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An industrial and civic Renaissance, involving universities, neo-factories and smart cities

“Shaping the future” – this is the motto that defines the new 2022/23 academic year at the University of Milano-Bicocca, which counts 37,000 students, 1,200 professors, 73 programmes and a swift climb in international ranking concerning quality of teaching and research. A future that needs to be built on the awareness of the past, comments rector Giovanna Iannantuoni; or, as Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, strategically put it, “The history of Europe is a history of Renaissance.”

Thus, the Renaissance as identity marker and foundation for development, and memory as an asset for growth. A grand scheme “to future memory”, as the latest work by Leonardo Sciascia – one of the best literary and civic minds of 20th-century Europe – is concisely and intriguingly entitled. Retaining some doubts (…“if memory had a future”), however, while remaining acutely sensitive to the power of reason. Relying, in other words, on a newly found enlightened spirit – an essential feature in an era when science and critical knowledge are looked at with distrust, replaced by “magical thinking” as well as, even more regrettably, the wiles of fake news and trends inspired by so-called “utopias of escape” where a too hard reality and too cumbersome responsibilities – “utopias of reconstruction”, as per Lewis Mumford’s rigorous definition – are replaced by “idols”.

A critical Renaissance, then, celebrating enlightened thinking and, further, unafraid of confronting its darker sides (as the extraordinary Hieronymus Bosch exhibition at Palazzo Reale in Milan clearly shows).

The University of Milano-Bicocca has been in operation for 25 years now. It was built, and later expanded, in the Bicocca neighbourhood, north of Milan, an area where great industrial developments took place in the 20th-century – first the Pirelli plant, followed, moving towards Sesto San Giovanni, by the Breda metalworks and the Falck steelworks. Assembly lines and workshops, foundries and rolling mills, the whistles of sirens marking the beginning and end of work shifts, train tracks entering the plants to load goods and tram stops crowded with workers. Rigorous, difficult, active and proud work – productive work, rife with technical skills and political, unionist and civic-minded notions.

Only memories are left of all this (also thanks to the documents and images preserved in the historical archives of the Pirelli Foundation and the ISEC (the Institute for contemporary history), as well as a heritage built on culture and passions. At the end of the 20th century, Vittorio Gregotti deftly designed a neighbourhood that would accommodate both universities and enterprises, cultural sites and sports spaces, homes and services: an urban dimension able to develop the blend of beauty and functionality embodied by Gio Ponti’s Pirelli Skyscraper and anticipate the trends of a future Milan, now home to the Porta Nuova and City Life skyscrapers, a transformed Bovisa district and the MIND (the “Milan Innovation District”) area.

Nowadays, the phrase “industrial humanism” is often heard in meetings about the relevance of corporate culture – a phrase that also recalls company magazines (such as the Rivista Pirelli, the Civiltà delle Macchine by Finmeccanica/Iri, the Comunità by Olivetti and the Il Gatto Selvatico by Eni) and the role they played in stimulating a better culture in the 1950s and 1960s.  And to this we can also add “polytechnic culture”, to indicate that blend of humanities and sciences – rigorous techne and a sophisticated sense of beauty, engineering and philosophy – distinguishing those periods, which have evolved into a “manufacturing Renaissance”, the phrase that the international press has adopted to denote the Italian industry of the year 2000, ruled by mechatronics and the digital economy.

Here we are again, then, to a term that’s so dear to universities, encapsulating the dynamism of factories that have transformed into “factories of ideas and knowledge”, of industry that has become a cultural space where skills for a better future are born. Indeed, industry always showed a multidisciplinary spirit and that’s especially relevant today, in an era when widespread Artificial Intelligence calls for engineers-cum-philosophers and mathematicians able to design algorithms that are both socially and morally ethical as well as technically innovative, chemists and sociologists, data scientists and jurists, architects and digital economy experts, psychologists and cyber-security technicians. All working together in hybrid neo-factories generating production and research and in high-tech services and state-of-the-art centres where criteria of environmental and social sustainability steeped in a “do, do well and do good” attitude are formulated.

Universities are the key cornerstones within this process and this loudly resounds in the speeches opening the new academic year at the Bicocca-Milano, Polytechnic, Bocconi and Cattolica universities, as well as at the State and IULM universities, and all other academic institutions that make the Great Milan a special site of knowledge and change.

Smart cities are the future (as Carlo Ratti, director of MIT’s Senseable City Lab in Boston, highlighted in his keynote address) and in order to exist and grow, in line with new and improved economic and social balances, need smart lands – territory where the quality of life, competitiveness and social inclusion go hand in hand. Yet, above all, they need smart citizens, social actors able to lead an active, aware, critical and responsible civic life. Here we are again, then, looking to the future – a confidence gambit for the new generations, supported by a good university education.

