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The case of Milan and its mission towards circular municipal markets

Municipal Covered Markets as testbeds for circular value flows in the food system

For some time now, the Municipality of Milan has been pushing for a radical innovation of the local system of municipal covered markets. With a network of 23 markets distributed across the city, connected in turn to Sogemi – one amongst the biggest agri-food wholesaler in Europe – this is a unique asset for the city to make the case for sustainable food systems. As explained by Rossana Torri and Andrea Patrucco of the Municipality of Milan, coordinators of the Milan pilot within Reflow, ‘the city is increasingly working on the topic of proximity and 15 minutes, especially in response to the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. The idea of covered markets as powerful sites for social innovation and inclusion has been gaining momentum in the past few years, also thanks to successful initiatives such as the one at Lorenteggio

 market, where opportunities for upskilling and reskilling as well as employment and social enterprising have been created. The participation to Reflow offered a further opportunity, that is to bring about the topic of circularity within the local food chain, experimenting with circular approaches applied to logistics, distribution, and value flows that, through Sogemi, move across the city. This is also in line with the strategic objective of the Municipality to support innovative forms of governance around the management and regeneration of the markets’.

Indeed, Milan’s commitment to sustainable food systems is also witnessed by the well-known Food Policy, one of the first dedicated policies across Europe. Within Reflow, the Milan pilot intervenes over a specific field of the food policy, namely the support to micro-enterprises and ‘small’ actors, yet in close collaboration with large enterprises such as Sogemi and Amsa. Furthermore, Manifattura Milano is the other key initiative of reference for the Reflow pilot, where the local network of fablabs and makerspaces is strategically involved to support the collaboration between digital savvy makers and the different actors within the local system of municipal covered markets.


‘Governance as an enabling action for multi-stakeholder collaboration’

A key trait of Milan’s approach to sustainable urban development and policymaking in this field is increasingly characterized by governance as an enabling action for multi-stakeholder collaboration. Rather than developing top-down strategies and roadmaps, over time the Municipality has more and more operating as observer, facilitator and supporter of various initiatives – most often emerging from the bottom -, creating the conditions for the latter to connect to each other, exchange and thrive. As commented by Rossana and Andrea, ‘within Reflow, our guiding question revolved around the possible paths of circular and social innovations that could emerge by connecting, in the first instance, so different actors such as large municipal enterprises, market vendors, universities, fablabs and makerspaces. We have been adopting a loose and prototyping collaboration framework, starting from the identification of common objectives, and further structuring the work in a way that could allow us to proceed step by step. The role played by the Municipality is highly critical and strategic throughout this process, as it should ensure that all the different interests and motivations are considered along the way, and that step-by-step agreement is found. It is also worth highlighting how the collaboration is driven by personal commitment and civic sense; Reflow is an opportunity for large enterprises such as Sogemi and Amsa to further accomplish their own policies of social and environmental impact.’

The way Reflow is understood by the pilot coalition in Milan is largely guided by long term views: multiple micro-experiments tested through this project are a way for rapid observation, learning ad iteration, towards replicability and scalability. Moreover, this can make the case for attracting large investment and allow the full regeneration of the entire market system in the long run.

Next to the Municipality of Milan, the core team of the Milan pilot involves expert designers and makers from Polifactory-Politecnico di Milano, OpenDot and WeMake, who all together have developed close collaboration with Sogemi, Amsa, as well as with local associations and start-ups such as Ibrida and Recup. ‘It’s a variegated coalition where the core strength is the ‘’project logic’’; a time and resource bound space where these actors can meet, knowing that there is a start and an end within which we can engage in shared experimentation and discovery’.

Within Reflow, Milan is experimenting with 3 main scenarios, each insisting over different circular loops. Both the scenarios involving Ibrida and Recup act at the level of reuse & recycling, also with the goal of reinforcing their already existing value propositions through better data and knowledge management of existing food flows and waste, also through the possible introduction of material passports and circular labels as incentives to sustainable consumption. The scenario involving Sogemi and Amsa revolves instead around tracking and tracing systems, so as to enhance planning and management of assets and resources and avoid waste and inefficiencies along the value chain. Across the 3 scenarios, Reflow OS is a crucial tech enabler, which shall provide the digital and data infrastructure to connect and put in dialogue different datasets and accountability systems.

Challenges and Opportunities

The three scenarios under development in the Milan pilot are all relatively small scale; yet, they all depict possible paths that can be further developed and scaled up as whole system transformation towards circularity. Indeed, the leading role of the Municipality is key to understand whether viable solutions as tested in Reflow can be further applied and developed, for example through the introduction of circular criteria and requirements within calls for tenders, or through financial incentives for market operators who actively take care of surplus and waste. The role of the public actor is also key in steering and supporting alternative narratives on circularity and resource efficiency; as Rossana and Andrea commented during the interview ‘within the circular economy there are both economic and social values. We don’t necessarily need moralistic narratives and storytelling; it can be funny and engaging’.

As the Reflow pilot in Milan shows, the commitment of the business world is crucial and the availability of data and agreement to share data is a key cornerstone. This is also the basis to clearly demonstrate that the circular economy is convenient, possible, and way more effective not only in terms of resource use, but also in terms of social impact creation.