Sant’Agata di Esaro, in Cosenza in Southern Italy, is not a name usually associated with innovation and cutting-edge thinking. It is a small agricultural town with a population of around 1800, many of whom are over 60 years old. The town has a few bars and restaurants, two greengrocers, three butchers, a bakery and a few other shops. On the face of it, it’s not exactly where you would expect a technology revolution to be taking place.

But Sant’Agata di Esaro also had something else: a group of people determined to make a difference to their town, and a project called SADE Future Lab.

What is SADE Future Lab?

SADE Future Lab is a project set up by a group of friends from the town. They wanted to put their knowledge at the service of the community, to stimulate the local market. The idea was to encourage more people to settle in the town—or at least not to leave. It is a non-profit organisation, and its founders see it as a philanthropic activity, a way to give something back to their community.

Why was it needed?

Over time, the number of people living in the town was declining. The population was getting older, and there were few or no opportunities for younger people, resulting in depopulation over time. The unemployment rate is also high. The founders of SADE Future Lab felt that something needed to be done to avoid the town declining irreversibly. The organisation was set up in December 2019, and was working at a gentle pace, until the arrival of coronavirus in Italy.

What impact did COVID-19 have?

COVID-19 had a number of effects. First, it gave the SADE Future Lab founders more free time, as Italy locked itself down, and nobody could leave their houses. Second, it gave them a reason to do something. With most of the population of the town being older people—and therefore vulnerable—a solution was urgently needed to ensure that they had access to food and supplies without having to leave home. 

How were efforts accelerated?

The group rapidly created and set up Ajungim’a Spisa, which means “Bring me my groceries” in the local dialect. This is a local ecommerce site that brings together all the town’s small shops online in a “distributed virtual shopping centre”. This meant that people could shop for food and medicines online. SADE Future Lab also organised volunteers to deliver the orders to older people, so they didn’t have to leave their homes.

What was the virtual shopping centre designed to achieve?

SADE Future Lab had three aims for the e-commerce site. First, it wanted to ensure people would stay at home by ordering online and having volunteers deliver food free of charge. Second, it provided a change in the business model for local markets, to allow them to compete with the bigger supermarkets during a crisis. Third, it made sure that customers did not see unexpected price variations. Instead, they got better offers on the online platform.

How has this brought the community together?

The project has managed to reduce the distance among families. Many of the older people living in the town have sons or daughters living elsewhere, often in the north of Italy or abroad. The e-commerce platform has enabled them to buy groceries for their parents. Families have come together via telephone to shop together. This is a picture echoed across the world among the families of vulnerable people—and it has really brought communities closer together, extending the community far beyond the geographical boundaries of the town.

What is the business model for the future?

The platform will continue to be free for both shops and clients during the COVID-19 emergency. After that, it will move to a maintenance fee and subscription model. The founders believe that their model is sustainable, but they also recognise that the delivery work will need to be paid for in future. They hope that the new company will provide at least one job for someone living in the town. In the next few months, SADE Future Lab plans to expand to the restaurants and bars in the town, to support the relaxation of restrictions. Beyond that, it has other ideas to encourage people to find out more about the town. Most of all, though, the founders of SADE Future Lab are proud that they have enabled the town to move into the future as a community, and helped people to start to think and behave differently.  

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