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You are here: Home > Diritto di Voto / EU, Italy, Turin > poltronificio vs. cathedral builders - #Turin and #Italy within the perfect storm

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Published on 2022-04-10 18:20:00 | words: 2460

This article is going to be short- promise.

Anyway, to recall the title of a book about the Spanish Civil War, while short, "no va a gustar a nadie".

Despite what many say, if compared with WWII, we are currently in a condition similar to post-Pearl Harbor.

Why? Remember that, until then, formally USA was a "weapons supermarket" for UK, not a direct supplier, as it was still formally neutral- direct supply was a paradigm shift, even more so outright donation.

And, as I wrote in previous article, the current conflict is an add-on to the current "perfect storm" that was already the aftermath of COVID19.

Why the title?

To the disappointment of many locals and in Rome, I will repeat what I often write about in my commentary on local and Italian news on Facebook and Linkedin.

In Italy, we currently have few large companies that could qualify as the older concept of "business ecosystem", i.e. a large company and its supply chain plus the territories involved (and, therefore, public and private services needed to keep it all going).

And my birthplace, Turin, is probably the largest former company town in Italy- also if the "former" is still something that has to be digested by the local culture.

Routinely I lambasted the "poltronificio" attitude, i.e. creating yet another structure whose purpose is to... coordinate, support, incubate- but, in the end, just creates it own workplaces, which in Italian are called "poltrone" (i.e. "seats at the table").

Decades ago, the largest company in town left the industrialists' association, as it was ill-fitting the "drive" of the association, where those represented were small and tiny companies (in Italy, not just in Turin).

It is a matter of culture: as I reported in the past about attempts to have "continuous learning" enter the mindset of local companies, smaller companies have an operational perception naturally inclined to extracting value from what they have or see as present or near opportunities.

Investment in continuous learning, notably creating learning and innovation opportunities, is often seen as a cost, or, even worse, assuming a cost whose value will probably be extracted by others.

In the old version of "business ecosystem", it was up to the company acting as the sun within the town (or the industrial district, in other areas of Italy outside Turin), to actually be the innovation clearing house and motivator (and also assuming or offsetting risks for smaller parties).

But when most of the local entities are tiny, small, or, at best, "pocket multinationals" (i.e. working in multiple countries but in reality integrated in multiple ecosystems, not an ecosystem in and by itself), there is no "natural pack leader", and a "swarm" attitude should be fostered, maybe with some gentle nudge from local authorities (the only entities that locally have at least a residual perception of long-term objectives).

I criticized often the "event-orientation" that Turin is taking, while at the same time investing in higher education, but still using an old academic attitude: a contradiction, as often the local ecosystem is just subsidizing the development of, as you can guess, what smaller companies in Italy fear.

Or: training those who, for lack of local opportunities on an appropriate scale, will just relocate elsewhere.

Even worse: it does takes not that long to lose the "education edge", if you have no integration within the "foot on the ground" (operational side) and "innovation cauldrons" (larger entities or those that actually take the risk to generate innovation and fail fast to then start again).

Instead, that was long ago set aside in e.g. Emilia Romagna (the region that actually attracted further development in what was considered the original industry of Turin, automotive; so much that, if you search for "motor valley" you land there, not in Piedmont, and certainly not in Turin.

The difference between perception and reality has been often visible (at least to me) since I was made to return to Turin from abroad, in 2012.

Routinely, first the resources from the territory (notably banking foundations), then increasingly a "local seed" and appeals for national and supranational resources were not focused on projects, but on creating what locals assumed would "organically attract" here as the best location for whatever.

As if there were no other location in the Europe (and, sometimes, the world) were, given the option, those "organically attracted" would go.

Talking shops are not building shops.

Incidentally: I really mean "whatever" (in Italian, "la qualunque", following a comedian): one day is the authority for transport, the other day becoming the European and eventually world best place to oversee/coordinate/etc "social inclusion" start-ups, the other day the natural place for a EU-wide "Station F" (the Paris "campus and community in the heart of Paris, with 1,000 startups, 30+ programs and a full range of services"), or even the natural location for the Italian Artificial Intelligence Authority (eventually, got a bit on automotive).

At last, the Government set up a package (as local authorities had some financial issues lingering from the past, not just COVID19) that local newspapers announced being on the tune of 4bln EUR.

You would expect that, based on past and recent experiences, and also past failures of the "centre of the empire" model, there would be something more proactive.

Well... I was happy to read an article suggesting to invest on the future, i.e the young (as, anyway, they will be those who will have to pay back).

Instead... two days down the road... yet another announce, this time that Turin wants to become the worldwide capital of Liberty, obviously associated to the launch of an event.

Why limit your aspirations just to Italy or the European Union (ignoring what is elsewhere, even just in Europe)?

As I said- poltronificio: it seems as if strategy in Turin has been replaced by an extreme form of gamification, i.e. (expensively) collecting "badges" for this and that, as if all the universe were to need to pass by Turin.

Half-jokingly, few days ago I posted that not even 40bln EUR would be enough to turn the town around, if the "company town" attitude is not going to change (as a foreign friend reminded me "spilling the tea"- something common in all the company towns I visited).

It is not just gossip- it is that any activity, any office, any contact turns into a giant virtual, shared watercooler, akin to the concept within the old movie with Donald Sutherland, "The Puppet Masters"- something that resulted in funny commentary from foreigners I worked with or met in Turin, first in the 1980s, more recently in 2019.

