Interview. Ivana Pais (Catholic University of Milan), co-author of the mapping of sharing platforms in Italy in 2016. In one year, the number increased from 118 to 138 and niches have been formed. It requires a dedicated law, a favorable tax regime, the distinction between professional and amateur workers, and access to risk capital. The future is not only business, but cooperation: "Italy does anger me, it has a strong tradition of cooperatives but it cannot get over the barrier between the traditional cooperative world and the digital one. The positive example is that of Smart in Belgium, that has built a cooperative with cycle-messengers who home deliver meals”

Sharing economy, small digital platforms grow in Italy

The third Italian mapping of the sharing economy platforms will be presented in Sharitaly, held today and tomorrow at Base Milano on via Bergognone 34 in Milan.

The research, curated by Marta Mainieri, from Collaboriamo, and Ivana Pais, economic sociology professor at the Catholic University, describes a scenario consisting of small growing platforms than in one year increased from 118 to 138, 208 if the  crowdfunding ones are added.

The economic sectors where there is sharing of goods and services – to be distinguished from the on demand economy and the Gig Economy  Foodora or Uber style – are transportation and personal services.

There are 25 platforms in the fields of carpooling, ridesharing, Car Sharing peer to peer and parcel delivery. There are 23 service platforms for childcare and dog sitter services and there are some that deal with time banks.

In 2015, 20 per cent of the platforms reached more than 30,000 users, now 31 per cent reached this milestone.

More than half of the platforms are located in the North of the country, 83 per cent are registered in the Commercial Register of companies and 38 per cent have been incorporated as limited liability companies. The research also traces the socio-professional profile of the founders: 82 per cent are men, 60 per cent are university graduates mainly in economics or engineering, many have previous business experience, and 34 per cent own companies in other sectors. Just under half (49 per cent) makes a profit on the transactions, ie the relationship between people who share a good or a service. The prevailing exchange mode is money (51 per cent), fewer deal with the credit or exchange of time.

An activity based on the relationships among people needs the spread of the culture of sharing. It is an essential element for the development of the industry, according to 64 per cent of respondents. Other measures are necessary, like the approval of a dedicated law, along with a favorable tax regime, the distinction between professional and amateur workers, and access to risk capital.

These measures are expected in a Sharing Economy Act  being discussed in Parliament, and by Dec. 14th, a report of the European Parliament is expected on the guidelines that the Commission should issue.

The research confirms the small scale of sharing Italian economy and its dependence on personal funds, rather than venture capital.

We asked Ivana Pais, co-author of the research, how the sharing economy has changed since the 2007-2008 crisis.

She answered: “Until recently, we have observed that when a corporation arrived in our country, local platforms did not stand up to the competition and closed. Today, I have the feeling that we are in a phase of revival. The new models differ from the large already established platforms. In mobility, for example: when Blablacar opened in Italy, other platforms closed. Today, however, other platforms are being created that are different and are looking for a niche.”

Which ones?

ICarry, for example. It specializes in transporting objects. Since Blablacar transports people, iCarry allows people traveling by car on the same route to bring a parcel.

Or Auting that allows the car sharing peer to peer: the car is rented short term to those in need.

We see these examples in all fields. These initiatives are proposed by their specificity in a fertile market and engage in a land plowed by the big platform. It’s easier than starting from scratch, as if on a green lawn.

An example for another sector?

The culture sector: in the absence of large platforms, we are witnessing an explosion of creativity. We invited to Sharitaly My Home Gallery, a platform that allows artists to open their studies to guest art lovers. The artist can arrange a guided tour of the own city.

How would you define this model from the employment point of view: is it a personal business? Self-employment?

The boundaries between producer and consumer have fallen. The most consolidated dynamics also are falling down. The worker directly reconstructs a chain: the public, the objectives of the own activities either artistic or economic, social and individual. In doing so, he comes to establish open spaces where he can co-create with others, using technology.

Research suggests that the majority of platforms are in the North. Why?

These initiatives are the mirror of our country. The most dynamic systems are the first to create these experiences. But when a peripheral territory intercepts these dynamics, it draws more benefits from it than the more structured territories. A very nice case is that of Casa Netural in Matera.

It is an experience of coworking and social innovation in a broad sense that is regenerating an area and the local economy. A more embryonic and less known case is Nughedu Santa Vittoria in Sardinia. This summer, a series of widespread hospitality initiatives were carried out leaning on the Gnammo platform. It is a country untouched by the traditional tourist routes, the young leave. It was decided to organize a dinner prepared by the ladies of the town based on traditional recipes reworked by the great chefs. Thanks to the network, dynamics have been set in motion that can develop into more structured initiatives. The investments are low, it is worth trying.

