Oltre i Perimetri, Italy

What does it happen in a territory where there are ‘new’ impoverished?

What does it happen when the welfare services – as they are actually designed and work – are not enough to intercept the demand of help arising from the needy middle class?

What does it happen when is a wider area (more than 170.000 residents distributed in not homogeneous up to 50.000 inhabitants councils) to get poorer and poorer after a big event as World Expo that leaves ruins where other phenomena – from un-industrialization to the change of customs but not of consumptions, to the allocation of citizens excluded by the very expensive Milan – already created inequalities and poverty?

How is it possible to create a ‘generative welfare’: assistance and inclusion that on its own are able to generate another positive return not ending with and in the helped person?

What does it mean, in solid, to snatch people from solitude (above all when they are not aware of that) and to create a new culture of relation and of neighbourhood?

‘Oltre i Perimetri’ (beyond the boundary) is an ambitious project managed by a network of councils located around Rhò (Lombardia, Italy) with a special company (Sercop). All this is its aim.

It truly represents the new border of social sciences that first of all rewrites the target of new citizens to help and then creates new ‘agencies’ for this welfare needs: temporary housing, training for a sustainable indebtedness, ‘time’ banks, co-workings and much more. Designed for a segment of population that is out the actual perimeters of the social services.

Slow Words meets Guido Ciceri, the Sercop general manager and the one who designed and made ‘Oltre i Perimetri’, just one year ago. We speak with him, as usual, of his work and of his passions and dreams.

Sercop is arising by nine councils located in the so-called area of Rodhense, just few chilometers from Milan (Arese, Cornaredo, Lainate, Pero, Pogliano, Pregnana Milanese, Rho, Settimo Milanese, Vanzago) plus the council of Nerviano.

Your story in a few lines. Until it meets Sercop, special in-house company of a pool of council just outside the Milan one.

I was born in Milan – only child of a traditional family of the 60ies and 70ies formed with the so-called ‘economical boom’ of the Milan area. I study economics and even before the graduation I start to work in non-profit, at the time a very debuting sector (actually we still had to know that was to be named in this way). I was working in what we today call ‘social cooperatives’: from 1986 to 1991 in Sesto San Giovanni within the application of Legge Basaglia and its corollary of strong de-institutionalization of those years. These were representing my strongest growth project because in that period I was either studying and working. I was also working at the university on a program of defence ecomics and I was dealing with arms and disarming on a national level. Then I entered in the ‘world’ of local authorities working for few years for a council of the area (Settimo Milanese) with the starting of the so-called ‘Piani di Zona’ (one of the most important planning tools for social services) together with some councillors we can say that we started the associate planning and then the associate management. So Sercop took its start from here, I follow this company since the beginning. A public company in rapid growth, it deals with social innovation. And the day we will stop to be innovative even if we’re incredible managers of mature social services, we will not have any sense to continue to be.

We are the managers of the piani di zona: we keep in one hand the management and the design of the welfare and so we are enabled to have a wider horizon and also to create special projects as ‘Oltre i Perimetri’.

On the more personal level – beside to have a family with four among children and teenagers and a partner – I’m a mountain climber, an avid traveller and an international cooperatives member. Maybe I told too much….

‘Oltre i Perimetri’: who are your fellows and who are the people you’re helping? In short, can you trace an identikit of the volunteer and of the client?

First a small foreword: ‘Oltre i Perimetri’ is backed by a number of crucial parts (beside the non-profits there are also banks and foundation as the ones contrasting the usury, but also schools, and many more: our blog is the best way to discover all). This is to tell you that there are lots of good ideas around but the fabric of the territory (and in our case what we built since twenty years for the welfare) is what makes a real difference.

Then, I shall say that I do not see anybody given that my role is a bit strange, being the designer of ‘Oltre i Perimetri’ and the general manager of Sercop. What I can tell you is that the people crossing the services we offer do not like to be defined ‘vulnerable’.

