Innovation, Technology and Enterpreneurship in Italy
Antonio Bonanno is a resident of Milan, Italy. He is one half, along with Giorgio Montersino, of Digital Natives, a start-up created to help Italian companies put together a Social Networking business strategy. I met him through Franceso D’Orazio after the first Social Media Lab at IULM, when, after he and Giorgio had driven us around the city, he kindly agreed to write a piece summing up the Milanese and Italian tech scenes.
Hi there! First of all, I’ve got something to confess: this piece is the result of pizza.
Yes, I mean it. I met Craig Smith of O’ReillyGMT at the first of a series of events called Social Media Lab, and we had a great time together eating all sorts of pizza after the conference. Over pizza, it happened. He proposed I should write a piece about Italy and Milan, what’s happening here in the Web 2.0/Live Web revolution, so here I am. My name is Antonio Bonanno and I’m one of the two partners of Digital Natives, a start-up based in Italy. What we do is try to help out companies and folks who want to create social networks.
When we talk of social networks, we actually mean a whole lot of things. Social networks have different technological platforms: they can be web-based, on your mobile, in Second Life, in your company’s intranet. Each of them is about starting a conversation: with your friends, with your collegues, with some appealing stranger with the same musical tastes. My business partner Giorgio Montersino and I have been active on the Internet for about 8 years, during which time we have seen many developments happen, and we started to play a part in the late 90’s when we began building websites. Although we’ve been working together for about 6 years now, we only recently started our own company. During these years, we met a lot of interesting people, and with a mix of their experiences and ours, I will try to outline what’s happening on the Italian scene in the Internet field. On a personal note, I would like to thank Craig for this opportunity. So, here we go!
CS – Are the tech scenes in Italy and Milan buzzing? Does Italy have a history of encouraging technology in general and computing specifically? What is the scene like with regards geeks getting together?
There is a lot going on and the community is very active, but I wouldn’t say that Italy has a history of encouraging technology, in general. We’ve had our great times (Olivetti in the 70s), but we recently lost a lot of that competitiveness in the field. I asked Mafe De Baggis, from Daimon, about this at LeWeb3: in her opinion, Italians don’t like to take risks: they prefer to work for an assured gain, rather than risk high capital. Also, in Italy we have an “innovation caste”, that makes it very difficult for people with good ideas to emerge from the underground. Mafe also played a part in the formation of the community of internet innovators in Milan: she told me about the very beginning, when people started to meet at a bar called Movida: at first they were seen as Martians by members of other business communities, but with time the community started to grow and regain the status of earthliness as the Internet itself grew. The variety of members of the community started to vary, too, from techie-only to a wide range of professionals, from journalist to the emerging jobs of the latest years, community managers, project managers and so on. The community is today still quite strong even off-line.
CS – Do you have a vibrant User Group infrastructure? Is there a cross-pollination between people in different areas of technology?
Working to organize a network of freelancers, I personally think intercommunication between different tech areas is vital both for the growth of new ideas and for the correct development of projects. Working without talking to each other doesn’t lead anywhere: that’s why, at Digital Natives, we don’t forget that the person as a whole, and not only their specific abilities, are key to every project. Federico Fasce, community designer and blogger currently working with Daimon, has a different idea. He thinks that there are some interesting communities of people willing to help each other, some even with a solid knowledge base, and gives HTML as an example. It has active groups in HTML, PHP and general webapps and the forum managed by Giorgio Taverniti is a great source for SEO and web marketing information. These kinds of communities tend to form around technical topics. Cross-pollination is more of an issue: there is some within specific communities (web app developers talk to web app designers) but not among the communities themselves. One example is the web and the game industry in Italy: so far there haven’t been contacts between the two that lead to a reciprocal cross-pollination of businesses.
CS – What events are specific to your part of the world? And what are the benefits of live events? How do they affect the attendee’s creativity and output?
Especially lately, events have multiplied at all levels: governmental entities started organizing events with the aim of evangelizing people who are not familiar with the technology and the revolution that’s happening; private organizations focused on getting people together to talk business; members of the tech communities self-organized to promote events with more specific targets, with a strong preference for the “barcamp” model.
Nicola Mattina spoke and helped organize a lot of these events. He recently talked business at
Web2Oltre in Milan: in his opinion, the event was way too expensive, although it was targeted at corporate executives. BarCamps instead have no cost for attendees, but unlike the ones that happen in other parts of Europe (UK) and where they were born (California), they tend to derail too much towards fun and put innovation and real exchange of ideas aside. It is really hard, Nicola says, to hear interesting things at BarCamps in Italy. Both creative and business output are not very well developed, although they are a good place to meet new friends and recruit people to work with on a variety of projects. Nicola suggests that for future events it would be best to adopt the OpenConference model, rather than continue with barcamps.
On the same note, Federico Fasce thinks the most important activities at events is networking. Barcamps have so far been successful in that, because they have become “the place” for networking among bloggers and members of the different parts of the community. What Federico also sees is a great deal of attention coming from people who are not part of the community, trying to understand what is happening. Events like the recent one organized by Top-IX show an effort in this direction.
