Bologna as a City of Collaboration

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David Bollier:

"Bologna’s self-declared ambition to become a “city of collaboration” has deep roots in its culture. It has long favored decentralized political authority and encouraged active citizen participation. Mayor Virginio Merola explained the city's unusual stance toward development: “Our city relies upon common assets and social relationships – but we are also a city based on human rights and duties. Our traditions as a city have been based on collaboration.”

When Merola addressed the conference, he got quite emotional: “Being an attractive city means first of all, loving each other and not excluding,” noting that lots of Bolognese residents come from southern Italy and that there are 120 different ethnic groups in the city. In an apparent slap at fashionable technocratic management ideas, Merola said, “We are an intelligent city because we believe in feelings,” adding that “smart cities can be stupid.”

Unlike so many politicians who remain committed to tight, centralized control, Merola and his staff understand the virtues of decentralized participation: “The less that central administration is doing, the more things are working,” he said. “Everybody needs to have power to do something for their lives.” In this, a venerable Bolognese ethic meets up with Internet sensibilities, yielding a new model of city management.

The City of Bologna is quite serious about becoming a “city of collaboration.” City officials regard it as a unifying vision, and almost a brand identity – one that aligns Bologna with some of the larger trends sweeping global culture today, such as open source software, social networks, and DIY innovation. The City has even developed a "personalized logo" that allows anyone to produce a unique symbol that is graphically integrated with the general city logo -- as if to say, we are all different, but we can all be Bolognese.

Luca Rizzo Nervo, the city’s development officer, explained that Bologna’s community development model “goes back to the real meaning of community. We need a collaborative ecosystem – a new way of living and working together.” Nervo hopes to create a national and international network of collaborative cities. Torino is already in the process of adopting the Regulation, and a number of other Italian cities, including Alessandria, Muggia and Rome, have expressed interest in the concept.

Of course, it’s not as easy as passing a new city ordinance. What’s really needed is a new cultural orientation and cultivation of new social practices – and those take time and commitment. It requires a retreat from bureaucratic formalism and an appreciation for the power of informal process and personal relationships.

Becoming a “collaborative city” requires that various stakeholders find new ways to work together, moving beyond political gamesmanship and bureaucratic maneuvering. Citizens, business, schools, and government, among others, have to learn how to make long term, good-faith commitments to each other and the process. Inevitably, any city will have to do its own experimentation and adaptation to learn how to make collaboration work within its distinctive culture.

This process, however, has the distinct advantage of limiting political conflict and ideological factionalism. Because goals are mutually set and programs co-designed, everyone's focus is more on working through differences than on trying to "beat" the political opposition. The openness of the process also helps avoid NIMBY-ism (Not in My Backyard) and refresh the legitimacy of government action in an ongoing way. Unlike a bureaucracy, the system is designed for rapid citizen feedback and constant iteration. In time, citizens realize that they can adopt a different attitude toward government and become meaningful participants in the process of self-governance. The city truly does belong to them." (

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