Turning a Disused Industrial Plant into a Cities Engine of Growth and Innovation

Yassin Sabha

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Rieti: Umbilicus Italiae, the Center of Italy

How many of you heard about Rieti before? Not that many I bet. How many knew that Rieti, the geographic center of Italy (located at less then 80 km from Rome), was founded decades before Rome and gave birth to three Roman Emperors (including the ones who built the Coliseum)? Who knew that Italy’s first sugar factory (one of Europe’s oldest) was established in Rieti? Or that Rieti’s industrial zone hosts Italy’s former leading manufacturer of solar panels, as well as Italy’s industrial hub for metering and dosing pumps, the so-called “Pump Valley”?

Rieti: An Italian Second Tier City in Deep Economic Crisis

With an urban population of less than 50 thousands, Rieti’s economy is doing much worse than Italy as a whole. Rieti’s GDP per capita is 30% lower than Italy’s average. Since the crisis (in 2009-12), Rieti’s economy lost 12.4% of its value, while Italy’s shrunk by 1.9%. The number of unemployed increased by 45% since 2009. Among youth (aged 15-24) 45% are without jobs. Many are migrating in other parts of Italy, or even abroad (like me), to seek better opportunities. With a negative birthrate, the population is ageing and rapidly shrinking. At the same time, the private sector is suffering the hurdles of a weak investment climate. Firm birth rates have been negative for the past few years. The number of innovative start-ups is zero. Manufacturing accounts for only 12% of the economy. Read my report and blog on Rieti’s state of the economy and competitiveness for more info.

Next Snia: An Urban Development Project From the Grassroots

It is with this background that a group of young people from Rieti decided to leverage the knowledge and skills acquired outside to make development happen in their hometown. The goal is to gradually build a Next Rieti on innovation, merit and transparency, starting from the redevelopment of a dismissed industrial plant, the Snia Viscosa. Once a textile manufacturer that gave work to thousands of people over three/four generations, the Ex Snia has been left abandoned since its shut down in 2003. Next Snia’s vision is to turn this disused plant into Rieti’s engine of innovation and sustainable growth. In order to achieve this, we want to select the best possible people from Italy, as well as abroad, with a diverse set of skills and backgrounds (from economists to urban planners, start-uppers, architects, green economy experts, and so on). That is why on January 29 we launched an international call to select a working group of ten experts in charge of designing a development strategy for the area.

Who is Behind Next Snia

The Next Snia project has been supported by RENA (an Italian civil society movement), Monte dei Paschi di Siena (Italy’s 3rd financial institution and owner of 2/3 of the Snia), and Rieti’s Municipality. The organizing team includes 28 young people from Rieti, most of them studying and working outside, held together by the common goal of enabling sustainable growth in their hometown. The project benefits from 13 special advisors ranging from Riccardo Donadon (founder of H-Farm, Italy’s main start-up incubator), to Nicola Zingaretti (President of the Lazio Region), as well as from the support of local civil society and technical mentors.

What Makes Next Snia Special

There are many things that make Next Snia special. The key difference between Next Snia and a traditional call is that instead of selecting a project or an idea, we decided to select a group of people that will design together a development project for the Next Snia with the support of key stakeholders and top-notch technical advisors. Furthermore, the organizing team has adopted a collaborative approach engaging with all key stakeholders at the local and national level at all stages of the process. For instance, the final text of the call was the result of an open process of consultation with all interested parties. The final development plan for the Next Snia will also be consulted with stakeholders and technical experts.

What’s Next for Next Snia

On January 29, Next Snia was officially launched during an event held in Rieti with important guests such as Alessandro Profumo (CEO of Monte dei Paschi di Siena),Claudio De Vincenti (Undersecretary of the Italian Ministry of Economic Development), and Alessandro Fusacchia (Chief of Staff of the Italian Minister of Education). The application process closed on March 31 with great success. We received 175 applications from 110 individual applicants and 65 teams, for a total of 446 people involved from 11 countries. A committee of nine top-notch external experts (includingFabrizio Barca, Italy’s former Minister of Development and Territorial Cohesion) will now select ten among the 175 applications to form the working group that will meet in Rieti between May 7 and May 17 to co-design the development plan for the Next Snia. After that, we will open a consultative process on the development plan at the local, national, and international level, setting the stage for project implementation. We see this project as a unique opportunity to revert the steep decline our hometown’s economy has embraced for the past decade. However, the path to build the Next Snia is still long and bumpy. That is why we will need the support of the local, national, and international development community in order to succeed.

Yassin Sabha is an Italian-Jordanian young economist specialized in private sector development, investment policy, and competitiveness.