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You are here: Home > Rethinking Organizations > Being there - #rethinking #work and #urban #living - the case of #Italy

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Published on 2019-11-07 20:58:22 | words: 5053

No, Peter Sellers movie isn't the inspiration.

This time, I will use personal experiences to explain a potential scenario on differential uses of existing inhabited areas that currently are neglected.

In this case... it is a set of considerations on what meant "business time" for me since the late 1980s.

And a different model of urban development: we all talk about changing concepts of car ownership, but we forget that this might extend to other areas of our life as consumers.

In this series of articles, I started with "4.0" (business, industry, etc), but ended up long ago talking about "rethinking business".

As I wrote repeatedly, I think that "citizens" are both individuals and corporate.

Accordingly, politics is an element in which all the types of citizens should be involved, moreover in our increasingly "systemic" world where everything is interconnected.

It is of course a matter of balancing of interested, but the more "systemic" we become, the more evident is how even a single event that distorts the "social market" (as "market" isn't enough to cover our complex economy) might affect citizens and businesses far, far away from the specific event.

Furthermore, there is a "leverage" element: an event such as e.g. the demise of the production of Ilva in Taranto and its conversion into a mere logistical point for what is produced outside the EU might generate ripple effects, reduce competition, and increase risk across industries first in Italy, then in any other company that is within the supply chain of the affected company.

So, a 1% GDP impact might "leverage" in a much larger impact- nationally and across the Continent (as many Italian companies are now within foreign supply chains).

My fellow Italians know my long-standing criticism of my birthplace (Turin, in Piedmont, Italy) for its élites lack of courage in being bold to create something sustainable for the future generations, instead of just trying to be between the few who would still be able to afford a lifestyle that Italy became used to post-WWII.

Make no mistake: I shared already online and offline reviews and links to data-driven assessment, as my inclination is to think, check, reassess, and then talk.

Yes, some could nonetheless try to express their disagreement by stating that I share "ranting"- but when data-driven research after data-driven research keeps confirming since almost two decades something, maybe, just maybe, also if you disagree, there might be something worth thinking about.


As I wrote above, this article will start from personal experiences- notably, from the personal use of time.

Before the early 1980s, I think that I never went abroad.

Then, as part of my youth political activities within a European Federalist advocacy, started travelling here and there.

The first time I visited London was in 1983, when I turned 18, with friends of my parents, and we stayed in a small village not too far from Heathrow, hosted by the home of a relative of one of them, who had married a Sunni Indian.

It is funny that the book I read back then during my vacation in London was... Kissinger's "White House Years" (in Italian), a book that I picked back again recently to quote something I remembered from back then.

Something about Italy, something that still holds true.

Anyway, that will be part of a future article on another "side" of this website.

Now, back to the concept of "business" (and "personal but across space") time.

When I started working officially in 1986 after my service in the Army (I had had some sales and writing and programming activities before), I had different options- and gave a try to work with an Italian company belonging to an American consulting/auditing company (technically: partners from the latter owned the former- "arm's length").

Immediately, I had the chance to use my "event organization" experience from politics (recycled also in the Army) and "service organization" experience from the Army into... a major budget definition exercise for a first large "turn-key" project.

Funny part: my original budget based upon their methodology was matched by actuals- also if unfortunately commercial reasons implied that it was sold at a much lower figure.

Few months down the road, was assigned also to some "relational" activities (reason: I liked to talk about cultures, travels, etc- so, it was easier to obtain audience and support), and eventually started working also with foreigners, first in Verona, then around Italy.

Then, from 1988, started travelling both in Italy and occasionally abroad for business.

And when I switched company for the Italian branch of a French company, expecting to finally be able to get a degree and "settle" in Turin... after a month in Paris, was based in Milan, assigned a unit and business development tasks along with consulting and training, and... continued travelling.

Ditto from 1993, when I switched, again thinking that I was going to settle temporarily to then relocate abroad.

Instead, I did relocate- but not in Germany or The Netherlands as I had planned (long story), but to London, while working initially in Paris, then in Zurich and other locations (yes, Italy too- two days a week with Iveco from 1999 until 2001).

Thereafter? Travel- sometimes, before 9/11, I managed to work in three countries in a day, as my "frequent traveller" status allowed me to be at the airport not too long before flight and boarding closing.

