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 exactly what the Italian city of Bologna has always tried to do for promoting the cooperative movement in its region, including recently even platform cooperatives. 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 civil inspiration and multi-stakeholder character.
Since the end of WWII, Bologna has been harnessing and sustaining civic energies at all levels of municipal management through a broad promotion of its political and economic engagement. Historically, a fundamental role has been played in this sense by the local manifestations of the National League of Cooperatives (LegaCoop) and the Italian Communist Party, the latter promoting a kind of industrial development characterized by flexible specialization and decentralization of production. For these reasons, the cooperative organizational model has acquired significant embeddedness in the social fabric of the territory, making Bologna a paradigmatic case study.
The related institutional system has been thus dubbed the “civil economy.” Accordingly, the Emilian alternative advocates for radical devolution of power and multi-level citizen participation in light of the well-documented dysfunctionalities of private monopolistic firms and state centralization in governing the economy. Nonetheless, for being stable, such an equilibrium needs to be sustained also by a different complex of individual preferences and social norms. A complex characterized by intrinsic and pro-social motivations and by a form of reasoning centered on the categories of ‘ecosystem,’ ‘territory’ and ‘institutional complementarity.’
This is undoubtedly a method of translating principles that would otherwise remain solely written in the charter, such as the European principle of subsidiarity or Article 45 of the Italian Constitution, which states: “The Republic shall recognize the social function of cooperation of a mutually supportive, non-speculative nature. The law shall promote and encourage co-operation through appropriate means and ensures its character and purposes through appropriate control mechanisms.” Furthermore, due to the local and relational character of the civil economy, the benefits of its potential application to the digital world have been also emphasized for tackling the most critical aspects of globalization.
Bologna’s mayor, Matteo Lepore, was probably thinking about these benefits when, in 2020, he discussed the creation of an urban ecosystem of the mutual and collaborative digital economy, i.e., the Italian Co-op Valley. To be clear, in line with Elinor Ostrom’s lesson and James Muldoon’s recent proposal of Platform Socialism, we are speaking about a more equitable alternative to the extractive business model of the Silicon Valley 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 broken 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, I believe some digital platforms can be viewed as essential infrastructures that provide public utility services and should be thus jointly owned and managed by all the stakeholders who are impacted by their operations. Municipalities seem to have the powers required to govern the ongoing process, noted Guido Smorto, a comparative and digital law professor from the University of Palermo. They should not, however, limit the autonomy of newly formed cooperatives, respecting the fourth principle of the International Cooperative Alliance.
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 incumbents Airbnb and Booking.com. Besides that, as it expands throughout Europe, it is also in the process of transitioning to a multi-stakeholder cooperative. For this reason, the founders of the platform intend to incorporate in its governance structure local ambassadors, who are responsible for communicating with governmental agencies in the regions where Fairbnb operates and activating the social projects sponsored by the platform. Accordingly, local authorities may be in charge of certifying its sustainability and providing conducive regulation, so that it can better compete with its current rivals.
The food-delivery cooperative Consegne Etiche was imagined during the first Italian lockdown in April 2020. Inspired by the innovative Charter of Fundamental Rights of Digital Labor in the Urban Context, the mission of the platform was to deliver food and other goods to people who couldn’t get to the store. Contemporaneously, it also aimed to guarantee more equitable working conditions to riders and sustain local shopkeepers. For these reasons, 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, private, and community actors came together to talk about how to make the city better for everyone. Existing cooperatives aiming to reconvert themselves, urban designers, local shopkeepers, university research centers, 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.
Considering both these two examples, I am convinced that in order to create a thriving digital ecosystem, or “a co-op valley,” municipal institutions, research centers, and social networks must all support our vision. This also entails looking beyond Silicon Valley and thinking about what works in other parts of the world, just like Bologna, where the city tries to organize the digital economy in accordance with its 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?