Image from one of the WISH-MI murals

 

The Milano WISH-MI project, funded through Urban Innovative Actions (UIA) has now ended. This ambitious innovation project to improve the wellbeing of the city’s children and young people, is part of Milan’s wider 0-18 strategy.

The legacy of WISH-MI continues in two ways. Firstly, important elements of its architecture remain in place. For example, although the network of neighbourhood hubs has been altered, several continue to function. Alongside this, the digital catalogue of youth wellbeing services, and the dedicated infrastructure has been sustained, although the associated voucher system has been discontinued. Additionally, the online facility to encourage civic participation and volunteering amongst young people, remains in place. 

Just as importantly, relevant partners report enhanced collaboration as a result of the WISH-MI experience and key structures supporting this will continue. The city’s cross-cutting 0-18 strategic plan is one example of this, supported by performance metrics that straddle municipal departments. The continuation of the 0-18 Ambassadors, provide a lasting reminder that the wellbeing of Milan’s children is a shared priority that transcends policy areas. 

Beyond this, the continued proactivity of key partners beyond the city authority, such as the Catholic University, Action Aid and ABCitta, help sustain the spirit and momentum of the WISH-MI initiative. 

Along the way, much has been learned. The importance of scaling one’s vision has been a key learning point and WISH-MI may have had greater initial impact on a smaller territorial scale, rather than city-wide. The critical value of effective middle management and exemplary communication have also emerged as important, albeit, well-established messages. 

In terms of the challenges, partners identified Cross-Departmental working, Leadership and the Participative Approach as the most problematic amongst the UIA framework. However, particularly with regard to participation, the spectre of the pandemic looms large over WISH-MI, which would have evolved quite differently without the impact of COVID, particularly in the initial stages where neighbourhood participatory efforts were heavily compromised. 

Despite this, the project set out to tackle an urban challenge that is familiar to many cities. Supporting the most-disadvantaged children to have a good life-start, which was at the core of WISH-MI, is a concern for many EU cities - particularly those with fast-changing populations. Within this, the aspiration to reshape the relationship between City Hall and those young people - reflected in a commitment to service co-design - is by no means peculiar to Milan. 

The long-term agenda championed by WISH-MI therefore remains work in progress, and although the UIA project had mixed success, it has created much to build on, both in Milan and beyond. 

 

What has happened with the project since its end date

Three principal components of WISH-MI remain in place since the project’s end date:

  • The Community Hubs
  • The Digital Catalogue and voucher system
  • The ‘phy-gital’ activities

A short update on each is set out below.

The Community Hubs

Six community hubs were established as part of the project. As described in Journal 3, the function of these was to provide a network of co-designed facilities for children and young people offering services to promote wellbeing. 

Distributed in a mix of neighbourhoods, each hub had a specific age cohort (0-6, 6-14, 14-18) and thematic focus. The launch of the hubs was staggered over time, and the management model and culture for each was quite distinct.

WISH-MI hub map

At the time of writing (April 2024) the services provided through the hubs largely continues, however the network of hubs no longer functions exactly as per the WISH-MI concept. In summary, we can see different scenarios for these physical spaces:

  • Two hubs continue along WISH-MI lines (Bruzzano and Baggio)
  • One hub has absorbed the WISH-MI function into an existing youth centre (Tarabella)
  • One hub has returned to its original function (NAPA)
  • One hub only ever functioned digitally (Acquabella)
  • One hub has closed (Segesta) with the City exploring ways to reopen it

 

Overall, the hub experience has been challenging as we have documented in earlier journals. The impact of the pandemic, procurement challenges and the difficulty in identifying local management agencies have all been factors in this. However, the impetus of WISH-MI has galvanised some of the relationships and organizations such as Action-Aid and Mamme a Scuole have been instrumental at sustaining this momentum. 

The Milano 0.18 Digital Catalogue and Voucher Scheme

Improving access to wellbeing services, particularly for disadvantaged children and young people, was an important WISH-MI objective. So too was a shift in the way those services are designed and delivered, with an aspiration to involve end-users more directly in the service development process. Two related interventions-the Milano 0.18 Digital Catalogue and a voucher scheme - were developed to support these important objectives. 

The intention of the Digital Catalogue was to create a single portal containing information on the wellbeing support available to children and young people across the city of Milan. This, in itself, was a highly ambitious venture, not only due to the technical challenges relating to the digital design and hosting, but also related to the task of populating the catalogue itself. To be credible, such a database required a minimum critical mass of services, straddled across the public, private and voluntary sectors. It also sought to contain services at the city and neighbourhood level, relating to the WISH-MI wellbeing sub-themes. 