I will skip other cross-cultural (business and non-business) experiences, but let's say that, since 1986, I worked mainly with two cultural sets: Anglo-American and French, obviously blended with my Italian background and... whatever I met across.

So, let's just say that, as you can imagine, also if I used GSM mobiles from 1995 or 1996, back then I had already had a decade of "remote interactions" for business and personal purposes.

Last but not least: when you travel not as a tourist but, at most, as an "accidental tourist" and for business across few countries and cultures, you end up developing your own personal "blend" of languages, cultures, mores- notably if (as in my case) you are interested in studying cultures (and that I saw the acting and radio/TV broadcasting environment in Italy in my childhood was just a value added in "communicating" and "packaging communication").

And now, after sharing the "background" (at least a bit), let's move to "communication" and "human networking".

Communication and Human Networking: 1980s to 2010s in Europe

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s in Italy, there were conference calls- but limited.

The main way to discuss something was... to meet face to face- whatever that meant.

Frankly, once in a while, after picking up a plane and other transportation means to attend a conference, a fair, a meeting...

...I wondered how much of that travel was worth the cost, time, hassle- as I had plenty to do somewhere else.

In the 1990s, conference calls became more common- still, even after GSM service was started in 1995 or 1996 in Italy (I think, as I purchased my first mobile phone, a Nokia, only after GSM service started), we had face-to-face meetings across the Continent.

To be frank, even if all the tools available now had been available back then but with the culture back then, as my interactions abroad were either as part of negotiations or projects at the senior management and Cxx, I doubt that a "videoconference" would have been acceptable to many of our contacts or prospects.

Anyway, even communication tools weren't back then as today: as an example, while living in London but working in France and German Switzerland, my monthly bill sometimes went into the high hundreds of GBP (well, my rate justified that).

Nonetheless, back in the 1990s, after attending LSE in the summer in 1994 and 1995, "face-to-face" meetings with friends started becoming unpractical.

As I joked back then once in a while, having a dinner with friends all in the same place would require something like the "beam me up" in Star Trek!

More modestly, I simply took a chance to meet some whenever I was travelling- once, both friends and contacts in few locations told me that was quite funny: it felt as if we had been continuing our previous conversation, and saw me more often than people from around the corner that they had not met in years.

Business-wise, it was just instrumental to my activities- and my work on negotiations and projects or consulting usually did not require more than one or two full days in a row in any location.

Fast forward to the beginning of this decade, and I was still travelling around for meetings, e.g. being shuttled to USA more than once and Brazil once, as well as Italian Switzerland- just in a matter of few months in 2012.

If back in the early 2000s most meetings, conferences, networking events, etc still required physical attendance, from the late 2000s already both for training and conferences, congresses, etc often the "remote option" was available.

Actually, a dual attendance model: attend once a year or so physically, keep in touch during the year.

Those who tried actually had an issue that was more related to culture than technical or intellectual ability.

Coming from a century or more of experience in "networking as an event", it all still revolved around that annual event (as infra-annual events, notably for increasinly multinational attendances, would be prohibitively expensive).

When in mid-2010s I had another multinational assignment that spanned few continents, it was neither as in the late 1990s in Paris (when we all met in Paris, and conference calls were occasional), nor as in the 2000s or even the early 2010s (when people were still travelling around, albeit 9/11-related airports slowdown made impossible some of my old "one day in three countries" European schedule).

Time do change (and budgets too).

So, less travel and attempts at doing everything remotely- but still our business processes and cultural approaches (at least in "digital immigrant" generations) are more in tune with the past than with current technology.

The false divide between digital "natives" and "immigrants"

In my personal observation in business and in private life, even "digital natives" still have troubles in blending processes and business approaches built in the XX century (or even XIX century) with XXI century technology.

And, more than once, I saw how actually this "cultural difference", instead of being bridged, created a "coping stress" both in "digital immigrants" and "digital natives".

It reminds me of a lesson I learned in Gothenburg while studying a summer intercultural communication and management.

There was a reading about a tribe in the USA being interviewed by a researcher about another one of their members.

And eventually the consensus was that they did not believe that he was as they were, as he was stressing too much about showing off his ancestry- no need, if he really were what he claimed to be.

So, one side (not necessarily the one you expect) increases the use of "new means" on "old processes", often generating more "noise"- or the other way around.

Being a busy bee constantly generating noise makes you more similar to the old Zeno's Paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise so well re-told by Hofstadter in "Goedel, Escher, Bach" decades ago (you can find it online).