CS – What major conferences take place in Italy and Milan? How do they affect the day-to-day life of a techie? Are they a source of inspiration or something that goes on in the background for a while but doesn’t really touch the grass roots geek?
From the perspective of Luca Conti, among the most popular bloggers in Italy with his blog Pandemia, most of the events that take place in Italy are nothing but an attempt to involve the big players that have something to do with the web but are not web-based businesses, thus come from the marketing/advertising side, to stimulate new opportunities and evangelize them. For this reason, the average content level of these events is quite low: it is often the case these events are little more than a showcase, where no real innovation takes place. The targets are traditional and new media and corporate managers who represent either big advertising agencies or companies that are interested in adopting web tools. The geek world is seldom participating in these events, because they have high entrance fees, and if they’re free, they’re very often simply showcases of products of these or that company.
That is why Paolo Valdemarin and Beniamino Pagliaro organized a 2-day conference called “State of the Net” (February 8th-9th, in Udine), that has the aim to change this trend and speak of what innovation is really about: as Paolo told me, the event will be focused on the web and its impact on society from a professional and cultural point of view, with topics ranging from information management to the web’s social impact. They recently launched the event, which is going to have a very interesting line-up that will be revealed day by day on the website of the event. The event is structured into 3-4 keynotes, 6-7 sessions in which a certain numbers of topics will be faced, in panels with a mixture of web professionals, both Italian and foreign. The event aims to gather both professionals and people who are just interested in those aspects of communication which involve the web.
CS – Does the culture support start-ups? Are the government helpful in this regard? Is there a ready supply of venture capitalists eager to invest in the talent of a promising set-up?
Speaking of start-ups in Italy at this time is a hard task. On one side, we see a lot of new stuff coming up, with very interesting products to be delivered to the market soon. On the other, it becomes more and more evident the need for a big change of culture towards enterpreneurs. Most of the investments and money are in the hands of the big players, who are just now starting to think of investing in smaller businesses (with some exceptions, of course).
Alberto D’Ottavi, consultant and blogger, member of 1Generation and NewTwo, a network of entrepreneurs encouraging the intiatives of young entrepreneurs, thinks that despite the vast number of initiatives, mostly linked to incubators in universities, the level of innovation is quite low. However, the VC system in Italy is opening up to small initiatives. Today there are VCs in Italy – the real problem they have is that they don’t find worthwhile initiatives: most of the initiatives that are now coming up are B2B, and they don’t offer enough perspective growth. Italy had a great deal of innovative products in the past: Yoox, VolaGratis, Dada, Tiscali, Buongiorno.it, all Italian intiatives that had success both inside and outside Italy. The same enterpreneurs now are starting to welcome the new wave, which is actually already here.
Luca Mascaro, owner of Sketchin, a company based in the Italian canton of Switzerland and operating a lot in Italy, has observed that a few Italian VCs started investing also in Ticino, to expand their range of action and possibilities. The start-up culture we have here in Italy (and Western Europe in general) is much different from the American or Northern European one: our entrepreneurs tend to risk much more, to reduce start-up costs. Our competitivity is mostly on risk, than on quality; as Eric Reiss noted in his recent keynote at the Italian Information Architecture Summit, in Italy we do more invention than actual innovation.
Mafe De Baggis also notes that most of the initiatives of innovation that governmental entities launch are really hard to access: the deal of documentation that is needed to even access them is so high that creative and brilliant people are discouraged to even try.
Lele Dainesi, one of the most popular bloggers and now working for Cisco Italy CEO Stefano Venturi, has been overviewing some really interesting initiatives Cisco is taking in Italy. From its position, Cisco is trying to replicate in Italy the Silicon Valley culture that made it the company it is. The Cisco facility in Monza is the biggest R&D center in Europe, with top level engineers, where a lot of the products Cisco does in the whole world are sent for testing and developement. In this facility, Cisco recently started a series of events trying to connect Italy and Silicon Valley, to encourage investments and innovation in our country. The most recent one is an event that took place with the presence of the US Ambassador in Italy, Mr. Spogli, and a panel of experts in venture capital and related subjects. As a follow-up, a group of Italian enterpreneurs and innovators recently went to Silicon Valley to present their products and look at opportunities there. Cisco itself is promoting a VC culture: one of the most recent acquisitions, WebEx, was done in that spirit. What Dainesi hopes is that Cisco will manage to replicate the same culture in Italy.
CS – Are other techies supportive? Do the best ideas come from the best techies or do they come from outside the pool of Italian geeks? Is there a particular business model preferred round your way, eg do the start-ups build to sell, use advertising as a model, give the app away and hope that somehow money will follow, or do people develop purely for fun?
Alberto D’Ottavi, as member of 1Generation and NewTwo, has a very good perspective from which to look at these matters: he thinks that we are now learning to be supportive of each other, because the working culture in Italy for many years meant looking for a stable job rather than taking risks as entrepreneurs. What happened recently is that on top of the few big companies, there are now a lot of smaller initiatives, led by a professionals or small companies. In the first New Economy, around 2000, we saw the explosion and the creation of a lot of initiatives in the tech field, even of a considerable size, mostly concentrated in Milan, which is the advertising pole, and Rome, the telecommunications pole. Now the situation has changed, we have a huge number of small professionals, who work and cooperate on a national scale, communicating and exchanging experiences through the Net, and events like BarCamps and such. What we’re still missing is a structured ecosystem. The business model that is most used in Italy is the one of development and integration of new technologies, particularly B2B.