The core CdM team worked hard to attract providers to the catalogue, learning a lot along the way. For example, it was much harder to attract private providers compared to the other two sectors. The team took special measures - such as holding events targeted at private providers - to address this imbalance, but despite this it remained an uphill struggle. 

In terms of the profile of services, the catalogue ultimately contained 360 across the city, with the largest grouping relating to Art (95), School +(90) and health (83).  

Linked to the catalogue, WISH-MI developed a voucher scheme to promote access to services and to stimulate bottom up service co-design. As we discussed in Journal 3, the vouchers function in a number of ways. Individual vouchers were created in order to target support at the city’s most deprived families, with the highest value vouchers going to the lowest income families. The intention was to raise awareness of what was available, and to create a sense of entitlement amongst those most in need.

Although drawing upon a weighted sample, the evaluation responses from service users indicates that the vouchers had some success in this respect. 63% of respondents indicated that without the vouchers they would not have accessed the service used. In terms of utilisation, the largest demand for services related to sport and physical activity. 

Alongside these individual vouchers, a collective voucher model was established, which aimed to stimulate the co-design of new services between providers and the public. Through an open competition, providers were invited to propose new service ideas, ideally based on an exchange with service-users, with the selected ones funded via collective vouchers. 64 new micro-services were developed as a result of this process, although the jury is out on the extent to which it stimulated the co-design of new service models. In the evaluation report (conducted by Codici Ricerche) service providers only scored 3.3 out of 6 on the extent to which the collective voucher scheme enabled them to broaden their service offer. 

“Phygital Activities”

Play Milano 0.18 (initiated under the auspices of WISH-MI) resulted in a City-wide game through which  more than 1000 young people engaged in 24 “Missions” created by 20 different Milano 0.18 services. Implemented in collaboration with the Community Services Area of the Municipality and Centro Servizi per il Volontariato, the facility was launched in May 2023 to coincide with the International Day of Play.

 

 

WISH-MI was a large complex initiative with multiple dimensions. The most visible elements are those described in the previous section - the Hubs, Digital Platform and the Phygital Offer - but behind this were activities designed to drive a culture shift in the city. An important part of this was to rewire the working relationships across Departments in the City Authority, but also to reframe the collaborative model between City hall and Milan’s service providers. Another ambition was to improve connections with young people, and to recalibrate the relationship so that they have a greater say in service design and delivery. 

Let’s consider the more visible aspects of WISH-MI, first, in terms of sustainability. 

Regarding the hubs, it is not uncommon to see projects struggle to sustain physically based services (i.e. operating from buildings) once the initial funding has finished. Where we see continuity in the hubs, two drivers are evident. The first is the engagement of locally rooted NGOs, which continue to collaborate with the City of Milan. For example, the Hub Bruzzano continues, with services delivered by the Fondazione Aquilone, largely to the same target group of young people. Like many NGOs, the Fondazione is agile and effective at attracting funds to support its important service offer.For local young people and their families, this represents continuity. 

The second driver is where these spaces align with the city administration’s ongoing strategic priorities. The continuation of Hub Baggio, which focuses on children aged 0-5 and their families, and plans to extend hub activity to this age range, stem from the city’s political commitment to early years support, funded through the “Piano Operativo PN Metro Plus e Città Medie Sud”, € 330.414,29 DD 6679. It is here, in services targeted to this early years group and their families, that the impetus of WISH-MI seems most likely to be sustained, as something new. 

In terms of the online infrastructure, at the time of writing the Digital Catalogue remains operational, with financial support committed from the city authority until 31st August 2024. The City of Milan  is currently reviewing the potential next steps, as part of a wider review of targeted welfare provision. After such a huge effort to create this resource, it would be a pity not to continue it. 

On the other hand, although the associated voucher scheme was a major lever in the attempts to reshape service access and provision, at the time of writing there are no funds committed to continuing it. The City of Milan continues to explore funding options to continue the model. 

On a more positive note, the digital framework created to encourage gaming and civic participation was and is still embedded within the City authority’s existing website that encourages active citizenship through volunteering: https://volontariato.comune.milano.it/eventi/volontari-per-milano

Analysis of the sustainability of WISH-MI’s strategic ambitions also presents a mixed picture. In response to this question, most project stakeholders were optimistic, based on a survey undertaken in November 2023. 

 

Forms response chart. Question title: Do you think that either all or parts of the WISH-MI project will be sustained?
. Number of responses: 8 responses.

Source: WISH-MI Partner Survey, November 2023

Although most acknowledged that 100% of services will not continue, there was an awareness that WISH-MI had acted as a catalyst both in relation to partnership working, but also to establishing a new collaborative approach to children’s wellbeing. 

