Now shut your eyes and imagine Vancouver works like this: All of the many companies that make any kind of performance-sports clothing in this yoga-loving, hiking and cycling town – Lululemon, Mountain Equipment Co-op, Arc’teryx, Sugoi, Westcomb, Lila Style and more – get together regularly to exchange ideas on what trade shows they should send a couple of group representatives to. They talk about the joint training they’ll organize for all their employees. They hash over what the current trends are for their business – not in that jittery networking, I’m-not-really-going-to-show-my-cards way, but digging into what’s really going on and how to make their cluster stronger. And the same thing happens with the other clusters – digital media, biotech, green building – that are the strongest and most creative cells in Vancouver’s economic biology.
Behind them, of course, the Lower Mainland Association of Small Businesses helps bolster their co-operative efforts by maintaining databases of possible buyers and trade shows each cluster might want to make contact with. The association also provides accounting, payroll, legal and even labour-mediation services for any of the smaller companies in the clusters that might need the help.
That’s quite the dream, you’re thinking, as you continue to read this story with your eyes shut. It doesn’t sound anything at all like the Vancouver that exists now. In the real Vancouver, the companies inside each of the region’s high-producing clusters tend to be secretive and competitive. The prevailing business ethos is “Discover something and then cash out” not “Let’s grow our companies for at least 100 years.” And there is, for sure, no small-business association providing back-shop services to just-breaking-in junior members.
But the dream is very real in the minds of a miniature cult within the city: the Bologna People. That cult is composed of a wildly divergent group of business- people, union leaders, fans of co-operatives and others who are united by one common factor: they have all been (or want to go) to the study sessions in Bologna, Italy, organized by Vancity and, until recently, the B.C. Co-operative Association. There, every year for the past 10 years, a group of about 20 to 30 select participants has been treated to an intense summer camp in economics, co-operatives and how cities with mostly small businesses, such as Bologna and Vancouver, can use collaboration to outdo bigger players. That’s because Bologna has achieved international fame as a city that is successful in those three fields.
People as diverse as Jim Sinclair, the head of the B.C. Federation of Labour, and Virginia Greene, head of the Business Council of B.C., have gone to Bologna. Social reformer and ex-city-councillor Jim Green has gone. So has the mayor of West Vancouver, Pam Goldsmith-Jones, and Surrey city councillor Marvin Hunt. The list could go on for several more pages. For one to two weeks in the sticky-hot stretch of late June and early July, they and others like them have listened to lectures in classrooms at the University of Bologna’s economics department (hermetically sealed against the bone-melting heat), talked to Bolognese residents who work in everything from packaging to vineyards to box-making, and visited any number of factories and boardrooms.
It is, say many of the attendees, a provocative experience.
“I found it extremely valuable,” says Hunt. “It was mentally stimulating to see how they did things differently. When we are in North America, we always think of the big company. But really Canada is mostly a country of small businesses. And they’re better at using that small-business culture.”
That small-business focus is what makes some people think Bologna is a particularly apt model for Vancouver. The two cities aren’t that similar on the surface. Bologna is half the size of Vancouver; the city is 350,000 in a region of a million. And it’s one of Europe’s most medieval-looking cities, dominated by old red-brick structures, a sharp contrast to glass-towered Vancouver. Vancouver only has about 107,000 jobs in its manufacturing sector, while Bologna has 12,000 separate manufacturing operations among its 90,000 businesses. But the two cities are similar in that they are dominated by small businesses rather than head offices and seem to be populated by people who don’t really want to work for big companies.
Part of the Bologna summer camp showcases the role of co-operatives. Bologna is one of two cities in Europe, along with Mondragon, Spain, that is legendary for the way its co-operative businesses dominate the local economy. Bologna’s co-ops, which run everything from restaurants to road-paving businesses to manufacturing operations, account for 30 per cent of the city’s GDP. Some have achieved success far beyond the borders of Bologna; one co-op, SACMI, which produces beverage packaging and ceramics, has subsidiaries in 75 countries around the world.
Many Bologna fans are hopeful that that kind of success story can provide Vancouver groups with a model of how co-ops can be more than just feel-good lefty organizations that make no money.