The so called impoverished middle class is a political and strategic category. Take as example myself: in my actual condition I feel absolutely vulnerable as a being in this society, but I do not like at all to be considered ‘weak’ or ‘in danger’. As me, nobody likes that. There is no doubt that this category exists and live the problems but it is not ready to recognize them differently from what happens to other strata of citizens who call the social services because they recognize to have a problem or a need. For instance, to bring the children to the crèche.

It is hard to ‘hook’ this type of citizen. In this case I prefer to use this word instead of the one ‘user’ of a social service because sooner or later any of us can enter this condition. Actually it is related to the 50%-60% of the population. We deal with citizens afflicted not only from economic deprivation but also from the relational one. They live a deep gap between expectations of success (also built up by the media) and their effective social condition.

Any of us failed sometimes, for instance there has been a divorce or the loss of the job and other daily hurdles. All the people calling us are at the margins of the labour market and even if we are not in charge of that, we have many citizens contacting us to look for a job. These 45/50 years old persons were having a job just little while ago. Then there are lots of citizens who find themselves alone facing the silly events of their lives as picking up the children at school by being a single or a widow with three sons. Problems are very often not dictated by the economic conditions but from the relative isolation.

As those having relatives (like grandparents and uncles) far from them?

The fragmentation is one of the most important causes. The family with ‘short’ sons is a sociological data that nowadays is lost. The typical family of these days in our territories is the one with ‘long’ sons where there are older parents, as myself, who are in the contemporary situation to take care of elder parents and of young children: it is the so-called ‘generation sandwich’. It is not the case of parents who look after children, we deal with 45/50 years old people who lost their jobs and have young children and old parents to assist. It is a big mess!

Perimeters and generative welfare: what you do, in Italy at least, is quite pioneering. Which is the fundraising behind?

Erasing a perimeter or a definition means to modify the dispensed social service. This intuitions dated back 2012/2013 but we did not yet put it in practice for the lack of funding. We succeeded to start in part thanks to Fondazione Cariplo but I should not define this our fundraising: it has rather been the kick-starter, the fly.

What we do, in my opinion, has to be progressively made by the civic body even if has not to be abandoned by public welfare. A public design and a public funding (together with the non profit) has to generate what I call ‘the activations’ then re-launched by the society itself.

After the start, for ‘Oltre i Perimetri’ has been ways easier to operate the people raising much more than the fund raising. We are having an important positive participation from a segment of residents we were not expecting. For instance, many have been professionals who worked for us pro-bono: fiscal experts, accountants and lawyers who designed systems to restructure private debts. These officers are not traditionally ‘close’ to the non-profit sector. They helped to contrast the compulsive – indeed not keen – going to debts.

We also work with local companies that time by time get closer to our aims and we have a series of important testimonials.

Our fundraising can be defined as a slow contamination of the territory. We also use, at a certain extent, other kind of testimonials who are imbued in the society – as taxi drivers or hairdressers – and tell our message by asking citizens to participate or to donate small sums like 10 or 15 euro.

Our model is to span from the foundation donating two millions euro per time to 100.000/150.000 citizens who give small amounts. It is easy to understand that this repositioning needs strong energy to widespread the mission. And we are exactly here, now.

We look for the development of each one’s conscience to build a medium-long term strategy.

Being of course the general manager of a company I can ask to other peers to donate funds thanks to our reciprocal credibility but this is a short-term view. I am interested to build a sense of social responsibility of a place. To take care of your neighbours.

Tell us more about the #opcafè: they work on the keen management of personal time and finances until the creation of a sort of ‘time-bank’ in order to give back to others something under the form of an help or a collaboration. How many of those are already active and how many will be opened next? Which are their users? Which is the opening timetable?

Four #opcafè are already open: three of them are quite big and the citizens can find there all our offers while one is smaller. They are networks that have nothing in common with the traditional social service offices, they are rather places where to come and to talk. They are not similar to the ‘social bars’, former experiences of socialization managed by various non-profit companies. They were rarely, if not, happy ending ones and I do not like to remind them.