Much ado about (next to) nothing.

My hometown is trying to attract more events and more foreigners (including for foreign direct investment), but the model of "consumption" that they present is so 1970s-1980s.

Or: it reminds me of the first times I was involved in business, in the late 1980s, within the organization or staffing of events.

The discussion and agendas are still focused "on the event", not on the "continuum".

Hence, they focus on restaurants, hotels, venues, but... forget most of the elements that make an event "virtually useful".

For an event to be "consumable" remotely it need to be synchronized style "La Chaux-de-Fond", the birthplace of Le Corbusier, and... quoted within Marx's "Das Kapital" as an example of proto-capitalism, a village-based industrial production line in watchmaking, or "a huge factory town".

Actually, since the late 1990s I attended more and more events around Europe structured as clockwork, and gradually adding, from the 2010s at least (some earlier) elements of "remote visibility".

It is true that the event management industry is still considered by many business and political leaders as a "customer attraction point", to sell services.

But that is a traditional perspective.

Within an advanced economy, the "business event" is the tip of the economic iceberg, it is the continuum that is built around it that makes the even more than a cathedral in the desert that you visit once a year.

Becoming "digital" does not imply just adding "digital natives" that continuously blurt something to keep a superficial "background noise"- that is useful, but unless there is local depth, e.g. if just broadcasting what happens elsewhere, what is the point?

Unfortunately, superficial "new processes for new times" instead of redesigning business processes to blend old experience, new and current technology, and foreseeable needs, often look more as a Potemkin village: all façade, no substance.

Hence, easy to copycat and improve.

Then, there is the issue about "space".

The old, traditional approach to "event" was centered around purpose-built structures that, often, were in the middle of nowhere.

I remember attending few conferences in such structures around Europe since the late 1980s.

Most had been build at least a decade or two before- and their structure and organization showed that "old" approach.

Instead of flexible space and multiple "point of attraction", a major hall as if it were a XX century cathedral, usually with an acustic that was at best terrible.

Most structures around Europe that I visited over the last decade actually used recent technologies and materials to create something closer to our current micro-focused spaces.

But it is the concept of "event" in and by itself that often has to be redesigned.

Going urban, going virtual

First point of discussion, in my view is: who is attending events now?

And why should their companies keep paying for their travel expenses?

If it is just a showcase of whatever, frankly, it is a 90% waste of time and budget- as there are other, more modern ways to obtain the attention you need and want, or even to obtain a personalized contact on a specific opportunity or offer.

The "speed-dating" meeting approach of most events never convinced me- but probably because it is speed-dating per se that I find not attractive.

Actually, I have been in events in Italy and abroad for my customers on both sides of the "speed-dating business event", and I still prefer a skype/lync session, than just a "slot" during a chaotic expo, if other options are not available.

There are different layers of attendance and "expected results" to an event- and probably my perspective is distorted from my experiences listed above: anyway, what I discussed already decades ago was "cultural alignment".

The list below is just a "napkin" list: consider it as sharing some feed-back from somebody who attended for few decades business and information events both on the provider and potential customer site.

So, it is: incomplete, biased, and closer to a brainstorming than a shopping list.

  1. When I was supporting business software and system integration customers as well as startups, I always said: what is the point of attending that event? Why are you showing there? Isn't it too "niche" (risk of preaching to the choir)? Isn't it too generalist (risk of spending more time with students taking a day off school than with prospects, paying to be invisible in a cacophony of generalist mega-budgets)?
  2. Each event has its own logic, but in business events there is a reality that cannot be avoided: while those in my age range (50s) are used to travel (it is almost a "perk" a collection of annual events), others like me or younger would rather attend worthwhile segments and have access information and potential "direct access" to what could be of interest, than wander around as we did in the 1990s at the SMAU in Milan, a technology/IT expo were there was everything for everybody.
  3. When attending urban events, the "clockwork" enables that flexibility: only those sent on a "training cramming" follow a whole sessions A-Z no matter what.
  4. In the future, I would rather attend one hour session in, say, Germany while I am attending before and after on-site sessions in Turin in the morning and Milan one hour later (I did so in the past e.g. with events in London- attend physically one, and virtually another).
  5. In some cases, it might make sense also to offer facilities, during an event that is physical, to have private meetings enabling those interested attending physically to interact with experts from those sponsoring who are actually half a world away.
  6. Otherwise, you risk getting locally at the event only those who know a little of all the offer, and miss the opportunity to "connect" with somebody interested enough to attend physically.
  7. Again, it is not a matter of technology or spaces- it is a matter of decoupling physical presence from interaction.
  8. When attending events physically around Europe, I remember often talking with those staffing a stand who knew less about their own offer than those asking questions, and attending events just to have a "non-committed" discussion with an expert.
  9. Because, sometimes, inviting a potential vendor to deliver a presentation is already an issue or a kind of "commitment" that unleashes a barrage of further presentations by others "sponsored" by managers, other suppliers on your site, etc.