“Sustainability will be at least partly met. The vouchers, despite being a one-off opportunity, were a useful way of promoting the empowerment of youth and families, especially considering the transition towards a new urban system. Synergies were created not only among stakeholders, but also among different initiative funds (MUA funds, Legge 285 and UIA contribution) and represent an example of a new all-encompassing and comprehensive approach. Hubs were created in MUA spaces and sustainability evaluated at departmental level. The collaboration of the network, demolishing knowledge silos and fragmentation, helped in creating cross-departmental relations that will have a lasting impact.” (WISH-MI Partner, WISH-MI Partner survey, November 2023)

Structures developed within the context of WISH-MI will continue to support that enhanced collaboration. For example, as well as a strategic 0-18 plan that cuts across all departments, Milan has now created a children’s well-being index supported by performance metrics that apply throughout the municipality. The recruitment and training of 0-18 ambassadors, again across the entire departmental structure, is a visible signal indicating that the wellbeing of the city’s children is everyone's business. 

Beyond the City Council, involvement in WISH-MI has encouraged other partners to further explore their own capacity to drive the youth wellbeing agenda. A good example is the Catholic University, which has developed the Teen Voice initiative, establishing a cohort of young advisers who can support the work of the city’s Youth Guarantor, himself based within the university. Another is Action Aid’s continued promotion of community arts as a way to mobilise young people in area regeneration, as focused in our WISH-MI podcast

 

Lessons learned

Throughout the project we have retained a focus on how WISH-MI has performed against the 7 UIA innovation challenges. From the partnership perspective, the top three that have caused the most difficulty have been broadly consistent, and these are shown in the figure below:

Forms response chart. Question title: Which of the seven UIA challenges have been the most difficult for the project. Choose two only
. Number of responses: 8 responses. 

Source: WISH-MI Partner Survey, November 2023

These data provide a helpful starting point to our review of the key lessons from this innovation project. Shifting public-sector culture doesn’t happen overnight  - and partners need to be kept in the picture.

We have already noted that WISH-MI has provided a catalyst for municipal reform within the city administration, evidenced through a new strategy, a changed approach to budgets and the introduction of mechanisms to present youth well-being as a cross-departmental responsibility. 

However, the slowness and complexity of this aspect of WISH-MI has been a source of some frustration to partners, as evidenced in the survey results. Central to this, in terms of partnership working, is the importance of open and effective communication, so that everyone is kept in the loop. At times, largely due to staffing issues and operational pressures, external partners did not always feel fully up to date with developments, which has led to frustration and disappointment. 

In the end, as we have seen, partners are on the whole optimistic about the direction of travel, even though progress has been slower than some had hoped for. 

Visible operational leadership is essential

This point seems obvious. However, the frustration within the partnership was exacerbated by middle-management discontinuity within the City administration which led to periods of uncertainty and drift. The loss of the project leader at a relatively early state in the project was a key factor here. His partial replacement by a colleague who was already heavily committed on other duties, then had to assume a major city role in the Ukrainian refugee crisis, meant that the senior management input was stretched even more thinly. Although the day-to-day operational work was much appreciated, partners sensed (rightly or wrongly) that this diminished senior management input reflected WISH-MI becoming a lower priority in the scheme of other challenges. 

The conclusion from this is the need to match the scale of your ambition with the appropriate staffing resources, particularly in relation to the operational leadership of the project. 

Participative processes require careful design and ample time

The participative approach is the third challenge highlighted by partners as posing difficulties for the project. In fairness, the timing of the pandemic had a huge impact on this important aspect of WISH-MI. And although the project gained a time extension at the end, the original plan was for intensive activity during the initial months to engage young people and their families face to face in their communities. This did not happen, and by the time the crisis had passed, that key moment for the project had been lost. 

Largely as a result of COVID, the project was playing catch up for the remainder of its lifetime. This had implications for WISH-MI’s commitment to the involvement of young people and their families in service co-design. For example, due to procurement timeline pressures, the scope to involve service-users in the design of potential new services to be supported via the voucher scheme, was limited. 

The WISH-MI focus on child wellbeing provides a helpful entry point

Despite its implementation challenges, the WISH-MI experiment suggests that adopting child wellbeing as a focal point brings a number of benefits. From the public sector perspective, it creates a common denominator that cuts across departmental and organisational silos. This has encouraged collaboration across policy areas - for example education, health and culture - that are typically kept apart due to strict administrative and budgetary distinctions. 

At the strategic level, the establishment of a cross-departmental steering group has committed senior officials to this collaborative process. The development of the 0-18 strategic plan, and the ongoing work on a shared governance model, have resulted from this high level commitment. At the operational level, initiatives like the 0-18 Ambassadors have created champions across the municipal structure and communicated the key message that child wellbeing is a universal responsibility. 