The opcafè (o like oltre and p like perimetri) does not dispense services but give information that can further develop in welfare backing (it is not a total welfare assistance: we told that we are beyond the perimeters of social services). The op likes to be as informal as possible and avoid, so, to become another ‘perimeter’. I like to make the example of the hairdresser’s shop. People there often exchange the most relevant information about their problems (some of these can be very heavy needs). Normally people do not speak of these needs in a bank or in a welfare agency.

The hairdresser’s shop, or another neighbour shop (even if they’re disappearing because the malls are destroying these ‘proximity stations’) gathers information but does not have the sensibility to work on them. Some places where there are professionals able to process these needs, as the social services, are so much stigmatised that nobody goes there anymore.

The opcafè places itself in the middle: a place with a small and low edge – one of them is also located in a nice bar of a council we restored with a strong element of conviviality.  All of them are in a very visible location, one is for instance in a movie hall where lots of people stroll by. It has been crucial to train the officers. They do not suggest, do not give services but try to elaborate and understand in order to suggest the best. Their professional standard is everything.

People enter the cafes on a daily basis, maybe to drink a coffee and then to ask for a help to bring the kids at school. But, then, talking with them we discover something else (their problem is perhaps a big debt, the extreme solitude or other disadvantages), therefore we need to exactly list the needs to activate the helps.

After we’ve hooked the person in danger and we gave back something, we often apply a mix of helps with the help of health care regulations serving in Colorado, exactly those that the traditional social services are not able to give because they’re designed to work along a health-based system, as following the binomial disease/care. We still do not have, for instance, a contemporary application of house care, contribution and other forms of sustain.

We also noted that quite often we put a patch on the need without solving the problem. For instance, more than bringing or picking the kids at school (i.e. to dispense a service) we think is crucial to design and develop a relation and the responsibility that allows the neighbour to do so and to help. This is the sense of our opcafes.

We often hooked vulnerable citizens through the spare time workshops we organize. Who attends these ones has time to kill and solitudes to fill, beside to have passions to fulfil. Our aim is to put people together in a place and to use this to understand the dynamics keeping them together to rebuild the same where there is, time by time, a need.

One of our most successful workshops has been the Christmas decorations design.

Not only #opcafè, but also ‘housing agencies’ and other services…from learning to smart houses: tell us more

The smart house starts from a very ambitious project we are building and verifying day by day.

We just replied to what our territory was demanding.

After the World Expo that left an offer in excess of lodgements but also before the event there were vacant flats without any hope to find a renter. Of course the owners were scared to do not be paid, that’s why the flats were remaining empty. Regarding the lodgement demand, one part of it is able to find satisfaction on the actual market while another could be able but at a different price and, to end, another is totally out of the market. The public housing is not able to absorb all these people.

We wanted to build a quasi-market, by offering a warrant to owners not enough confident to rent and by bartering it with the lowering of the renting fee. In this way we put again on the market the flats as a service. We never use the word ‘rent’: we make these lodgements available for a temporary need – for those vulnerable (not only residents) who cannot find a place on the actual renting market.

Why our smart houses are not housing as a commodity but as a service? Because the renters pay a fee of 200, 300, 400 euros to buy it as a motel room (utilities and other expenses are included). These houses are for divorced fathers, for young couples who like to start to live alone but cannot afford the primary market, for teachers or other workers (as the builders) who are forced to live many months far from their homes and cannot afford a more expensive flat.

At the moment (this interviews has been collected at the debut of the summer 2016) we have around 60 beds and we are aware that the sensibility toward this kind of service is growing (in facts, we already have an excess of demand). We do not reply to those who are unable to access to public housing programs, but to a mass of people who need a temporary flat.

A divorce generates two respective poverties. And the separation is more rapid than eviction. You have to find a place in 15 days!

Smart house has a social and economic impact not only for those taking a place to stay as a service but also for the owners. It is a practical and quick mission making resources again available. We do not need other public housing or other cheap flats, we need to find ways to use the actual empty flats.