Interviews suggested that operators feel the need to distinguish between professionals and amateurs. Why?

It is a proposal contained in the draft law on the sharing economy. It is the point that has found more support. It’s a good way to identify a threshold that makes a distinction between professionals and those who live an unprofessional sharing experience. It sets a threshold of income above which, if the activity becomes recurrent and constitutes the main source of income, it meets the criteria of professionalism followed by professional traders. Otherwise it becomes a form of unfair competition.

Most of the platforms are limited liability companies, therefore enterprises. The size of the sharing economy, however, is restricted. There is a net dependence on personal funding, rather than from venture capital. Why?

It is an issue that affects all start-ups in Italy. The most serious problem is access to credit. This explains the high number of platforms available in Italy. They are initiatives that can be managed with its own resources. When they start to grow, they get to a market where they compete with platforms that have access to venture capital, thus supported by significant funding.

In many cases, the platforms cannot manage to stay on the market. Little funding is required to open up a platform. But to make it known in the market and make it work, significant more funding is required. And here we measure the endurance of our platforms. From the data on the number of users and the number of transactions, it can be observed that there are few that really work. 

Is this an Italian only situation? 
Very Italian, but also very European. There are a few exceptions abroad, like in France where they have Blablacar. Abroad, there are national champions, we do not have any in Italy.

We do not have an export model also because the markets are all national. However, we have interesting experiences of local platforms which engage over the territories and build platforms that meet the specific nature of the territory, but remain local.

What is the difference with the sharing economy of the United States? 
They are completely different models. And there is a structural fact. The Americans have a huge domestic market that allows them to scale while remaining within their borders and in their laws, maintaining the same language. When they go abroad, they are already large and can impose the logic they have incorporated into their platforms in different contexts.

The challenges of the on-demand economy start when they export from Silicon Valley abroad and find a very different legal framework. Conversely, an Italian platform starts from a very small domestic market, and then must make the leap when it is not strong enough to hold. So I think that regulatory initiatives at European level are very important. Until the market logic of a single European market is implemented, it will be difficult to hold and grow.

At what point of the process are the guidelines that the European Commission had decided to enact? 
In June, the Commission published the document aligned with the Italian proposal. The European Parliament is working on it and should present a report on collaborative economy by Dec. 14th. The report will be sent to the Commission which ultimately will issue guidelines.

The dispute of the cycle messengers with Foodora has highlighted the difference between gigs and sharing economy. What is it about? 
They are all manifestations of the App Economy. All the digital economy passes through the apps. The Gig-Economy is its first manifestation, and harnesses the power of technology to promote a different organization of work. It presents some positive elements: the fact that the employee can decide when to work is a freedom permitted by technologies that I would not discard. However, the power remains in the hands of the platform.

In the Sharing economy, however, the platform enables the relationships that are in the hands of peers. If the transacted price is determined by the platform, then we are not talking about collaborative economy anymore. It is different when the platform link economically active persons according to rules laid down by them. The platforms of the Gig economy need large numbers. At the beginning, they have very favorable market conditions. Once significant volumes are achieved and the industry monopoly is achieved, the rules often change.

That’s what we see right now. Until a few months ago, no one complained. Everybody was happy. The problems came when the platforms started to change the rules. Both the people who work on the platforms, as well as the customers, are penalized. The former see their fees lowered, while the latter see an increase in the price of the service. The platforms bet on the fact they are monopolists and can afford these changes. Deep down, this is how the digital economy works, starting from Amazon.

Is the future of the sharing economy in the creation of companies or is there room for cooperative platforms, like Ecsa, Stocksy, World Fair, Loomio and Smart in Belgium, that will create a cooperative together with the cycle messengers of Take Eat Easy? 
The case of Smart in Belgium is wonderful. It ‘important to start building this type of models. They are useful to to reproduce positive examples around the world. There are beautiful ideas in Platform cooperativism, which are challenging to put into practice. It seems to me that there is more interest from the theoreticians, than in reality.

Italy makes me angry: it has a strong cooperative tradition but cannot get over the barrier between the traditional cooperative world and the digital one. On one hand, the platforms’ founders do not take into account cooperativism. There is a cultural barrier between the two worlds. There is a world that is resistant to digital because they think that the virtual world is against the real one and cannot see it as a complementary channel to the others.

But some have understood the potential of the sharing economy and sees this as an opportunity to recover the spirit of the cooperative origins: mutual help and the relationship between peers, an approach that the bureaucratized unions have often lost, turning into providers of services while maintaining a cooperative governance.

There are several ongoing tests, even in the world of cooperatives, but there are very few results. But given the fact that public funding is decreasing, it is possible that a part of this world will be forced to call into question its own model. The Sharing Economy and cooperation on a digital platform could be a solution.

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