Putting children at the centre is vital, but remains work in progress

Partly due to the impact of the pandemic, Milan’s aspiration to embed child participation at the heart of WISH-MI was not fully realised.  The municipal culture and structures were at times too inflexible to meet the project’s ambitions, and despite the advances made (for example the cross-departmental Youth Ambassador model), much work remains to be done here. However, several WISH-MI partners did manage to experiment with new ways of working with young people through establishing mechanisms to engage them. Action Aid and ABCittà, organisations with deep participatory cultures, are among them whilst the Catholic University pioneered the Teen Voice initiative, which brought together a group of young people to advise the city’s Youth Guarantor. 

Finally, through its interest in child-centred policy processes, Milan developed links with other cities - most notably Vienna - which provide scope for this area of work to evolve further. 

Recommendations to other urban authorities who wish to implement similar innovative projects

Sadly, the scale of deprivation and exclusion experienced by a growing number of young people in Milan is not peculiar to that city. Nor are the service delivery challenges identified in the original WISH-MI application:

  • Awareness of service provision
  • Understanding of entitlement to services
  • Traditional top-down public service offer

Consequently the WISH-MI innovation challenge and intervention logic remain legitimate, not only for Milan, but for many cities, especially larger metropolitan ones with  fast changing populations. 

Provided a city has the political will to address these issues then the overall WISH-MI concept may provide a useful framework. The fact that the concept is modular is an advantage, meaning that other cities can select aspects of the approach best suited to their own setting. Furthermore, although WISH-MI has been a complex and difficult journey, the city actors have gathered a wealth of skills and experience along the way, which are worth sharing with a wider audience. 

In the final survey of WISH-MI partners, all of them saw the model as being transferable. Their feedback included some useful tips for other cities, which included the following:

“The aims of the project and the outcomes, even if partial, of the actions developed indicate that it is very appropriate for an administration to follow the path traced by the project. This logic of intervention with appropriate adjustments can truly become a model where local governments have real interest in working in a participatory and interdepartmental way for the welfare of citizens 0-18 years old.”

 

“What is needed is real political involvement, timely and effective communication of the project, a real willingness to listen to the community and citizens, especially children, and adolescents living in the most fragile areas. A long-term strategy is needed.”

The first thing to note in conclusion, is the scale of Milan’s ambition. Through WISH-MI, the city confirmed its commitment to promote and improve the wellbeing of its young people, particularly those who are most disadvantaged, and to explore innovative ways to improve their access to services. This is to be applauded and, despite its challenges, WISH-MI has created an impetus that can be built upon. 

Reframing the challenge of youth wellbeing as a shared city challenge is also a potentially game changing step. In doing so, the City of Milan has made this a cross-departmental issue, confronting the tradition of departmental silos. As we have already seen, we remain in the early days of this long term objective, but WISH-MI, and the associated 0-18 initiatives, have sent an important signal throughout the municipality. 

Alongside this, it is important to recognise the range and scale of innovative measures implemented towards this important goal. The aspiration has been to transform the way that services are designed, delivered and used by children, young people and families. The WISH-MI team recognised that doing this would require new tools and products that went beyond the long-established model of public sector service offer.

Spaventa Mural

Consequently, there has been a degree of risk-taking and a willingness to experiment that is wholly consistent with the UIA ethos. On the ground, examples of this have included:

  • The development and piloting of the voucher system
  • The design and launch of the digital catalogue
  • The phygital outreach activity, linked to civic volunteering
  • The mobilisation of artists to facilitate participation of young people

 

Real innovation never occurs without mistakes and inevitably some of these interventions have been more successful than others. Nevertheless, a huge amount of learning has been acquired along the way, which has value to other cities, as we noted in the previous section. 

Looking back, what might have given the project a better chance of success? The most obvious point here relates to the scale of the project, and whether, for example, WISH-MI should have focused on a smaller territorial area. Aiming at complete city-wide coverage was perhaps too big an ask from the city’s starting point, and a neighbourhood approach - capable of being scaled up - might have been more deliverable. 

Finally, it is impossible to assess the overall performance of WISH-MI without reference to the impact of COVID. This Black Swan moment profoundly affected the project and, as we have seen, meant that the sequence key activities - such as the community outreach work - was significantly diluted and delayed. 

Under the circumstances, the partners did their best to deliver the project in the spirit of the original application, but it is hard not to conclude that it never really recovered from the impact of the pandemic. 

 

About this resource

Author
Eddy Adams
Project
Location
Milan, Italy
About UIA
Urban Innovative Actions
Programme/Initiative
2014-2020

The Urban Innovative Actions (UIA) is a European Union initiative that provided funding to urban areas across Europe to test new and unproven solutions to urban challenges. The initiative had a total ERDF budget of €372 million for 2014-2020.

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