What about one of your ordinary days at ‘Oltre i Perimetri’? And what about the desk on which you are sitting now?

‘Oltre i perimetri’ is a project I designed and generated with Gino Mazzoli, a welfare expert based in Reggio Emilia (he is a psycho-sociologist).

Today I do not work on it, but I’m being interviewed from my desk at Sercop, that I show you immediately (we are speaking via skype and I see a big amount of work folder and books covering a wide meeting table).

My desk is not very exciting at the moment, as you can see there is the new ‘Codice degli Appalti’ (the new Tenders Law written by an anti-corruption judge appointed by the Prime Minister to try to stop the high level of corruption especially on public tenders: many are the officers who are criticizing it). I think it is a very important development for the country but it should be put in place with a more progressive pace. There are very innovative tools (at least, innovative for the Italians) that I agree with but it is not possible to introduce this new body of laws in a day and then to fine everyone not able to cope with it. But, now, I stop myself here, these are anxieties as a director of a company, not of a social designer!

The strong points, the advantages of Oltre i Perimetri are very clear to us. Which are the weak ones, after the first year of activity?

Easy to say that our target, the vulnerable, are not recognizing themselves in this public welfare service.

But, if we do not have any trouble, the project would not have been so innovative as it is.

The councils taking part to ‘Oltre i Perimetri’ were agreeing among themselves on this project even if they have a political guidance often different in terms of leading parties. Why?

The Rhodense has not always been a very homogeneous place. Also out of our activities – i.e. in the normal workflow of other welfare services or for instance on more hard themes for different political forces as the welcoming of refugees – the councils have always evidenced high cohesion and a big ability to move forward from the political and propaganda approach to respond to a more administrative and social need. Also the existence of companies as Sercop (that is not so politicized) helps to level the different ideologies. Sercop manages the 70% of the welfare of ten councils and our balance is bigger than almost all the aggregated councils, except Rhò and maybe Arese.

I have a bit imagined what the society does for ‘Oltre i Perimetri’ : it is everything. It is arising, apart the people raising, a new glue. A new civic awareness. After the first year of activity, is there anything happening in a spontaneous way or do you have still the need to disseminate and to enforce?

We have still to disseminate. The generations we produce are the ones of activating people on 360° but the uneasy task is to keep the responsibility toward the vulnerable. We were already knowing it had to be hard. We could call it, as the economists do, the generative level of the project. Its automatic component has still to grow. For these kind of task the horizon to evaluate the efficiency is five years, even if we are already measuring it. It is because we work on the culture and not on the behaviours.

A talent you have, the one you miss

What a hard question! Maybe I have a small amount of diplomacy and the fact to be a little bit quaraquaqua helps while I miss….boh, I miss everything! For instance I miss the patience, the calm. I tend to get easily angry.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

On a Greek island with lots of rocks close to Turkey, it is called Kalymnos. On the contrary I will be here or in another similar company to work, with our infinite horizon of work before retirement.

What did you learn until now from your experience at ‘Oltre i Perimetri’ aon the human scale (for instance that life is unexpected, that sometimes dreams can be fulfilled, that there is lots of work still to do…)

This is the hardest question, I should say! For instance, yes, there is lots of work to do, I also learned that is difficult to find fast results from projects of this kind, you need patience. I learned to even watch more on distance than what I usually do. I am the hyper-efficient even if I work in welfare sector since more than 30 years: if things are not efficient I’m used to thrown them away. Here I learned that slow designed relational paths lead to more stable fundamentals. And my anxiety of efficiency can be a bit sedated. I managed other uneasy projects but the innovative shape of this one is to put aside resources and relations in constant motion. These latters are very hard to be kept together.

The Italian version of this interview, written by Diana Marrone, has been commissioned to Slow Words by Foundation Easy Care to be published in a new column that Slow Words designs each month (until January 2017) for the Observatory of the ‘Social Cohesion Days’.

Leave a Reply