As Expo 2015 nears, Milan embraces the sharing economy

Open is a bookstore, work space, meeting venue, social spot and symbol of a growing sharing economy in Milan. (Open photo)

MILAN, Italy — Less than two months from now, a world’s fair will open here, temporarily but substantially boosting Milan’s population of 1.3 million. More than 20 million visitors are expected at Expo Milano 2015, which runs from May 1 through October 31.

Since the dawn of the Uber era, there has never been a bigger or longer test of how so-called “sharing economy” services can help a city adapt quickly to changing needs. Milan gets its share of visitors but not as continuous a flow as in the more touristic Rome, Venice or Florence. For six months, we’ll see if enough Milanese invite strangers into their flats, cars and kitchens to overcome shortages of hotels, taxis and restaurants.

Milan is ready. Its car-sharing program boasts more users (200,000) than any other city in Italy and its bike sharing program offers an impressive 3,500 bicycles. But most important, Milan is explicitly embracing sharing services and startups as a growth sector for its economy — through the Expo and beyond.

Since 2013, a committee of academics, urban experts and civic hackers has been working on the Sharexpo initiative, aimed at capitalizing on the Expo to promote sharing services. The conversation grew to include managers of big international players such as Uber and Airbnb, as well as the regular people who drive the cars and let out their flats. City officials joined the effort last year. In December, Milan became the first city in Europe to adopt as law an official framework for encouraging the growth of the sharing economy.

“Expo 2015 has been an accelerator of a process which was already ongoing,” says Cristina Tajani, Milan’s deputy mayor in charge of economic development. “But it will be up to the users to select the initiatives and the platforms which will last in the future.”

From ‘me’ to ‘we’

Even recently, not many in Italy would have imagined Milan embracing the communitarian qualities of collaborative consumption. Italy’s capital of fashion, design and finance long had a reputation for excess. A liquor ad on television gave the city a slogan — Milano da bere (literally, “Milan to drink”) — that became shorthand for a certain appreciation for expensive clothing, big cars and opulence in public life.

That’s changing. Italy is struggling from a prolonged economic crisis, and the Expo is seen as a symbol of recovery. Huge investments are going into developing the fair site and improving urban infrastructure. More than other cities in Italy, Milan is tuned in to innovations spreading across Europe, putting the city in an extraordinary position to test new approaches to reviving the economy.

Open hosts around 60 events per month, a number expected to rise during the Expo.  (Open photo)

So Milan’s political leaders were receptive as sharing services came on the urban scene. They saw opportunities to create more jobs in a growing local startup community focused around collaborative consumption. And the Expo gave them a reason to act.

The Sharexpo initiative played a big role in facilitating local debate. Their meetings created a dialogue about defining a framework for the local regulation of sharing-economy services. For instance, the city of Milan is talking with Airbnb about introducing a tourist tax on short-term rentals, while also reserving the ability to use hosts’ homes during emergencies to shelter displaced persons and rescue workers. (In the U. S., San Francisco and Portland, Oregon struck similar deals with Airbnb last July.)

Milan is working on a loose system of regulating these services in a nontraditional way. Rather than stipulating rules for operators to follow, Milan is looking at mapping out which established companies and startups are currently working in Milan. The city will then create a registry of those who meet certain standards, essentially giving them an official stamp of approval.

The setup will build off a similar system for co-working spaces that the city recently developed with the local chamber of commerce. To make the city’s register, these spaces must have at least 10 coworking workplaces, offer broadband or Wi-Fi internet connections and provide access for disabled persons, among other things. Similar criteria would be developed for other sharing-type businesses.

Milan has seen some of the same tension that other cities have had around sharing services: Taxi drivers have protested against Uber and some of the service’s drivers have been attacked. But Benedetta Arese Lucini, general manager of Uber Italy, hails Milan’s approach as groundbreaking. “For the first time in Italy,” she says, “the public administration learned from the private sector, with the aim of applying its success models to the social sphere.”

Ready for the influx

For its part, Uber is gearing up for the Expo, seeing the flood of international visitors as an opportunity to build its global brand. Uber expects 70 percent of the people who will use the service in Milan during the Expo will have previously used Uber somewhere else in the world. The service is recruiting drivers who speak other languages (especially Chinese) to handle the influx of customers.

