Digital Eyes on Milan: More to see than J-Lo's New Dress

Milan has recently been in the headlines thanks to Versace and Jennifer Lopez - but others are seeing Europe's third biggest city economy in a different light, as a fast growing digital infrastructure hub well placed to cope with Brexit and emerging markets in North Africa.

There is a tendency in Northern Europe to think of the city of Milan mainly in the context of fashion: perhaps all the more so right now, Milan Fashion Week having just drawn to a close. And yet, even during Fashion Week, there were hints of a connection to the world of technology: in Milan last week Donatella Versace chose to reprise her global triumph at the 2000 Grammys in which Jennifer Lopez, wearing a revealing green "jungle dress" from Versace, caused so many people to search for pictures that Google was moved to create its Image Search service.

This 21 September on the Milan runway, Versace's voice boomed over the speakers: "OK Google - show me the real jungle dress", and Lopez stepped out once again wearing an updated green dress in what was generally agreed to be the outstanding moment of the 2020 collections. It was a moment which may not have precisely broken the internet, but which certainly lit up network connections, storage arrays and servers around the world as millions of devices were suddenly focused on events in Lombardy.

Milan - fashionable for more than fashion

There's a lot more to Milan than fashion, however. The city's built-up area extends far beyond its formal boundaries to cover some 730 square miles. The even larger "Greater Milan" linked metropolitan area is the 54th biggest in the world and its population of 7.5 million is not far behind that of London. It is the third biggest European city in GDP terms behind London and Paris, is growing faster than either, and is far and away the wealthiest European city which is not a national capital. According to the Globalization and World Cities (GaWC) 2018 rankings, Milan is one of just 32 cities in the world assessed as "Alpha" level or higher for worldwide connections and impact: it sits alongside such heavyweights as Chicago, Frankfurt, Los Angeles and Guangzhou in the GaWC tables.

Apart from all this Milan is a major financial centre, a world cultural destination home to such remarkable attractions as Leonardo da Vinci's Codex Atlanticus and his painting of the Last Supper - not to mention football powerhouse AC Milan - and around 11 per cent of all the students in Italy are enrolled at the city's many institutions of learning. As one might expect against such a background major tech players including Google, Microsoft, Cisco and IBM have their Italian HQs in the city. Other big firms have more than just offices in Milan: Samsung employs 700 people in the Porta Nuova business district and global finance giant Unicredit has an R&D lab nearby. IBM has recently opened a 4000 square metre, 2000-consultant tech studio in the city's Piazza Gae Aulenti.

Bearing all this in mind, it begins to seem that it would be very strange if Milan were not a major hub of the technology industry: and of course it is, helped on even further by the legacy of hosting the World Expo for the second time in 2015. Recent Italian laws brought in under the administration of Matteo Renzi have also helped to stimulate a new wave of startups. One of the greatest obstacles to business innovation in Italy has long been cumbersome regulation and taxation for small firms, but nowadays companies under five years of age with revenues under €5m which have yet to pay a dividend are exempt from many taxes. Such startups are also permitted to create flexible employee contracts that include payments in stock options. According to the Milanese co-working operation Talent Garden, more than 1,000 tech startups are now to be found in and around Milan.

Tech business needs clouds to build on

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