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A Creative Approach to Community Economic Development Using Local Youths in Italy’s
Written following a Project Wealth field trip to Apulia in Southern Italy.

Marco Costantino from the Youth Department in the Apulia Development Authority: “Our way of thinking has changed. Instead of asking what the Authority can do for young people, we started asking, 'what can these kids do for the place in which they live?’”

The city of San Vito Dei Normanni, located in the province of Brindisi, Apulia region, Italy, is plagued with severe unemployment and poverty, a reality that comes across strongly in its younger population. The Apulia region is marked by the traits of a geographical periphery: lack of employment, brain drain towards central Italy, etc. The poverty level in this region is more than double the average level in Italy as a whole (28% vs. a 13% national average). The unemployment levels are also far higher (33.5% in Apulia vs. 25% overall), and many of those unemployed are youths that are defined in Italy as NEET – young people engaged in neither employment, education nor training.

Marco Costantino from the Youth Department in the Apulia Development Authority tells of a change that has been taking place over the past few years in the Authority’s approach to its young people. “Our way of thinking has changed. Instead of asking what the Authority can do for young people, we started asking, 'what can these kids do for the place in which they live?’” This question led the Apulia Development Authority to devise a new program called “Bollenti Spirit,” which combines the goals of keeping young people in the area, engaging them in regional development, and providing leverage for existing “regional assets.”

The development includes three central elements:

1. Encouraging creative initiatives for regional development – an example of this is a call for proposals inviting young people aged 18-25 to submit ideas for creative projects that will positively develop the Apulia region. Three rounds of grants have already been given, funding 800 projects with a total of 20 million Euros.

2. Networking and information access for young people – by means of a website to which over 10,000 young people have subscribed. The website gives access to calls for proposals, to projects being undertaken by other young people, to cultural events etc. Another form of networking is BarCamp events to which all the entrepreneurs are invited. The Authority does not predetermine the content of these meetings, but allows the entrepreneurs to build the content as the meetings progress, each presenting his or her own project so that everyone participates actively in the event.

3. “Old buildings for new ideas”: creative renovation of abandoned buildings for the community – The Apulia Development Authority has formed a policy that encourages local authorities to renovate abandoned public buildings and turn them into cultural centers, activity centers for training young people etc. Local authorities were invited to submit proposals for using these buildings, of which the authority chose 151 projects, involving 109 organizations, all funded by 54 million Euro and an additional 10% funding from the local authority.

Exfada – An abandoned building that was turned into an activity center for young people The buildings undergoing creative renovation are called “urban laboratories,” and on our trip we were taken to see one called Exfada, run by Roberto Covolo. For fifteen years this structure, the abandoned site of a factory that had closed, was an environmental and community hazard. As a result of the Authority’s building renovation initiative, however, it has become a creative space, where young people come to develop economic and social projects. The space houses a range of activities: cultural, sporting, gardening, art, entertainment and more. Its goal is to get young people involved and help them develop their own projects.

The model for working in the renovated space relies on several basic principles:

• Involving the young people in renovating the building and tailoring it to their needs: The renovation is carried out by the youths themselves. Architects and designers were called in to design the building according to the needs and wishes of the young people, based on the projects that they wished to create. This included a studio space for dancing, a room set aside for playing music, and a space for growing vegetables. The renovation and construction was carried out with the young people’s involvement, with the understanding that building for themselves will foster a sense of responsibility for the space, help the young people develop independence, and above all create bonds between them that will strengthen the community that uses the space.

• Self-management: The place is run by the young people who use it. They clean it and make up the weekly schedule. They decide what new projects will operate there, with the space’s manager serving only as an integrating, overseeing element.

• Cooperative money management: Each person pays according to their ability: some are able to pay regularly for use of the space, while others pay based on profits (for instance, a dance teacher pays from the profits of the activity in the studio). Other participants do not pay at all, but contribute volunteer hours instead.

• Design and furnishings made of discarded and unexploited resources: Roberto shared his philosophy with us: “renovating old buildings is not just a matter of resources, but of perspective. There are many resources around us that are not considered valuable, like trash, but you don’t need lots of money to furnish the place, because there are resources available everywhere.” Looking around the place, we found an esthetically pleasing and inviting space, furnished primarily with discarded objects that had been collected in the street and made into furniture. “Renovation is not based on money, but on human capital,” Roberto adds, “it’s about having a community to come and do the renovation.”