A recent book talking about Turin 2030 discussed how Turin was in a previous round faster in innovation than Milan, as those involved were more "cohesive".

And this is frankly the issue with the town, and the reason of my "40bln EUR" comment: I am afraid that what was described as a positive ("cohesive") was actually a negative (i.e. collusive).

You get quicker answers where everybody already converges, but it is fine for incremental innovations whenever you have plenty of resources to spread around to keep all the "cohesive decision making" together, to the risk shifting into that Italian saying about collusive: "una mano lava l'altra" (supporting each other)- a tribal economy.

But when you have had for at least a couple of decades a blatant need to rethink, and are within a "perfect storm" of a pandemic that shattered our normal way of working and pushed an acceleration to digital transformation undermining the economic sustainability of many local businesses (e.g. Turin was a town of offices and shops- now in many cases vacant or shrinking down), you need a different model.

Today there was an interesting article on "Il Sole 24 Ore" that actually talked about the beginning of the automotive in Turin, and de facto described the difference between incremental innovation generating short-term benefits at relatively low risk, vs. radical rethinking that generates a new market.

As a result, higher risks but potentially higher returns (you can read it here).

Alternative? Missing opportunities to scale up (something that is still elusive to many smaller companies and, of course, Italian start-ups).

Which, unfortunately, is something that we could ill afford also without the consequences on our businesses and society of the COVID19 pandemic and differentiation vs. how the Recovery and Resilience Facility part of NextGenerationEU are being used in other countries (and also complemented by significant national resources).

And where, compounded with the impacts of the choices adopted after the invasion of Ukraine (e.g. European Union vs. energy supplies from former USSR as well as potentially strategic integration with the "Silkroad" that had already delivered up to Spain, integrating supply chains on a land-based approach), the impact is already being perceived on Italian businesses.

So much that I read an increasing number of articles commenting how we are really entering into an "economy at times of war" (e.g. potential compulsory energy savings), and 72% of PNRR (the Italian side of NextGenerationEU) projects have to reconsider costs.

Already again Italy is being marginalized by major foreign direct investment flows, despite the 200bln+ EUR to invest: I shared in previous articles about others, today there was again an item about Intel, and its still large but fractional and more "operational" (packaging, backend) than "influential" (R&D) potential slice of investment in Italy.

As in previous articles since the late 2000s, when I was living in Brussels, and also recently on this website between 2016 and 2021, it is a matter of perspective and perception of reality.

Personally, as I half-jokingly wrote recently to a new friend on Instagram, I like to change what can be changed.

Corollary: no matter how hard or "salmon-like" (i.e. going against the "follow the herd") at first sounds, looks, feels.

No paradigm shift ever happened without some friction, resistance to change, and some aftermath mending of the side-effects.

If you do not have stomach for it, just look for resources to keep covering costs, not to seed a better future.

The "poltronificio" attitude, built around events and attractors for flows around events without any connecting overall Weltanschauung and long-term perception (a.k.a. socio-economic sustainability), can satisfy the few, and spread around enough "panem et circenses" to keep the masses under a stupefied torpor for a while.

But should not be what political and social "leaders" should focus on.

It might be an element of the mix, to balance off the hard choices needed to move forward, and also the "cathedral building" of having to bear current efforts to have something that can sustain your society for longer or, at least, give more opportunities also to future generations.

As we should never remember, notably in this control-freak attitude of gaming-and-scheming and micro-managing lives that is typical of the old "company town" attitude, that...

...no matter how good your plans are, no matter how prescient you are about the potential futures, the only way to prepare for a better future is to prepare a portfolio of elements (or "tools"- social, industrial, economic, technological, whatever), as any plan does not survive the encounter with reality.

And only having a potential to restructure, rearrange, and still reuse elements (and maybe add new ones if needed) enables to be "sustainable".

Leave to commentators offering the perfect plan that will stand any challenge.

Few decades ago, while supporting start-ups also in Turin, somebody told me about the virtues of the "capacità progettuale" of Turin, meaning- the ability to create projects.

My reply was that, in my view, "projects" implied delivering something, not just making grandiose schemes that lead exactly nowhere, and were then promptly replaced by other grandiose schemes, as I saw in many public workshops on the territory since I returned full-time in 2012.

Squandering those 4bln EUR would not just waste those resources, would also further sap goodwill.

And goodwill for a territory takes a long time to build, and is relatively quick to deplete.

It is a matter of prioritization: planning should derive not just by the current specific needs, but the overall organizational (or social model) purposes, i.e. Weltanschauung, that make specific choices within an array of potential options "the" choices to adopt.

But I wrote about that in past articles (you can read a more coherent summary and case study on planning here), and...

...this article is already too long, for being a short article.

The concept is, of course:
_consider by degrees of uncertainty- and time (short, medium, long) are a representation of that
_if you want to build cathedrals (i.e. long-term, even multi-generation initiatives), you have also to provide a short-/medium-term sense of belonging
_in our times, in reality everybody can be influencer and influenced, hence you have to adapt
_hence, while there should "ownership" of a plan, probably the most efficient way to adapt is "to swarm".

On the last point, as an introduction, shared in the past a book that can outline the points, from RAND.

Have a nice Sunday!