The Rising of the Sharing Economy in Italy

Collaborative services experiencing a surge in Italy. Much ink is being spilled by the media about this growing movement. The radio does its part, too, by making people aware of this new phenomenon born out of economic necessity. Further still, there are a growing number of conferences on the theme, covering a fairly broad range of topics full of start-up stories. The debate will no doubt intensify in the coming months.

Despite some initial skepticism, this budding social trend is rapidly taking shape. It's still early days in Italy. Shortly, we will begin to hear the first success stories (and their implications), just as in the United States.

For example, the number of Italian collaborative exploded in the last quarter of 2012. Before then, you could count them on one hand. Now, there are over 120 of them, and the movement keeps growing both in terms of platforms and users.

We're beginning to share more and more in Italy — homes (Airbnb, Dovedormo, etc.); nannies (Oltretata); time (Sfinz, Tamtown); food (Gnammo, Newgusto); boats (Sailsquare); bicycles (okobici); skills (OilProject, SkillBros); cars (Blablacar); and money (Prestiamoci, Starteed).

We are strong in the bartering systems which are deeply rooted in our culture; in online auctions that follow in eBay’s footsteps and that are, by far, the most popular and well-known platforms; in crowdfunding with 37 platforms that are changing the Italian financial landscape; in more than 70 coworking spaces across the country; and, of course, whatever has to do with food.

Although some of the sharing communities replicate models already existing in the U.S., many are unique. Some notable projects:

  • Openwear — a collaborative clothing platform financed through the European Commission for an alternative approach to fashion creation
  • Impossible Living — a service mapping abandoned buildings
  • ScambiaTreno — an exchange for unused and low-cost train tickets
  • Dropis and Sardex — for virtual currency services where you can only share, no currency is used.

And some interesting statistics with regard to the oldest sites:

  • Zerorelativo — the first Italian online bartering community has over 70,000 swap offers
  • Delcampe — a marketplace made by collectors with over 50 million ongoing bids
  • Subito — a platform to sell and buy whatever type of product and service that now has more than 54 million ads
  • Carpooling — boasting 750,000 domestic rides
  • Reoose — a community of 25,000 users
  • Fubles — the football community that now exceeds 250,000 registered members

Usually these are new services are started by young entrepreneurs in their early 30s and sometimes by over-40 ex-managers who think it’s time to invest in a business which may be less profitable, but more rewarding.

However, regardless of who leads them, the majority of these communities have not reached the general public yet. And that’s not because Italians don’t want to share. As a matter of fact, despite our individualistic consumer behavior, which is sometimes excessive, an anti-consumerist ideology still survives, a legacy of the Catholic church, Communist influences, and our rural cultural heritage which valued wasting nothing. Today’s economic challenges have fostered the resurgance of this mindset

It is not by accident that Italy has run some isolated (but very interesting) sharing experiments such as GAS (Solidarity Purchasing Groups similar to the Community Supported Agriculture), solidarity districts, co-housing and social housing, time banking, and ethical finance.

That said, foreign platforms arriving in Italy with strong products and financial backing do well. Consider that Airbnb and BlablaCar have the highest growth rates in Europe, and The HUB has the largest number of centers per town than any other country.

Italian online communities run up against problems specific to sharing services and startups in general. On the one hand, our domestic services struggle to reach critical mass; on the other hand, the lack of funding restricts these projects so much that those who work on them often do so as a second job. Therefore, they're unable to devote the necessary time to help them take off.

Nevertheless, something is changing in Italy: Our government presented the Decreto Sviluppo (Decree for Development) in October 2012 with plans to allocate 110 million euros every year to promote the creation of innovative startups. Many projects are now springing up to support innovation. But there is still much to do until the market is ripe and the “Italian System” yields the intended results. At this point, collaborative services have a great opportunity to link together to create a stronger national network.

Today, these platforms are solitary initiatives often isolated from each other and connections between their founders are sporadic. By contrast, leveraging what they have in common would bring together expertise, best practices, and experiences. They could optimize growth, reduce risks, co-market, and, above all, raise public awareness. The focus should be to clearly explain the benefits of such services and to emphasize the fact that we are part of a larger movement. These are ways to convincing people to try these tools and, most importantly, to demonstrate that we do have a chance to live a better future... even in Italy.

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