From the factory creating objects to the factory creating ideas. In order to make Italian factories perform better, a key requirement for economic growth and social progress at this time of “Industry 4.0”. And to give a notable boost to “sustainable development”. This is a virtuous circle, between culture and manufacturing. One which over recent days has truly seen some significant initiatives, from Turin to Ivrea, and from Bologna to Milan.

Let us examine these more closely. In Turin, they are reopening the Ogr, the Officine Grandi Riparazioni (Major Repair Workshops): once upon a time, that is where they used to repair trains, but where today instead there are incubators for new technologies and new languages, while still retaining the guiding theme of the idea of a journey through the modern world: from locomotives to the “digital” structures which bring together machines and ideas. The big names from personalities and industries cited in the “Procession of Reparationists” by William Kentridge are a remarkably vibrant artistic symbol for these. “In order to master machinery and locomotives you need to understand them. Work was not and is not automatic”, maintains Kentridge. Manufacturing and culture, yet again. This is the modern echo of the “civility of machines”, an altogether Italian dimension of the great industrial and civil culture, from the state-owned Finmeccanica to Pirelli and Olivetti.

This is what the modern Olivetti is like. In Ivrea, in one of the ex-buildings of the group headed by Adriano Olivetti, along via Jervis (characterised by premises and offices designed by some of the principal architects of the 20th Century and particularly well-liked by Le Corbusier, who saw in them the extraordinary synthesis between architectural beauty and industrial functionality), we have just seen the start, at the end of last week, of the “Conversations about the civil economy”, sponsored by the “Il Quinto ampliamento” (Fifth Extension), an association which brings together entrepreneurs (the Confindustria industrial trade body from the Canavese area), economists, professionals and personalities from the worlds of culture and of universities (from the Olivetti Foundation to the Legambiente environmental league) in order to discuss the quality of growth, high tech industry, the environment, and sociability (we will deal with this at greater length soon).

In Bologna, at the Mast Foundation (an initiative promoted by the Seragnoli group, one of the key players in the best Italian mechatronics sector), the “Biennale di fotografia dell’industria e del lavoro” (Biennial of photography of industry and the workplace) is being launched, including photographs by, among others, Mimmo Jodice, Ruff, Koudelka, Friedlander, Rodchenko and Jodice: industrial work and how its representation has evolved.

And in Milan, while to wide critical and public acclaim, the activities continue in the Pirelli HangarBicocca, an erstwhile Ansaldo factory which has now become one of the major centres of international contemporary art (currently featuring exhibits by Lucio Fontana), there are plans to create, on other ex-industrial premises, centres of tertiary excellence (services, research, training, life sciences) in a metropolis which is designed to reinforce its own role at the heart of European innovation at the crossroads between mechatronics and the digital economy.

“Sustainable development” is a basic idea which resonates through all these locations, across so many activities. It is a way of approaching the economy which combines competitiveness and quality of life. As is confirmed by the second Report from ASVIS (the Alliance for Sustainable Development led by Enrico Giovannini, the internationally renowned statistician and ex-Minister for Work). The Report, presented in Rome last week, highlights the 17 targets for sustainability quoted in the UN Agenda for 2030, and notes that Italy has achieved an “improvement” in respect of 9 targets (food, health, education, gender equality, infrastructure, sustainable consumption models, reduction of greenhouse gases, management of the seas and justice), “a notable worsening” for  4 (poverty, management of water resources, inequalities and terrestrial ecosystems), “while the situation remains static” for the remaining 4 (energy, employment, sustainable cities and international cooperation). But even in the areas where improvements have been observed, the divergence from UN Agenda targets for 2020 and 2030 remains “very wide”. In summary: “Italy is not on a pathway towards sustainable development and the economic resurgence, on its own, will not solve the problems” which can be seen “amongst the European countries with the worst economic, social and environmental performances”. It is not enough, then, to grow GDP, gross domestic product, and be satisfied with the 1.5% expected this year; we need to get ourselves in line with the BES, the “equitable and sustainable well-being” index. (The Document for the Economy and Finance which the minister Padoan is preparing to present to Parliament in the coming weeks takes this into consideration).

We are reasoning in terms of the quality of the economy. In terms of new and better balances. There is an industrial and cultural world moving on, now that the years of crisis are over. And the word “factory” has now returned as part of the essential vocabulary for public speaking, a word which until a few years ago could be found only in the writings of a few passionate exponents of “industrial pride”.

Multi-technical culture, to quote once again an expression frequently used in this blog. This refrain was a clear feature in the discussions of the “Il Quinto ampliamento” (Fifth Extension – the name is taken from a plan by Adriano Olivetti to extend further the Ivrea premises, before he was taken ill in the train to Lausanne, on the 27th February 1960). The objective is “to find once again a corporate culture which combines competitiveness and social inclusion”, an idea which was dear to the hearts of the best captains of industry in Italy during the Fifties and Sixties (the Olivetti, the Pirelli and the Borghi families and others too, including small- and medium-sized companies, the foundation for Italian economic growth). And one overall theme which requires further investigation is that of the paradigm of the ”civil economy”. How so? This is explained by Stefano Zamagni, the economist and chairman of the Quinto ampliamento (Fifth Extension), when he quotes Adriano Olivetti’s ideal for wealth: “The idea is to have a civil enterprise: the enterprise as an agent for change, not only in the sphere of economics, but also in the social and civil arena of society. It would be too restrictive to think of an enterprise simply in terms of a ‘profit machine’ rather than also a ‘place where man’s character is built’, as the great Alfred Marshall had foreseen as far back as 1890”. This lesson remains true today.