“Co-ops here usually focus on sharing and caring,” says former Vancouver city councillor Peter Ladner, currently the resident expert on urban agriculture at SFU’s Centre for Dialogue. “What I liked of what I’ve heard” – he hasn’t been yet, but wants to go – “is that the co-ops in Bologna are very competitive in the world markets. It’s a living, proven, economically sound model for a co-op economy.”
EcoTrust director Ian Gill, also a Vancity board member, says the co-op models in Bologna have impressed him as a model that might be good for B.C.’s native bands, with whom EcoTrust works.
The other part of the summer camp focuses on the way that even non-co-op businesses still work in highly collaborative ways within their sectors, supported by the Bologna Chamber of Commerce, the Association of Small Enterprises and the regional branch of the national association of small businesses. Bologna’s sectors of packaging, food services, light machinery, textiles and transport all use that private-plus-co-op model, creating a good deal of financial clout for themselves as a result.
“It has helped them be competitive globally,” says John Restakis of the B.C. Co-operative Association, who helped establish the Vancouver-Bologna program. He cites textiles as being a prime example of collaborative efforts. Italy used to be a leader in textiles, but then China came on board, forcing manufacturers throughout the country to scramble to compete. In Bologna, because the textile industries were in a cluster backed up by a business association, they could work out a long-term strategy together.
That business association, Centro Innovazione Tessile Emilia-Romagna, helped its local textile businesses compile a database of potential customers and develop training. It also sent representatives out to trade shows in the major fashion capitals and, when they came back with information, produced a book for the local industry on current colour and fabric trends and whatever else they thought could help those local firms make decisions.
Sounds great, you’re thinking. Vancouver businesses must be chomping at the bit to copy this idea. Actually not.
“The one big difference between small firms here and small firms there,” says Restakis, analyzing the situation from his office in Vancouver, “is there is very little predisposition on the part of small firms here to share. They see each other as competitors.”
That’s putting it politely. One insider in Vancouver’s performance-clothing business puts it another way: “They hate each other.”
That attitudinal difference is, in many ways, a product of the two cities’ respective histories. As University of Bologna economics professor Vera Negri Zamagni explained in this summer’s opening lecture, the Bolognese ability to co-operate is really rooted in its agricultural traditions of the 19th century. Unlike other regions, where peasants could only be day labourers on farms owned by wealthier people, people in the Bologna region were sharecroppers. They worked a piece of land for generations, giving up part of their crop as a form of rent and relying on a joint effort among all the family members – some working the fields, some repairing the machinery, some doing the cooking – to make a living for themselves. When industrialization came along, the locals transferred their agricultural-machinery skills, along with their ability to co-operate, to new endeavours. The result was businesses like Ducati and Lamborghini, along with an endless proliferation of companies that produced machines to make ice cream, coffee, cigarette packages, and more. Companies were run, like the farms before them, by large families, which subcontracted bits and pieces of the business out to other smaller companies – also linked in some way by blood or social connection.
“The result is a mindset in which co-operation and collaboration live together,” Zamagni explained. “Transaction costs are kept low and contracts are resorted to sparingly because people know each other and trust each other.” That social capital is the foundation of the region’s co-operative sectors.
That’s all quite different from Vancouver, an edge-of-the-new-continent city that’s always been a destination for people breaking away from families and people who want to get away from the usual social constrictions. So while people like what they see in Bologna, transferring their culture to our Wild West town filled with do-it-yourself individualists has proven to be a slow go.
Even Bob Williams, the Vancity director who helped start the program and remains its biggest fan, acknowledges that very little concrete progress has emerged after 10 years of visits. One small seedling is that, as a result of the Bologna trips, Vancity managers have started working with some of Vancouver’s clusters – real estate, sustainability, venture capital – to encourage collaboration, or at least encourage them to talk to each other in the same room.
“It’s beginning to break through the silos of the system,” said Williams, as he pondered the issue over a coffee at San Stefano square last summer in Bologna. “I’m convinced breaking through silos is a way of breaking through to wealth.”
Restakis, too, remains hopeful.