At the Expo, the rise of the sharing economy will be one of the main topics of events hosted by Cascina Triulza. That’s the pavillion dedicated to civil society.

At Presso, grab a beer from the refrigerator and hang out. It’s free before 6 pm. (Presso photo)

But away from the fairgrounds, Milan hopes the Expo will be a springboard for local companies as well. Across the city, entrepreneurs are applying sharing principles to create multi-use spaces that will be in high demand during the Expo. They’re flexible buildings that can host side events such as talks or movies; provide offices and meeting spaces, whether for local companies or for visiting executives who are in-town for the Expo; or provide kitchen and dining space for chefs to cook group meals. And many are in neighborhoods needing regeneration.

I visited a few of these spaces last month. One of them is a bookstore called Open. Beyond the books are 40 workspaces for rent and innovative social spaces intended to encourage students, artists, journalists and entrepreneurs to mix. A 20 meter-long table lays in the middle of this space, which Open founder Giorgio Fipaldini calls “a third place between home and a workplace, where the diversity is the glue among people.” Many companies are choosing Open to host their press conferences, seminars and trainings. The venue hosts around 60 events per month, a number expected to rise during the Expo.

Another innovative model is called Copernico. Located close to Milan’s central train station (and still under construction) this 15,000 square-meter space will host 90 co-working places, flexible offices, a social floor, bar, cinema-conference room, fitness center and outdoor green space. Copernico will work almost like a club, with different types of membership allowing access to different services. More than 100 cultural and commercial events are planned here, with many more to come during the Expo. Business developer Jacopo Muzina estimates that 100,000 people will pass through Copernico each year, whether for business, social or cultural reasons. “Milan is the only city in Italy where it is possible to create a structure of this kind,” he says.

Then there is Presso, located in the heart of Milan’s Chinatown. Presso is a cross between a showroom for consumer products and a public living room where anyone can hang out, open the refrigerator, and help himself to a beer. It is possible at Presso to walk in off the street, use the kitchen to cook some pasta (bring your own or use what’s in the cupboard), and sit down and eat a meal. All of this is free before 6 pm, paid for by companies looking to market their products. In the evenings, the space is rentable for private dinners or parties.

In the evenings, Presso rents out its kitchen and dining space for private dinners or parties. (Presso photo)

Claudio Garosci, Presso’s co-founder, is descended from the family that first brought the modern supermarket to Italy in the 1960s. He says people are confused by Presso at first, just as the first supermarket shoppers were hesitant to take products off shelves without help from a salesperson. But Presso patrons are getting the hang of it. “Presso soon became a meeting point of this multicultural neighborhood, mostly inhabited by young people and creative workers who appreciated this domestic environment aimed at creating interaction among people,” Garosci says.

Bottom-up approach

After the Expo, the city of Milan will continue to support initiatives and spaces which foster social inclusion, job growth and sense of community through collaborative-economy platforms.  In the past three months, the city invested  €1.5 million to regenerate buildings in five different areas of Milan dedicated to makers, startups and social entrepreneurs. Two of these spaces will constitute the first “sharing economy district,” hosting debates and meetings for the stakeholders of collaborative economy.

Overall, Milan’s approach is the opposite of a top-down strategy following anything resembling a strategic plan. Milan is demonstrating an approach to the sharing economy that respects a plurality of initiatives emerging from different perspectives, without clear coordination from the city. What could be seen elsewhere as a deficiency is viewed in Milan as a strong point, according to the urbanist Giacomo Biraghi, founder of the Secolo Urbano consulting group.

“This lack of coordination is a concrete sign of the so-called ‘ambrosiano’ approach,” Biraghi says, using a local term for people from Milan. “That has always characterized urban development along the centuries. Milan is not only its local authority but is composed by a variety of actors which contributes for its part to the development of the city. That is what really makes Milan a true capital of the sharing economy, as it was for fashion, design and finance.” 

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Simone is a Rome-based journalist who covers innovation, sustainability and urban issues.   Full bio

LEARNING FROM MILAN

  • The Expo 2015 will be one of the biggest tests yet of the “sharing economy.”
  • Milan hopes the Expo will be a springboard for local sharing and co-working companies away from the fairgrounds.
  • Rather than regulating sharing services with rules, Milan is looking at creating a registry of services that meet certain standards. 

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