• Management without rules: The place is run with no clear-cut rules except three:

a. Whoever uses the place must share their knowledge and skills for the common good.

b. Using existing resources (reusing waste materials etc.) “People who work in a poor environment must change the way they look at things, think creatively and use the unexpected as a resource rather than a liability.”

c. Working cooperatively and making connections between people. Even if different projects can be seen to be in competition, the emphasis is rather on forming partnerships.

The large structure holds many spaces with a variety of uses: music rooms with instruments available to anyone interested in creating, a space for women who make and sell their own artwork, spaces for dancing and yoga, work tables, a library, a space for events and concerts, a community garden, and even a restaurant!

During our tour, we met the managers of two projects that run in the building. One of these was Junatan Azzori, an artist who set up an economic venture called “Citta della Rezza,” creating wooden curtains to decorate the entrances and windows of buildings. Among other things, this is also a means of sprucing up the neglected city streets. The use of this urban laboratory allowed Junatan to set up a small factory, which he is currently working on turning into a financially productive business.

Another initiative, “Musica in Culla” is a music project for parents and infants run by a group of young people. Its purpose is to strengthen the children’s cognitive ability, as well as their child-parent bonds. This project uses the urban laboratory for their activities, and the space provides them with an infrastructure that allows them to earn money and ultimately make their business independent.

This initiative is an example of how the model in the urban laboratory works. Its founders won 22,000 Euros from thee Apulia Development Authority, which they used to start their company. The authority also provided them with training. When the funding ran out, they became independent, funding their work by providing services, like classes for parents and children. This was made possible by the availability of the urban laboratory, which give them a place in which to hold classes and additional events.

A study conducted by the university in Bari for the Apulia Development Authority showed that 70% of their projects continued as startups and became profitable businesses. But the importance of this economic development model is not just in how it allows each entrepreneur to make money for his or herself, but in the fact that the entrepreneurs work together in a shared space, generating an economic network of connections between projects. “When you are sharing the space and you are aware of what your neighbor is doing, that creates working and trading connections, like offering video photography services in exchange for carpentry work,” explains the manager of the Youth Division. “Cooperation enriches the work and boosts earnings for everyone.”

And yet, the program’s managers emphasize, the primary goal of the model is not to create businesses, but to develop skills. Even if entrepreneurs start up an idea and do not ultimately move forward with it, they believe that the skills and the experience they have gained will have made those young people more eligible and more capable of success.

The urban laboratory provides optimal conditions for creativity and local economy. It helps private entrepreneurs start new businesses, provides infrastructure for arts and crafts, strengthens the community, encourages the conservation of natural resources, and encourages local commerce. It also encourages businesses to work in cooperation with one another, with the community, and with the local authority.

Above all I was interested by the insights that guide the work of the Youth Department, particularly in the urban laboratories:

• Innovation is a process, not a strict code. There is no rule book for innovation; it must simply be allowed to happen.

• Innovation and creativity are processes that vary over time and place, so when you get started, you do not always know where you will end up.

• New processes require new people – young people contributing for themselves.

• Trust is a necessary condition for creativity. In this context, the local youths had to overcome their lack of trust in the authorities. The urban laboratory’s management helped build this trust by promising transparency and showing the youths that the work would really be to their benefit.

• There is no change and innovation without community participation! The process of change develops through the community’s joint building effort.

• The way in which public authorities act must be changed. They must not just divert resources, but also take active action to make the public system more efficient and accessible. The authorities must go beyond bureaucracy, working to guide processes and help projects become realities.

• Change is infectious. Young people see other young people making a difference, and join in.

• Sometimes things do not develop as they were planned, but that is not necessarily bad. It merely requires creative thinking, innovation, and most of all, an open mind. The closest thing we have to this model in Israel is the “center for young adults” model, which is supposed to provide support for young people in areas like employment, education, social involvement, etc. Written by: Adar Stern English translation: Thom Rofe

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