How Turin is converting a dead industrial area into an innovation hub


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By Simone D’Antonio

TURIN, Italy — Turin is sometimes called the “Detroit of Italy.” The nickname evokes both a years-ago dominance in automobile manufacturing as well as the devastating post-industrial collapse that followed.

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You won’t see much evidence of either in the elegant squares of the city center, lined with Baroque buildings restored for the Winter Olympics held here ten years ago. But just two kilometers away, the Barriera di Milano neighborhood holds the ruins of factories where cars and their parts were made. Gradually, these empty hulks are being turned into loft-style housing, university buildings and office spaces.

The latest redevelopment is in the former headquarters of a company known as Incet, which made electric cables and was active until 1968. After acquiring the campus of giant white buildings, city authorities briefly used it as a pound for confiscated vehicles before letting it sit vacant for decades. Now, Turin is renovating the buildings into a hub of what officials here call “open innovation” — and perhaps, a spark plug for a new post-industrial economy.

It’s hard to describe what the former factory complex, now known as Ex-Incet, is on its way to becoming. That’s because it’s intended to be a little bit of everything. The very idea is to intermingle a hodgepodge of civic, industry, academic and social uses, in hopes that people will meet, ideas will cross-pollinate and innovative social enterprises will be born from all this exchange of knowledge.

After: The restored Incet factory complex will be home to a wide mix of tenants and uses. (Open Incet photo)

After: The restored Incet factory complex will be home to a wide mix of tenants and uses. (Open Incet photo)

By the end of this year, Ex-Incet will have space for community meetings, religious gatherings, musical performances and workspace for NGOs, social enterprises and local government offices. Students will be welcome to study here, innovators from other cities and countries will be invited to visit, a restaurant could organize a wine tasting. The first two tenants of the complex couldn’t be more different: a police station and an art gallery.

One of the most crucial pieces of this redevelopment puzzle is called Open Incet. Launched late last year, It’s an innovation center that works to connect the people and ideas swirling around this place with national and global networks of people they might collaborate with.

“Open Incet is part of the urban innovation ecosystem,” says its manager, Fabio Sgaragli. “It’s a place where we are opening meeting points to solve social and economic challenges that individual stakeholders would not be able to solve on their own.”

Innovation by iteration

Within Italy and across Europe, Turin has become known as a hotbed of entrepreneurship and creative thinking. The city finished first runner-up to Amsterdam in this year’s European Capital of Innovation Award, sponsored by the European Commission.

For private-sector startups, City Hall launched the FaciliTo program, offering generous loans and  mentorship for young entrepreneurs working in education, mobility, health and other socially conscious fields. It also offers entrepreneurs discounted co-working space and internet connections as well as access to expensive tools such as 3D printers. For government, the city launched Innova.To, a program that rewards front-line city workers for ideas that save money and boost efficiency.

Open Incet represents the next iteration of Turin’s thinking. The idea is to act as a facilitator, working to mix together different creative forces and energies, from digital entrepreneurs to sharing-economy actors to academics and others. So it is a social platform — a connector. But it’s also a catalyst for physical regeneration of the neighborhood. Part of the plan is to create new public spaces around the old factory complex, including a large new outdoor public square.

These represent new roles for a city administration that in a previous era was a more passive actor, deferring to powerful corporate interests for economic leadership and to the Catholic Church for moral and social direction.

Unlike the regeneration activities of private actors in the neighborhood, the new Incet complex carries with it a strong sense of public ownership. It’s the final result of a participatory planning process that involved more than 1,500 residents, including seniors and immigrants living in the area. A group of foundations and think tanks active in the field of social innovation in Italy, known as the Temporary Association of Enterprises, won the right to manage key parts of the project.

Making connections

One example of how Open Incet hopes to spark innovative ideas is called Social Roots. The program began at the Expo 2015 in Milan, which was themed around food production. In Milan, Social Roots put out a “call for solutions” aimed at accelerating innovative ideas in the agricultural sector. More than 100 projects were submitted from 20 countries, including the creation of a “crowd-farming” platform, the production of sustainable fibers and an app for virtual farming.

The people behind winning entries were invited to an “innovation camp” at the Expo where they connected with each other as well as potential partners and mentors who could help with scaling up the ideas.

A second round of this competition is now underway for 2016, again with a focus on food (the deadline to submit ideas is June 30). This year, ten winners from around the world will be invited to Turin for the innovation camp, timed to take place during the Salone del Gusto, an annual exhibition organized by the Slow Food movement. The hope is that local and international entrepreneurs alike will make Turin into a testing ground for their initiatives, injecting new energy into a local agricultural economy that already is known for its wines and meats.

Turin’s Social Roots program brings together innovators in the food industry. (Open Incet Photo)

Turin’s Social Roots program brings together innovators in the food industry. (Open Incet photo)

Another local initiative Open Incet is involved with is called the Turin Living Lab. This is a City Hall project that will test “smart” city technologies in a real-life urban setting in the Turin neighborhood of Campidoglio. A call for solutions received 36 proposals, three-quarters of which were from local startups. A technical commission is evaluating the ideas and a dozen will be selected for experimentation.

One idea under consideration would create a network of beacons in public locations that would send information such as bus schedules to people on their smartphones. Another would build a system of mini wind turbines along main roads, producing energy to power road signs and traffic lights.

The team managing Open Incet is taking care of the public participation part of this initiative. They will work with Campidoglio’s residents to assess which projects reflect their priorities and where they would like to see innovations tested. Open Incet also is talking with partners such as the Italian public institute for energy efficiency to investigate the scalability of these solutions, and entering them into international initiatives such as the Global City Team Challenge in the United States.

The Ex-Incet redevelopment will be complete by the end of the year. It will test the idea that local government can restore economic growth simply by facilitating the actions and interactions of others. Turin Mayor Piero Fassino is convinced it will work.

“Barriera di Milano now is living a new season thanks to innovative startups, research centers and new activities linked to the field of innovation,” he says. “That is creating new employment opportunities for young and unemployed people. And it is filling the gap between the center and suburbs in order to give the same opportunities for growth to all the different parts of the city.”


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