Milan has become a cool city. But beyond new architectures and trendy shops, the city is also promoting a new economical and social paradigm, an alternative to Industry 4.0: a model of open innovation, local but opposed to protectionism and borders
(photography: Luca Rotondo for D la Repubblica).
For example. Robots are considered the future for manufacting companies. But is extreme automation, the so-called Industry 4.0, really what’s best for all? The truth is that it works for mass production but a lot less for niche, quality focus companies (which in the Milan area are 36000 and represent one quarter of the whole city’s economy). The answer is called Manifattura Milano: a networking system to help SMEs to innovate by working with the many digital artisans already present in the area.
Another example. The gig economy, that of small jobs, the young guy who brings you pizza at home through an app, has really exploded. But it often borders on exploitation. The city thus prefers to promote the creation of small artisanal workshops and digital labs, also investing in training young people in these areas that strongly related to the manual, skilled knowhow that the city – through fashion and design – is famous for. Have social networks definitively replaced the square? Milan creates many new places where to enjoy culture, to discuss, exchange opinions and debate: working with private institutions, and focussing on both the center and suburbs.
«A sustainable future? Turning the city into a workshop »
“Leveraging on what it already possesses (a wealth of small company focused on quality, of young educated people with high tech knowledge, of universities and research center and of generous private foundations), the city is proposing a vision that is both an intelligent defense and an attack against an economy that has very little social and ethical standing“, says Stefano Maffei, associate professor at the Polytechnic School of Design and a great supporter of the link between traditional industrial production and digital world . “The new Milan is ambitious because it wants to change its point of view starting from questions of philosophical-social nature: are we sure that there are no alternatives to the present economical models? That only producing large volumes is financially sustainable? That only an economy of scale can generate income? “.
The city is now giving its own answers to these questions. Manifattura Milano, explains the president of its advisory board Stefano Micelli, foresees a change of perspective: to (re)turn the city into a workshop, a place for making things and, specifically, “niche and quality products, with high added value, realized through the collaboration between SMEs, consulting firms (from research and development to software) and fablab”.
Fablab is a recurrent word in Milanese conversations nowadays. But what is it, exactly? «It’s a laboratory with numerically controlled machines that work following the instructions provided by digital files to create objects», explains Giovanna Gardi from DotDotDot, a design studio with fablab (OpenDot, of which we have already spoken here). The most known tool in fablabs is the 3D printer: it does the same thing as a traditional printer but instead of building images or texts through depositing ink on a two-dimensional sheet, it realizes real objects by moving the printer head, which releases the material (often a powder combined with an adhesive) on three axes.
“There are many other machines in fablabs: laser cutters, plotter cutters, 3 or 4 axes milling machines (we use them to make printed circuit boards). And the true added value is integrating their use, also in electronics develpment. Gardi show some examples: a 3D printed bench that uses half the materials (because the machine reinforces only the spots that statically require it); a lamp with embedded electronic cicuits; a movable ramp to provide wheelchair accessibility to shops. And lots of personalized objects for kids with movement or cognitive issues. «I would ne so happy if people stopped showing small, insignificant objects when talkng about 3D printing» says Gardi. «Our added value for companies is not making necklaces or vases but support them in digital innovation”.
«The real added value of fablabs is to support companies in digital innovation»
Fablabs as research and development centers have thus a key role in the Manifattura Milano programme: for which the Comune (City administration) has already set aside 10 million euro, defined an agreement with the Ministery of Education to include fablabs in internship programmes, and launched calls for the management of labs and small companies incubators. While facilitating the installation of digital manufacturing in the suburbs.
“It’s an interesting bet, even if not easy”, says Matteo Ondanini of TheFabLab in via Calabiana, in the south-eastern outskirts of the city. “Because there’s a lot of work to do on the mentality of those who run small businesses. It is not by chance that we get contacted mainly by the giants, who have a clear picture of what digital production is. Like Roche pharmaceuticals, for whom we have created a device that emits sounds when a child approaches passive smoke; and Samsung, who commissioned us a motorcycle windscreen that reproduces information on the smartphone’s satellite navigator ».
