The role of the architect is changing in the digital age and the approach to the profession has been re-adapted thanks to modern web tools which facilitate networking and crowdsourcing. Let's talk with Alessandro Rossi, CFO of CoContest.
Q: How are websites like CoContest and Archilovers contributing to this transformation?
A: I think websites like Cocontest, Archilovers, and others are really transporting the professional figure of the architect and interior designer into the digital age, particularly by breaking the geographical barriers which historically have defined how such professions were carried out. I still believe, however, that there is a long road ahead. This is especially true in Italy, where starting from University, young architects are given a rather anachronistic vision of the profession, of the ways of carrying out their services, and interacting with customers. Furthermore, I believe that in Italy many professionals see ‘the architect’ as little more than a bureaucrat—someone who possesses an in-depth knowledge of regional norms and regulations—rather than a creative. I get the feeling that a lot more attention is given to the executive aspect than to the design aspect. This is because most monetary gains are dependent on the building phase rather than the design phase. One of the objectives of CoContest is that of making the design process the most important aspect of the offered service, resulting is clients who choose architects and interior designers based on whether or not their projects reflect their own tastes and needs.
Q: You’ve recently relocated to Silicon Valley where surely you’ve been able to study the American professional community and American designers up close. What, would you say, are the differences in their approach to new technology/platforms and those of Italians/Europeans?
A:Unfortunately, I have to admit that there are some differences, even though they are better than the ones I expected. In the USA and in particular here in Silicon Valley, professionals possess a wider perspective and are more open to the inevitable changes caused by the new internet economy. Also, here in America, the political ideology component is nonexistent. For example, no one (and I mean no one!) would ever think of associating the word “slavery” or “exploitation” of the underclass with a web platform which features totally free membership. I say this because I am sure that this biased approach (common in some European countries) makes it increasingly difficult for professionals to transition into a world where the globalization of services is dependent upon the internet.
Q: At the 14th Bienniale in Venice, curated by Rem Koolhaas, people were shocked by a statistic revealed by MondItalia showing the number of architects per capita in 36 different nations. Italy was ranked worst, proving that it houses a surplus number of architects. Does CoContest have the potential to provide a solution for many Italian architects?
A: I appreciate this question because I believe it hits the nail on the head regarding the discussion which arose around CoContest. There are over 150,000 architects in Italy (only counting those who are officially registered). That’s 10% of architects worldwide and 1/3 of the architects in Europe, but the Italian domestic demand is only about 1% of the worldwide demand. In a national market characterized by this gross disparity between demand and available design services, Cocontest gives Italian architects the chance to intercept the demand of clients all over the world from the comfort of their own home. I don’t think I have to say anything more to explain why Coconest is nothing other than a huge opportunity for Italian professionals.
Q:Do you think that today’s market offers new graduates in Architecture more tools to help them feel less pessimistic?
A: I’m not sure, but I truly hope so. I think we will see increased competition for those who work in the service sector as a result of globalization, and I think it’s important that we prepare our young ones for this type of competition. For example, one of the problems which afflict Italian designers is their poor level of English and their limited familiarity (compared to their European peers) with different types of software. Young Italian professionals have a much more limited knowledge of the 3D rendering software which is now necessary for those who wish to work on the web.
Q: What are the actual benefits of participating in the contests? Do you think platforms like Cocontest or Archilovers are the first steps towards personal branding on the web?
A: The benefits offered to professionals (especially young professionals) are numerous. Firstly, they offer a meritocratic and accessible channel through which one can find new clients; they provide the opportunity to grow professionally by comparing the works of professionals from all over the world and by challenging oneself by acknowledging the opinions of clients of different cultures.
Yes, I believe the market will tend more and more towards personal branding, that platforms like Cocontest and Archilovers are contributing to accelerating this transition, and that this is a positive thing, because it will cause a more dynamic market which is based on merit and which is useful and accessible by clients.
Q: How do you intend on strengthening the system so as to make it a real source of income for architects?
A: In many ways, CoContest is still a small startup and our product needs to be perfected under many aspects. Specifically, we are trying to make it easier for designers to take part by providing them with useful tools to help create projects. We’re trying to enhance participation even when it doesn’t necessarily lead to a victory by creating rankings and prizes, and by trying to establish collaborations with magazines and interior design blogs that publish our designers’ projects, giving them much deserved visibility. These are just a few of the improvements we’re working on, as I said we’re growing swiftly and we’re convinced that our model will improve in time as our clients and designer increase in number.
Q: First Start-Up Chile now 500 startups, what do you expect from this startup accelerator program? What are your goals for the next coming years?
A: We expect to be able to do some fundraising which is something which, for various reasons, we weren’t able to do in Italy. Let’s just say that if “a good beginning bodes well” then we’re on the right track. Unfortunately, the Italian ecosystem is still very young and many young VCs prefer to invest in tried and true business models. The Coconest model is extremely innovative and geared towards international development which requires funding, and this is certainly easier to find in the United States. We’re also interested in climbing the US market with the scope of being able to bridge the gap between the American demand for services and all that Europe has to offer. This is one of the winning qualities of our model. In the long run, our goal is to contribute to shifting design services online, to become one of the major players in the market, and to transform the CoContest community into one of the largest interior design communities in the world.
Q: Business Innovation Observatory of European Commission has dubbed you one of the most innovative startups in the design sector. Why didn’t you take off in Italy?
A: Italy didn’t pick up on the opportunities that CoConest is trying to provide for Italian professionals and others. Specifically, it didn’t grasp the fact that the world is changing rapidly and that the rules should be changing just as quickly. Otherwise, the safeguards which they wish to ensure via their norms and regulations will eventually destroy the economic and social fabric of the country.
Q: Let’s talk about the “brain drain”. Do you think this pertains to you? Would you ever move back to Italy?
A: Personally, no. I don’t think I’m a genius and I’m not trying to escape from anything. I would have liked to have developed our business directly and exclusively in Italy, but this proved to be impossible. Yes, if there were opportunities to attract the right type of funding under adequate conditions (the conditions which many Italian investors are willing to implement are one of the major problems in the Italian startup ecosystem), I would be happy to return to Italy and I hope to be able to do so.
Q: Could you tell us what “innovation” is for you? We’re referring to some of your affirmations like: “Innovation happens without asking for permission” and “We believe in thinking differently, in challenging the status quo”
A: I think that talking about innovation in general would be a bit misleading. Let’s say that for me, an innovative web startup is a company which sets improving the market—and consequently, the lives of its clients and workers—as its goal, thus revolutionizing the principles and methods of interaction between suppliers and clients. This often coincides with breaking the rules that govern that market, according to the consolidated trend where innovation occurs before companies grasp it, and is recognized only afterwards by institutions. For this reason, I had quoted a joke by Riccardo Luna in which he suggests that the most disruptive kind of innovation is the one that happens without permission.