Paolo Valdemarin agrees on the present situation, where there are a lot of protagonists who work in more than one project of development. He also notes that the level of competitiveness is low, because of the lack of structure of the company ecosystem, which makes it really hard to establish which is the most used business model, in his view.
CS – What part do key bloggers play? Is there a feedback loop that helps everyone keep in touch with what others are doing? What sites do you all read?
Luca Conti writes on many blogs, the most important being “Pandemia“. He has been a protagonist of the Italian blogosphere for a long time. The part played by bloggers, he thinks, if you compare it to the blogospheres in other European countries, is less prominent, even if the potential is high. The situation is slowly changing, even if the dimension of the blogosphere is small, and we almost all know each other. The fact that we have these connections, however, doesn’t mean the blogosphere is fully cooperative inside. There is a good deal of competition, mostly based on views and visits more than content: in Luca’s perspective, there should be more cooperation to help raising attention to some very important issues we all feel as fundamental (i.e. net neutrality, technology tools diffusion and so on). His five blogs: Stefano Quintarelli, Andrea Beggi, Giovy, Tommaso Tessarolo, Robin Good.
I asked Nicola Mattina what he thinks of the Italian blogosphere. Some of the relations he had as a blogger then became work opportunies (like the one with Sole24Ore, the leading economic daily newspaper in Italy, which has a Thursday special on Technology called “Nova24”). Blogs, in his view, are used to start conversations: speaking through a blog is almost easier than speaking in the “traditional” way. One of the problems of the blogosphere in Italy, he thinks, is the fact that it’s self-referenced: if you write in English, or speak of a project you made in any other language than Italian, only a few will pay attention. I asked Nicola (and all the others, too) to give me 5 addresses of blogs he usually reads; his list is: Zoro; Luca De Biase; Maestrini per Caso; Luca Conti; Gianni Cuperlo.
Lele Dainesi thinks we’re in a critical moment of the Italian blogosphere and of Web 2.0 in general, in Italy. The attention that is now given to bloggers is not based on content, but on what they do and say or who they know, in a sort of cult of presentialism. It’s not healthy to keep the blogosphere closed as it is now: new entries are less and less, and this creates the akward effect of encouraging personalism. Lele thinks we should get back to content, and speak less of charts, self-exposition, or self-promotion.
The future of blogging, in Lele’s view, is in social networks. He sees a lot of creativity coming from sites like FaceBook or Xing: bloggers will form microcommunities of specialists in certain matters. What is emerging now in the blogosphere is the need for identity management: people want to be different personas in different situations: being a “public persona” is radically changing.
Mafe De Baggis, in a very interesting remark, said that the real crisis of blogging happens when bloggers sell their capacity for suggesting and criticism. One of the most important roles that bloggers should keep is the role of the “maven” (a quote from Tipping Point, Gladwell, 2001), people who are genuinely interested in providing you with the information to do the best choice. Five blogs for Mafe: Mamma per sbaglio, Zoro, Kurai, Squonk, Mantellini.
Before my conclusions, I would like to give you a sneak view of a couple of really good initiatives that are originated in Italy or by Italian entepreneurs and developers I got in touch with in Paris, and before in London at the Virtual Worlds Forum.
One is Dixero. It was launched January 15th, and it’s a service that was developed by Sketchin (owned by Luca Mascaro, who told me about it) and Phiware, with a mixture of Italian and Swedish capital. What it does is it gives the possibility to aggregate and vocalize your favourite RSS feeds with your preferred voice, transforming any entry in a podcast. It works with any standard RSS, from your calendar to your e-mail. In Luca’s vision, it will help people “prolong” their 24-hours day, with the possibility of putting things to listen in background while doing other things.
The other one is Myrl. Myrl is a social network for the Metaverse, a cross-world platform aiming to bring together users from multiple virtual worlds. The initiative was started by Francesco D’Orazio, who now lives in London, with Italian funds. The first upcoming release of Myrl will have a specific focus on social virtual worlds, bringing together users from worlds like Second Life and There.com. Among the most interesting aims and uses of Myrl, which are many, there are these two: Myrl helps bridge the gap between virtual worlds and the web and to integrate web2.0 tools in the Metaverse user experience, while gathering users from multiple social virtual worlds in one place to build a cross-world community of users, in order to stimulate cross-world interaction (world-hopping, not world interoperability), to stimulate a cross-fertilization amongst different virtual world user bases and to promote an organic vision of the Metaverse, as opposed to a walled garden style constellation of worlds. We are waiting for a public beta release of Myrl, which should happen in the next days. Stay tuned!
I think that’s all. Speaking to all these people with different views was extremely interesting and I hope it gives a nice portrait of the situation in Italy. For any other quesion or information, you can leave a comment here or contact me by e-mail.
Thanks for your attention!