Can you return life to small villages in Italy? Serena Chironna, who lived for seven years in one of the biggest cities in the world, London, believes in it. Together with Andrea Mammoliti, she started to work on the KINO, communities of remote workers to the hidden rural gems in Italy. The project gives digital nomads an experience in tiny but beautiful villages in the Italian countryside. When you talk with her, you feel her passion for the homeland and her belief in the strong local community, where young people stay and get inspired by digital nomads.
Author: Drejc Kokošar
Serena, you lived in London for seven years, and now you’re back in Italy, exploring the countryside.
It’s true. I lived in London for seven years, working for an NGO in the sustainability field. I had a regular 9 to 5 job. Like many people, the COVID pandemic made me reconsider things in life. I started to develop a project in my mind targeted at people who would like to reconnect with the countryside. The idea was to provide them with opportunities where they wouldn’t have to give up entirely what they had in the cities and where they would be able to find inspiring connections and people with the same vision and goals. However, in Italy right now, it’s hard to find this kind of environment if you want to move to a more rural place. At the same time, rural areas have a declining population. Even beautiful villages are dying off.
With COVID, a new trend arrived where companies allow remote work. Although digital nomads were there long before COVID, they usually went to exotic places and lived very peculiar life, which is not something for everybody. With the pandemic, a new profile of remote workers came into the spotlight where people spend some time outside the big cities and reconnect with themselves nature and enjoy a slower pace of life. So, Andrea and I saw an opportunity here to find a way to revitalise rural places through remote work communities. Obviously, we don’t think our project would save any village, but we hope to initiate a new way of thinking for these small places and potentially show people that they have an alternative if they want to stay in their area.
But where should we start? We are both from big cities – I’m from the north of Milano, and Andrea is from Florence. We both have origins and links in smaller towns and villages. We thought that the excellent place to start is the south of Italy because, in terms of development, it has always been a part of Italy that was left behind. There were many initiatives targeting remote workers but not any concrete solution. So we said, let’s give it a try, let’s try to build a pilot project and see if we can really attract people to places in Italy. Along with that, I left London and moved to Madeira island, which was a remote destination with many digital nomads. I’ve tried to understand if this life really suits me and what these people are looking for. I met many people and invited them to come with me to a small Italian village. And this is how we started.
We found a local partner in the village of Basilicata, which is probably one of the most underdeveloped regions in the European South. Even in Italy, it’s not really a sought-after destination. There, someone started a digital nomad association. They had a coworking space but needed to attract people from outside. We joined forces, and this is how it began. We hosted 19 remote workers and digital nomads back in June. That was our first pilot action.
It was not easy because when you want to host people in a rural place, especially in one that is not in a tourist area, it’s very hard to secure even the basic services. There’s a need for a stable connection. Some guests might want to go out, although they might not be so interested in clubbing. You have to put a lot of effort into it. I don’t think personally that all rural destinations can work. Some might be better for other types of tourism.
What do you say is the most important when planning a digital nomad hub or coliving in the countryside?
So, in our case, we never had a coliving, where everything is in one building. For us, it was very critical to have at least a minimum number of houses suitable for digital nomads. For example, in Italy, we have a big tradition with tourism, but some don’t understand what digital nomads need. One who wants to work needs to have their own space and comfort.
So you need to put much effort into educating the local people and providing living and coworking space. It’s very important to have support from the local stakeholders. If no one is interested in the project, it will never start. The local community should be first in mind when thinking about the project. Not everyone will buy the idea, but at least you need someone, whether the local municipality or association, which would provide authentic experiences in the area. You won’t find perfect conditions in the first place. This year we were a bit like pirates or adventurers. We discovered a community of people who were open to the idea that things might not always be perfect. So that was really, really precious from our pioneers, let’s say.
We had many people who wanted to join for two weeks, which we actually did the first time. But we will instead prioritise guests who wish to commit for at least a month. You don’t make any meaningful connection with the local environment if you come just for two weeks – you’re just a normal tourist.
You are originally from the urban area of Milano. You know the perspective of urban people, of someone coming from the big cities. What was the biggest challenge for you?
I think you really need to set expectations upfront of what the place will look like, what you will find and what you will not find. Because, as you know, our own experiences shape our reality. I’ll give you some examples of what happened in our projects. We had a couple arriving in the first project. They had COVID as soon as they arrived, so they had to isolate themselves. And they asked if there was an app to order food as they didn’t realise there were even no self-checkouts in the local shop. Everything is still very old-style. You have to be sure that even when things go wrong, you can support people.
Language is a barrier in Italy, especially in certain areas where older generations do not speak foreign languages, so you can’t leave these people alone if they don’t speak Italian. So that’s why we’re there like community managers. In another example, guests wanted to eat something in the afternoon when we were in Santa Fiora in Tuscany. But it’s not like in London where shops are open 24 hours. You might have one supermarket closing and opening at times that are crazy for foreigners, but that’s how it is. So, I think it’s important to prepare guests for what they should expect and encourage them to come with an open mind and be ready to give up certain things. They will always find different things, connect with nature and local people. Something that you cannot find in big cities.