“It’s true, it will not be easy”, confirms Micelli. «Milan is proposing a model of open innovation, local but opposed to protectionism and borders. Its dream is an economy that has a social dimension and a human meaning: it is obvious that it takes time and determination “.
«The outskirts are reborn by leveraging on their real identity, not by denying it»
The vision goes hand in hand with that of the development of the suburbs, where the administration has given spaces and funds to associations and foundations active on social and cultural innovation projects. For example, MareMilano, the startup of social innovation at the Cascina Torrette, in West Milan: open premises and courtyard where to take courses, watch movies with friends, listen to book readings, record music in a studio and produce works of art. Or the Fabriq, the startup accelerator born in the old library of Quarto Oggiaro: in addition to hosting, funding and training every year a dozen young entrepreneurs, selected through a municipal announcement, the center works full time with schools, to instill in young people the desire for enterprise and convince them that choosing legality is possible. The neighborhood around Corso Lodi has changed also its face in the last 2 years thanks to two private companies: Fondazione Prada, which attracts hundreds of foreigners in this once forgotten suburb, and Talent Garden, the largest Italian co-working space, which welcomes a myriad of small digital companies and offers a rich program of courses, workshops and workshops open to all (in addition to pop events where everyone can fly drones, build robots and try out virtual reality).
“Milan has always been a pragmatic and curious place for the world,” says Massimiliano Tarantino, general secretary of the Feltrinelli Foundation. “But at the same time he was incapable of listening to him and of importing ideas and resources, translating them into an Italian key. The city initially underwent Expo, but then it metabolized it, and its success gave it the courage to break away from an introflected national policy and to try something different. The ferment has always been, but could not find outlets. The merit of the administration was to listen, monitor resources and humanity and give them space. And suddenly those who looked across the border and then cry on themselves has resurrected the utopia, and the desire to do exploded: the citizens are changing the city as much as institutions, research centers and foundations, because the sense of community has been reborn »
Even in this re-descover of communal life, Milan has its own vision: reproducing the feel of the Italian village square, but in a contemporary version. The places of the “new Milan” are born above all to welcome people and make them discuss, using social networks only as a sounding board. At the Feltrinelli Foundation in via Pasubio there are theater acts and continuous and free performances, events on current issues and a bar where you can read or work for hours without being disturbed. At the BASE in the Tortona area, the former industrial space that the municipality has given to various associations for the creation of cultural programmes, the calendar is rich with free events (in one months you could see a workshop to turn mistakes into creative opportunities, projections of sex scenes that have made the history of cinema, a playful night of board games) and courses provided at popular prices (skateboard and balanceboard, use of open source software, vinyl cutter to customize the house walls).
Faced with many activities designed to entertain but also teach and make people think, one wonders: who pays? And what does the organizer gain? This is explained by Cristian Confalonieri of Studiolabo, who together with Paolo Casati was the inventor of the Brera Design District in 2008 and who since last year organized the Brera Design Days in October: 10 days of courses, workshops and talks, with experts from all over the world on issues related to design and technology. In the 2017 edition there were gatherings about gaming, empathy, smart living. And everything was free. “We collect funds from sponsors, we work in partnership with the Municipality, companies lend us the space,” explains Confalonieri. “But those who do these things do not think of an economic return, because they see in the change of pace a collective gain in quality of life: which in turn impacts on the business. The generosity of an entire generation should not be underestimated in the rebirth of Milan ».
Cristina Rota has a public relations studio ( RotaJorfida ) in the very central Brera area but she was born and raised in Quarto Oggiaro (an outskirt with a very bad reputation), and she never left the area, even when her daughter was born. «It is a like a border area, I would dare to say here we are in the trenches, but great forces of change are moving and I want to be part of it ». Which is the reason why Cristina works, in her free time, on Uncomfort Zone, a project of mapping of all bottom-up cultural activities in the suburbs to facilitate the exchange of information and best practices between neighborhoods.
“The Milano model stems from the belief that we can embrace the future without denying the past. Without falling into nostalgia“, concludes Tarantino. “It’s a story in which there is not a single protagonist. It proceeds by small but significant steps, overcoming the idea that the mega project started from above can change things. Togetherness, long term thinking and the belief that you can do it: I hope that Milan can export these values to other cities in Italy. The message that must pass is that ineluctability does not exist “.