Inclusiveness and sustainability make Bologna’s economic fabric

“We believe that happiness, culture, education and inclusion are the drivers to build a future equal society,” says Piero Pelizzaro, Head of the European and International Relations Department at the City of Bologna. “We need to fight for that.”

When those values feed into the economy, they trigger different types of businesses. “Several European cities are building innovative, collaborative approaches with social economy actors, citizens, and local stakeholders to create fairer and greener communities,” says Anna Iafisco, Policy Support Officer at Eurocities.

Bologna is an excellent example of engaging with associations and individuals that go beyond mere profit to have a social impact. Additionally, the municipality leads social economy projects – from music initiatives to social gamification for students and actions that contribute to a greener future.

The social economy pioneer city

Pelizzaro states Italy’s role as a host country for those from North Africa, or Asia – the so-called migrants, but “I called them the new Europeans,” he specifies – has shaped a different perspective in the economic sector to include everyone.

A plate of food, a place to sleep, a ride to school or work, and inclusivity should be offered to these newcomers. This, says Pelizzaro, is reflected in all the services the council provides.

In this sense, Bologna has funded the Salus programme, which entails creating new businesses around welcoming newcomers to the city. Refugees participate in the local economy by contributing their skills and professional experience to develop autonomy and enjoy tangible integration.

Photo by Salus Space
Photo by Salus Space
Photo by Salus Space
Photo by Salus Space

“Working on the social economy is not a matter of being more impactful in terms of fortune but a method to be right and equal and guarantee the right for everyone to live in our cities,” concludes Pelizzaro.

A new life

The truth is social economy partners are key in providing social housing and urban development strategies. The municipality of Bologna works to improve the right to housing more concretely and consistently as they know it is not only about accessing housing, services and schools but also about “how we create a new economy, a new opportunity in terms of recovering abandoned spaces,” according to Pelizzaro.

Activity at Le Serre. Photo by Kilowatt

An example is Villaggio Gandusio, born with a double objective: sustainability and social cohesion. 154 apartments received a new life thanks to both renovation works and new inhabitants. The action brings together different communities to benefit from exchanges and develop social cohesion.

“The role of local governments is crucial to develop pathways for a more resilient and sustainable proximity and social economy ecosystems,” adds Iafisco.

DumBO is another example of social inclusion and fostering community. The project enabled a former railway yard to transform into a multifunctional district of 40,000 square meters dedicated to culture, creativity, social activities, circular economy, music and sport.

DumBo is the result of collaboration and mutual learning between more than 20 associations, different private businesses and civil society. Altogether, they designed the spaces to be rented.

Something similar comes from Le Serre dei Giardini, an abandoned space that underwent a regeneration process to host a variety of social, environmental and cultural projects. In this case, citizens can reconnect with nature and enjoy art.

Cultural activity at Le Serre. Photo by Kilowatt

You’ve got the power

The social economy also contributes to the green transition by developing sustainable practices, goods and services for industrial development, for instance in renewable energy, housing and mobility.

A crucial part of housing renovation involves energy and sustainability without forgetting affordability. Merging all three has recently turned out to be more difficult than ever. That’s why Bologna also focuses on ensuring that energy initiatives are on the table.

In the city, they know citizen-centric energy actions can lead to a more sustainable and participatory system. But what elements are empowering citizens to use energy efficiently and sustainably? What obstacles are still preventing others from following this path?

To find out, Bologna coordinates Greta, a research project focusing on the different ways toward active public participation in the clean energy transition locally and globally. The initiative promotes citizens’ participation in energy communities and recommendations for policymaking processes. The results will be based on the findings of the obstacles to energy citizenship and how to reach solutions.

The social economy requires funding

Bologna and the region have a strong tradition of using the cooperative model. For Pelizzaro, “we are an example in Europe, maybe even around the globe, on how cooperatives work.”

A good understanding of regional and national governments and collaboration with the population through dialogues, participatory processes, and co-creation is key to a successful approach to the social economy. “This gives us an opportunity not only to get the people to participate but also to think how we want to change or improve our quality of services,” says Pelizzaro.

However, to foster those initiatives, it will be necessary to clearly focus on EU funding to support sustainable local actions and develop new business models within the social economy.

At the end of last year, the European Commission launched a new Social Economy Action Plan to help mobilise the full potential of the social economy. The Commission calls on member states to set up local social economy contact points playing the role of ambassadors, providing peer-to-peer support, facilitating access to EU and national funding, and liaising with authorities managing European funds.

A bird eye view of Bologna
A view of Bologna. Photo by Rita Michelon

“The upcoming Council recommendation on developing social economy framework conditions should support local authorities in improving cross-sectoral collaboration with social economy actors,” adds Iafisco.

Indeed, thanks to regional government involvement and structural funds, Bologna can support social economy activities that would not have existed if only private funds were available. “We are quite lucky. Bologna’s regional government backs and promotes a business environment with a cooperative model that always has a social impact,” admits Pelizzaro. “On the other hand, our citizens are willing to volunteer and collaborate, to support this approach. That makes everything a success.”

The 2022 Social Innovation Lab will take place on 19-21 October in Bologna and will focus on ‘Cities for Just Transitions: Using social economy to drive a fair transition towards climate neutrality’. 

The event will prompt city representatives to share and co-create innovative solutions supporting an inclusive and just energy transition. 

The 2022 Social Innovation Lab in Bologna will be an excellent opportunity to explore an in-depth, innovative response to today’s complex social challenges. Members and experts can register here.

Marta Buces Eurocities Writer