Location, location, location? Not really

In the early 1990s, as Head of Training and Methodologies, I also explored the "teleworking" and new ways to structure work (including "democracy at work", lean, etc).

Currently we all talk a lot about "remote working", but still often forget the social element.

And, more important, forget that technologies currently are not just enabling remote working- but also rethinking what works mean.

Few days ago, there was a "technical" issue, and electricians from the utility came to the hamlet where I am currently living, and one of them asked: which work do you do to afford living here (meaning: in an hamlet in the mountains that is 3 hours from Turin).

As in late 2012 after that project I referred to above, currently I live in the mountains in my parents' mountain home.

The difference?

Back then, in both Italy and abroad, I had to attend physically meetings, conferences, etc.

Data connection? 3G at best- when it worked at all.

Instead, in 2019 I have 4G/4G+ or at least H+ most of the day (i.e. fast enough to watch real-time streaming conferences, only with a slow decay in video quality).

Since 2016, I am used to attend yearly the Frankfurt conference on Cloud (since 2018 TechWeek), but recently looked around and, beside the usual USA and UK, I was able to attend a SAP Germany meeting remotely- from the mountains.

Now, recently I wanted to attend other conferences in Turin and Milan- but no streaming option was available, not even on keynotes, so I had to stay nearby Turin.

If you were to look at my schedule between, say, late 2015 and late 2017, most of the time you would see that I was either in conference calls across the world, or in meetings in Turin where... at least some of those attending did so via Lync (i.e. Skype for Business) or conference calls.

Considering that my connection here is better than the one I often had in Turin until few years ago, I wonder how much of my activities back then could be done from where I am now.

If you talk with China at 8am or even earlier, or Brazil at 9pm, where you are physically is irrelevant.

Anyway, this would require a different organization of work, and concept of "salary".

To give you an example.

While living in London in the late 1990s to early 2000s, sometimes I had assignments with customers that required to, say, write an organizational proposal, or review documents.

So, the "work" was mostly at a price per activity, including within the schedule start, end, onsite meetings, and schedule email previews of final documents.

I do not like bartering on expenses- so, whenever acceptable for the customer, I negotiated a "fixed price" with "deliverables" and "milestones", and really few on-site meetings.

I used e.g. with a non-profit a supplier in India delivering software, and while the CEO was in the USA, I was in Italy and the supplier was in India, so we worked remotely- but we all were used to that, and doing just "user acceptance testing" on rounds of development for a website for the non-profit.

With my customers, usually meetings weren't mere presentations, but used a document (sent usually before the meeting) and a short powerpoint presentation to "guide" a brainstorming with a fixed amount of time and focused on moving from the previous step toward seeding the next one, with one or more scenarios to explore.

Each meeting was also a form of "acceptance" for what was presented and "seeding" the next phase, with a final meeting to close the activities and enable preparing the "lessons learned" (that the customer could use also autonomously with another supplier for a further project, e.g. as it happened for an organizational design).

I wasn't just sending documents around- the activities were organized as a typical consultant assignment where consultants "steal" customers' senior managers time sparingly, are available when needed, but mostly work in their own room.

Actually, over the last decade "their own room" was often in their own company offices, not anymore at the customers' premises.

In my case, I was in London.

Before the train link between Paris and London was updated, actually it took as long to get to/from Paris (twice a week- once in, once out) as it takes now for me to take a bus from where I live to Turin.

Even in 2018, while still living in Turin, somebody sounded surprised when I said that in my view, Turin and Milan (50mins apart by high-speed train) were to be considered the same town, work-wise (and made offers accordingly).

If you consider that, when working in Paris, my customers' offices were in one of the satellite towns (nearby St Cyr), and it took 1.5hours each way to go there- daily, you can probably understand why my perception of "distance" is different- since the 1990s.