(photo Getty images)

“Shaping the future” – this is the motto that defines the new 2022/23 academic year at the University of Milano-Bicocca, which counts 37,000 students, 1,200 professors, 73 programmes and a swift climb in international ranking concerning quality of teaching and research. A future that needs to be built on the awareness of the past, comments rector Giovanna Iannantuoni; or, as Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, strategically put it, “The history of Europe is a history of Renaissance.”

Thus, the Renaissance as identity marker and foundation for development, and memory as an asset for growth. A grand scheme “to future memory”, as the latest work by Leonardo Sciascia – one of the best literary and civic minds of 20th-century Europe – is concisely and intriguingly entitled. Retaining some doubts (…“if memory had a future”), however, while remaining acutely sensitive to the power of reason. Relying, in other words, on a newly found enlightened spirit – an essential feature in an era when science and critical knowledge are looked at with distrust, replaced by “magical thinking” as well as, even more regrettably, the wiles of fake news and trends inspired by so-called “utopias of escape” where a too hard reality and too cumbersome responsibilities – “utopias of reconstruction”, as per Lewis Mumford’s rigorous definition – are replaced by “idols”.

A critical Renaissance, then, celebrating enlightened thinking and, further, unafraid of confronting its darker sides (as the extraordinary Hieronymus Bosch exhibition at Palazzo Reale in Milan clearly shows).

The University of Milano-Bicocca has been in operation for 25 years now. It was built, and later expanded, in the Bicocca neighbourhood, north of Milan, an area where great industrial developments took place in the 20th-century – first the Pirelli plant, followed, moving towards Sesto San Giovanni, by the Breda metalworks and the Falck steelworks. Assembly lines and workshops, foundries and rolling mills, the whistles of sirens marking the beginning and end of work shifts, train tracks entering the plants to load goods and tram stops crowded with workers. Rigorous, difficult, active and proud work – productive work, rife with technical skills and political, unionist and civic-minded notions.

Only memories are left of all this (also thanks to the documents and images preserved in the historical archives of the Pirelli Foundation and the ISEC (the Institute for contemporary history), as well as a heritage built on culture and passions. At the end of the 20th century, Vittorio Gregotti deftly designed a neighbourhood that would accommodate both universities and enterprises, cultural sites and sports spaces, homes and services: an urban dimension able to develop the blend of beauty and functionality embodied by Gio Ponti’s Pirelli Skyscraper and anticipate the trends of a future Milan, now home to the Porta Nuova and City Life skyscrapers, a transformed Bovisa district and the MIND (the “Milan Innovation District”) area.

Nowadays, the phrase “industrial humanism” is often heard in meetings about the relevance of corporate culture – a phrase that also recalls company magazines (such as the Rivista Pirelli, the Civiltà delle Macchine by Finmeccanica/Iri, the Comunità by Olivetti and the Il Gatto Selvatico by Eni) and the role they played in stimulating a better culture in the 1950s and 1960s.  And to this we can also add “polytechnic culture”, to indicate that blend of humanities and sciences – rigorous techne and a sophisticated sense of beauty, engineering and philosophy – distinguishing those periods, which have evolved into a “manufacturing Renaissance”, the phrase that the international press has adopted to denote the Italian industry of the year 2000, ruled by mechatronics and the digital economy.

Here we are again, then, to a term that’s so dear to universities, encapsulating the dynamism of factories that have transformed into “factories of ideas and knowledge”, of industry that has become a cultural space where skills for a better future are born. Indeed, industry always showed a multidisciplinary spirit and that’s especially relevant today, in an era when widespread Artificial Intelligence calls for engineers-cum-philosophers and mathematicians able to design algorithms that are both socially and morally ethical as well as technically innovative, chemists and sociologists, data scientists and jurists, architects and digital economy experts, psychologists and cyber-security technicians. All working together in hybrid neo-factories generating production and research and in high-tech services and state-of-the-art centres where criteria of environmental and social sustainability steeped in a “do, do well and do good” attitude are formulated.

Universities are the key cornerstones within this process and this loudly resounds in the speeches opening the new academic year at the Bicocca-Milano, Polytechnic, Bocconi and Cattolica universities, as well as at the State and IULM universities, and all other academic institutions that make the Great Milan a special site of knowledge and change.

Smart cities are the future (as Carlo Ratti, director of MIT’s Senseable City Lab in Boston, highlighted in his keynote address) and in order to exist and grow, in line with new and improved economic and social balances, need smart lands – territory where the quality of life, competitiveness and social inclusion go hand in hand. Yet, above all, they need smart citizens, social actors able to lead an active, aware, critical and responsible civic life. Here we are again, then, looking to the future – a confidence gambit for the new generations, supported by a good university education.

(photo Getty images)