What about an internet connection?
You should not take internet connection for granted, especially not in rural areas. In Italy, you don’t have high-speed internet everywhere. They might say they have it, but later, you realise it will be installed only next year.
When you explore places as an individual, you might work in a remote location with a working hotspot. But in the case of a bigger community, you need to have a much more reliable connection. In some areas, awesome coworking places were unsuitable for big groups, and we had to intervene. However, the internet connection is only part of it. The secret element is, of course, people.
How do you involve the local community?
So, first of all, we always invite the local community to come to the coworking space. Your local contact must be someone who is not just interested in selling you a service but believes in the wider impact of it on the local community. It’s pretty hard to build bridges without a local person. In our first project, we had a group of young local people who were really excited about our presence. We had dinners together and went to the beach.
Is it easier to adapt to rural life if you are younger?
I can’t give a definite answer because we are all different, but I would say that younger people could quickly adapt to rural life if they know it’s temporary. Knowing they might soon return to busy cities, they will try to make the most of this unique experience. In the long run, they might get tired of limited services and options unless they are really committed to rural living. For example, I wouldn’t see myself living in a rural place all year round, but it’s an excellent way to recharge and connect with nature for some part of the year.
Generally speaking, I think that longer stays in rural Italy are more attractive to older people, who might choose to retire in these places for the better quality of life and stunning landscapes.
Were there any young local people who participated in the programme?
In the first place, where we went, yes. It was rural, but it was easy to reach bigger towns, so there were more young people. There were few schools. But people there didn’t have very qualified jobs, as there were not many opportunities, especially for the ones with university careers. The founder of the association himself was living in Naples for most of the year, and he would go back and forth from his hometown. Young people told us they really loved participating in the project as we brought fresh air and perspective. Some started to reconsider what they wanted to do about their life.
The second place was more remote, in the mountains. There were not so many young people. Many were already in their 30s and had families. There was also an incentive by the municipality to start a family there, with a free kindergarten.
There is a common perception that most digital nomads are single. Is it possible to live a digital nomad life and have a family?
Yeah. I think it’s certainly possible because I’ve spoken to people who travel and live as a normal family. We were actually contacted by some people who wanted to stay with their families. Rural places are not bad for family life, but at the same time, they might need some services, like hospitals or schools, when staying longer. I think most of them stay in at least a medium-sized city because they know they can find everything there.
Has anyone of the participants thought about moving to the countryside?
There was nobody who would permanently move to the countryside. But many of them mentioned that they see benefits from it and that maybe they could enjoy it for a longer period as a more authentic way of living in another country. If you go to bigger cities, you become more and more of a typical tourist. You appreciate the authenticity and the opportunity to recharge and enjoy things we usually miss in the city – like contact with nature and working with beautiful hill views.
As more people come, they will have more needs, and maybe young local people will try to cater to those needs, so they won’t want to leave. If you want to stay in a small rural place, you need to have a peculiar connection with that place. But if participants just come back every year or every other year and tell about the places to others, they can provide a constant flow of new visitors. And this is already a significant achievement for some rural areas.
Were participants young or mostly older?
Most of them were young, mostly between 26 and 40. This is in line with the average age of digital nomad workers, around 32 years old.
Why did these young digital nomads decide to live in the village?
I would say that the first project was really about trying a more authentic experience. Experiential travel has become a prominent trend in tourism, especially among Millennials and Gen Z, who prefer to live authentic experiences in the destinations they visit. Similarly, many digital nomads and remote workers are keen to connect more deeply with their chosen locations and host communities. I think that people that joined our projects saw an opportunity to do just that.
The fact that many of those first participants knew each other from before also helped. I think that when you start a remote work project in a rural community from scratch, it’s a good idea to start with a group of friends. They will be your friendly ‘guinea pigs’. Once you test the destination and ensure it’s suitable to host a community, you are ready to reach people outside your existing network.”
Is it crucial that you live as a digital nomad before you start working on the coliving hub?
I treat our service as anything else in the business. If you don’t understand your user, you won’t know what the user is looking for. You need to understand their mindset.
Andrea and I started it because we didn’t want to give up the idea of returning to Italy. We didn’t want to lose our international connections, but we knew we couldn’t find it back home. So we decided to build something new in Italy.
Serena, just before we finish, do you miss the bliss of London?
I enjoy the diversity, where I find inspiration and growth. And this is what I can find in London. But with the new type of experiences, you might find the same also in smaller places, where it’s actually easier to connect. A hectic life with a lot of travelling and commuting makes you tired, and you might not have the energy for it. If you understand smaller places and bring the best out of them, they represent a great solution.