Is Bologna on the Verge of Becoming the Italian Co-op Valley?

Photo Credit: Piazza Verdi, Bologna, by Pietro Ghirlanda

Municipalities can act as top-down catalytic developers or as backers of bottom-up grassroots movements in order to foster enabling environments and support cooperative enterprises. Combining these two strategies and cultivating complementary initiatives results in stronger partnerships that strengthen the local ecosystem

This is what the Italian city of Bologna does for supporting the cooperative movement in its region. More specifically, the municipality has served for decades as an incubator and facilitator of a vast range of cooperative experiences, without limiting, for this reason, their public appeal or multi-stakeholder inspiration.

Indeed, since the end of WWII, the so-called “Red Bologna” has been harnessing and sustaining civic energies at all levels of municipal management through a broad promotion of their political and economic engagement, particularly among the widening working class. As a result, despite the important role played by the local manifestations of the Italian Communist Party and the National League of Cooperatives (LegaCoop), the cooperative organizational model’s exceptional success in Emilia-Romagna may be also explained by its embeddedness in the territory’s socio-cultural networks. “Bologna’s significance rests in the fact that its achievements have not been the results of technocratic-Fabian decisions from the top, but of a framework of local democracy which has involved wider and wider strata of the population,” historian Donald Sassoon stated.

Stefano Zamagni, a major researcher in Third Sector economics, has dubbed this system the “civil economy,” in reference to the country’s Medieval communal culture. Bologna was also the site of the world’s first university, which was established in 1088 A.D. Accordingly, the Emilian alternative advocates for radical devolution of power and multi-level citizen participation in decision-making in light of the well-documented dysfunctionalities of private monopolistic firms and state centralization in governing Italy’s economic and political development. As a result, many initiatives in Bologna are directly taken at the local district level rather than the city one.

This is undoubtedly a method of translating principles that would otherwise remain solely in the charter, such as the European principle of subsidiarity or Article 45 of the antifascist Italian Constitution, which states: “The Republic recognizes the social function of cooperation of a mutualistic, non-speculative nature. The law promotes and encourages co-operation through appropriate means and ensures its character and purposes through adequate controls.” Besides that, the importance of the collaborative economy’s local and relational character, as well as the unexpected competitive advantages that it offers in today’s globalized world (e.g., the provision of better jobs for workers and the internalization of externalities that harm communities), have been frequently emphasized.

Accordingly, in line with Elinor Ostrom’s work and James Muldoon’s recent proposal of Platform Socialism, Bologna’s mayor, Matteo Lepore, has portrayed the city as the prospective Italian Co-op Valley. To be clear, we are discussing a more equitable alternative to Silicon Valley’s extractive business model that is based on values such as solidarity, mutualism, and proximity. It is not an attempt to imitate Silicon Valley in any way.

From this vantage point, Bologna offers a chance to rethink the social contract that currently governs the Internet, prioritizing the multi-stakeholder orientation and combining the established heritage of urban commoning with the novel ideal of the platform cooperativism global movement. As a result, digital platforms can be viewed as infrastructures that provide public utility services and should be jointly owned and managed by all the stakeholders who are impacted by their operation. “Municipalities are deemed to have all the power they need to govern the ongoing process,” said Guido Smorto, a comparative and digital law expert. They do not, however, limit newly formed cooperatives’ autonomy and thus adhere to the fourth principle of the International Cooperative Alliance, concerning autonomy and independence.

Next, I’d like to highlight two platform co-ops that have successfully emerged in the Bologna ecosystem. I’m referring to Fairbnb and Consegne Etiche.

Fairbnb is an Emilian worker-owned cooperative that provides short-term socially sustainable vacation rentals in order to tackle the pressing gentrification issue posed by its extractive incumbent. Besides that, as it expands throughout Europe, it is also in the process of transitioning to a multi-stakeholder cooperative. For this reason, the platform’s founders intend to incorporate local ambassadors in its governance structure, who will be responsible for communicating with governmental agencies in the regions where Fairbnb operates and activating the platform’s social projects. Accordingly, local authorities may be in charge of certifying its sustainability and providing conducive regulation, so that it can compete better with its current rivals.

The food-delivery cooperative Consegne Etiche was launched during the Italian lockdown in April 2020. It was born, under the framework of the innovative Charter of Fundamental Rights of Digital Labor in the Urban Context, to deliver food and other goods to people who can’t get to the store. At that difficult time, the Foundation for Urban Innovation, an independent corporation chartered by the Municipality and the University of Bologna, held an open online assembly where a wide range of public and private actors came together to talk about how to make the city better for everyone. Social entrepreneurs from existing cooperatives who wanted to change their business model, urban designers, local shopkeepers, academics, and gig workers’ union representatives got involved in this co-planning process. The goals were to rethink the city after Covid, fight mainstream extractive platforms, and provide an essential service to citizens at the same time.

I am convinced that in order to create a thriving digital ecosystem or “co-op valley,” municipal institutions and social networks must support our vision. This also entails looking beyond Silicon Valley and considering what works in other parts of the world, such as Bologna, which organizes its digital economy in accordance with the region’s historical values. Municipalities can foster an environment conducive to innovation by explicitly supporting these new experiences and providing the resources that entrepreneurs require. What could your city do to encourage ethical digital entrepreneurship?