Italy's architectural elite moves to rub out crowdsourcing design site

Italian architects have called on the government and the Antitrust Authority to close down a crowdsourcing platform in a new round of the battle against disruptive technology.

Taxi associations convinced a Milan court to ban the UberPop car-sharing app Tuesday on the grounds that it constituted unfair competition and put the safety of passengers at risk.

Now, professional architects have mounted a similar argument against the CoContest crowdsourcing platform, a Rome startup that is the only Italian company this year to be invited to the 500 Startups incubator lab in Mountain View, California, (whose Web site invites you to "Meet our badass, global family of startup founders, mentors, and investors").

CoContest allows customers wanting to refurbish an existing space to put their project out to architects and designers, who in turn submit their design proposals in response to the client's brief.

CoContest promises to send around 10 proposals within a week and the client is obliged to choose a winning design.

The company says it "offers professional architectural services at a fraction of the normal price" by removing the additional costs of offline designers. CoContest creates a global marketplace, runs each bid as a competitive tender and lowers the cost of client acquisition to the architect, the company claims.

Professional architects' associations don't see it that way, however.

Nine lawmakers -- eight of them architects -- have issued a parliamentary proposal urging the Economic Development and Justice Ministries to crack down on the crowdsourcing website, which they said was carrying out an illegal intermediation activity and denigrating professional architects in its publicity, presenting them as elderly, incompetent and expensive.

The architects and planners' association, CNAPPC, has taken the case to the Antitrust Authority, complaining the website damages consumers and provides misleading information.

CoContest "violates Italian laws and European directives" the association complained, saying there was no guarantee the site's solutions were architecturally feasible or drawn up by competent and qualified professionals.

The company has been defended by Gianmarco Carnovale, who has a minority stake in the startup.

CoContest allowed private individuals to do what large corporations and public bodies were able to do: fix a price, set the brief, and organize a public tender process open to all comers, he argued in an opinion piece for the online publication economyup.

"Almost a century after the Fascist era, Italy is still the country in which corporations (taxi drivers, notaries, now architects) defend themselves against the 'free market' to protect privileges and captive money-flows, to the harm of consumers and even of young people trying to gain access to those professions," Carnovale wrote.

Maria Rita Bovi, a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) analyst at CoContest, said it was irresponsible to try to shut down the new service at a time when youth unemployment in Italy, with 44 percent of 15- to 25-year-olds out of a job, is second only to Greece in the European Union.

"Hotel unions, taxi drivers and car dealers have made similar complaints about Airbnb, Uber and Tesla respectively -- indeed any firm which seeks to increase efficiency seems to be targeted in this way," Bovi said in an e-mail message. "The representatives of CoContest regard this reaction as normal when a disruptive business enters a well-established market."

The debate over Airbnb, the San Francisco Internet company that allows private individuals to rent their properties to travelers, has elicited varying responses in different European countries.

The mayor of Paris recently ordered an aggressive spate of inspections of Airbnb properties in the center of the French capital, while Britain's Deregulation Act is expected to give a further boost to the popularity of the online service in London, already Airbnb's third most popular destination.

Gea Scancarello, author of a book about Italy's "sharing economy" said Italy's failure to innovate was less the result of innate Italian conservatism than of the uncertainty of the regulatory framework.

A Dutch entrepreneur had abandoned plans to introduce his car-sharing project to Italy after insurance companies proved unwilling to develop new hire-car policies and because national rules were too unstable to justify an investment, Scancarello said.

"Italians are really keen to try though," Scancarello -- author of the book "I Trust You" -- wrote in an article for Il Fatto Quotidiano newspaper. "It's not just because the crisis has dramatically reduced their spending power, which means scraping together some money from these new services is convenient for everyone."

Philip Willan

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