from these meetings has guided us in how the citizens of Milan want their food delivered, how transport needs will be met and waste collected in the future.

But it is also about sharing. By meeting citizens, we were able to talk about the risks and rewards of retrofitting old buildings to make them warmer in winter and cooler in summer. In some cases energy bills are reduced by 60 per cent as a result – in extreme cases it can be as high as 80 per cent. These buildings are like Swiss cheese. People are literally paying to heat the outside. But we were only offering 20 per cent of the cost of this retrofit, so residents had to work together to decide if the higher short-term cost to them would be worth the larger long-term gain.

The fact that we had residential blocks competing for this money tells us that we have been communicating what we are doing right. So far in in the time frame of Sharing Cities we will retrofit 25,000m2of homes, improving the lives of 7,000 to 8,000 residents. 

Through efficiencies of scale we can get this to 140,000 – 10 per cent of the population of Milan. Across Europe, cities from London to Lisbon and Bordeaux are asking us how we did it. We are sharing with them and they are sharing with us.

The changes we are making may seem subtler than the Duomo di Milano – but they will touch the lives of no fewer people. And for that, we must celebrate Milan’s historic willingness to plan for the future.

Piero Pelizzaro is Sharing Cities’ lead for Milan.
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