So, what we really need, is not remote working (too many managers converted "smartphone access" into "24/7 access"- hence, some employees avoid remote working).

We need to redesign at least two elements: the work routines, and the social element of work.

In Italy, there are plenty of small villages that are semi-abandoned and could actually become part of a different production and living model.

Moreover, if you are worrying about the side-effects of climate change, a significant part of Italian towns on the coast should consider long-term planning to cope with a different country layout.

The Venice experiment with the "Mose" should be studied to understand how (administrative, political, "technical") lessons learned there should help prepare coastal towns to prepare.

Even without considering a "Blade Runner" scenario, consider the Asian state that already planned to relocate its capital to cope with climate change, as well as what are discussing smaller island states.

But even if you are on the "positive" side about climate change and believe that now coastal town will need to relocate, locations such as the one I am currently temporarily living, could in a decade or so enable to develop "enclaves" for a different model of living and working.

Already in the 1990s, it was discussed how teleworking created a social issue, and actually some found that it was better to have "remote shared office facilities" so that employees could still have the social element- less office gossip.

But what I am talking about is on a different level, not just a "smartwork" or "shared office".

When talking about future mobility, it is true that most repeat forecasts stating that 50-70-80% of the world population in the 2050 will live in urban areas.

Retaining quality of life in urban cities could imply restructuring our use of space (already those in their 20s and 30s are considered as having less interest in having a kitchen, in Italy).

As a BBC series on interior design said long ago, space is going to be the new "rich" (and light too).

Therefore, there could be a paradox.

A country such as Italy, with hundreds of small hamlets and villages, thanks to technology and "new mobility concepts" could enable a different approach to "urban living".

While e.g. in Italy some villages and abandoned hamlet or ecclesiastical buildings are being routinely restored to be used as "event platforms", once in a while few are announced to be on the point of boing converted into self-contained communities.

If you need to stay in town full-time, yes, in most cases get ready for smaller and smaller dwellings (try getting a 100sqm apartment in Hong Kong- not for the "average Joe").

If your work will evolve into a global, destructured, "on-demand", non-continuous work patterns, then you will be able to live wherever you want.

By introducing self-driving vehicles, it could become feasible to have more frequent (or even "on-demand") public transport mobility even outside major centers (at the right price), not just in towns.

While living in Brussels, from 2005, I wrote that already back then technology and new approaches would make smaller states not just viable, but also able to deliver the same services as XIX century "economy of scale" countries.

It is a paradox: if you will be able to afford the technology, in 20-30 years might actually make more sense in Italy to live in smaller locations within reach of major urban centres, than in beehive-like urban centres.

I know that I am echoing "Rollerball" (the 1970s version), but if in that movie there were "focused towns" by industry, current (and forthcoming) technology will make easier to develop tiny communities focused on specific activities, yet able to deliver (through integration with "hub" locations) services currently affordable only for major urban centres.

Obviously, this is a scenario that could create some issues and requires a different concept of "urban design".

If some services require an "economy of scale", telemedicine services evolving from those that I studied in the 2000s in Italy and while attending e-inclusion/e-health/e-etc workshops organized by the European Commission in Brussels could actually improve the level of services available also in the smallest village.

Italy, as most of Western Europe, is moving toward a demographic model where there will be less working hours available for a larger, older population.

In the 2nd industrial era concentrating everything in towns made sense, in the 3rd industrial era it the model showed here and there opportunities to do things in a different way, but within the framework of old and tried approaches.

Data transmission capabilities, mobility options, and overall what goes under 4.0 open up the opportunity to deliver more flexibility in both social and individual choices.

For most office workers, the early XXI century will be what almost exactly two centuries ago was for manual workers.

The difference?

I am a kind of "half full glass" type- always.

So, a contraction of working hours do to automation opens opportunities to tackle with issues that we did not have time and resources to consider in the past.

Without evoking Thomas More's "Utopia" and its time allocation approach, if more companies were able to obtain results just close to what Microsoft Japan experimented by reducing the working week to 4 days, we could actually reduce pressure on urban areas, as e.g. not just for cars, but also for houses and apartments within urban areas the model of ownership might change.

But in this too I am biased, as in many towns around Europe, while working, often declined the use of hotels, and used instead serviced aparthotels on a temporarily basis.