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Beauty and competitiveness: the alliance between cities, provincial towns and villages for sustainable development

Sustainable development. Competitiveness. The new needs of the economy, in a context radically changed by the pandemic and recession. The opportunities open to Italy, a country with a wealth of businesses rooted in its regions, sophisticated but not huge cities and productive cities and provincial towns well suited in terms of size for the circular and civil economy. A painful and difficult 2020 has presented us with a transitional, economic and social challenge, in which the historical characteristics of Italian development and the relevance of our social capital provide us with extraordinary opportunities for restart and recovery. We have already discussed this several times in this blog. Now, contemporary public discourse is providing new and interesting insights.

To understand this better, it’s worth reflecting on an image. Seen from above, there is a wide strip of light, like a rectangle with frayed edges that stretches from west to east. To the north, the Alps form an almost completely dark border, except for bright ribbons of light in the valleys that creep between the mountains, before gradually fading into darkness. The lights fade as we descend southwards, before thickening out again into a wide shining patch, namely Rome. Even further south, light and shadows alternate along the coast, before the darkness of the Tyrrhenian and Ionian seas. This is the nocturnal photograph of the Po Valley, taken by Luca Parmitano, from the International Space Station a few years ago. It’s a striking image and one that gives an impressive overview of some essential features of our economic geography. Lights, or the energy of cities and towns. These are indicators of places and flows of social relations and economic activity, which are particularly intense here, as much as and possibly more than in other key areas of activity in Europe.

The bright rectangle starts in Piedmont and stretches towards the coast in Liguria, to the east it reaches the borders of Fruili Venezia Giulia, it includes the industrialised regions of Lombardy and Veneto and extends to Emilia Romagna with its factories and universities. A sort of A1 – A4 macro region, named after the motorways that cross it. It accounts for 53.7% of GDP (Italy’s gross domestic product) and 68.9% of the country’s exports. It also has a very unique feature. It is a vast and highly developed area, marked by cities (Milan and Turin), but also by a series of medium-sized and large towns, and an infinity of villages and hamlets that are all highly interconnected (connections that have shortcomings and limitations, due to the road and rail networks, especially those that run from the plains to the mountains). It is bustling with economic activity, where cutting-edge industry, agriculture, financial services, high-tech services, universities and research centres, environment and culture intersect in a very unique collaborative network. Despite the crisis, it has a level of social dynamism rarely seen in Europe. It has a robust set of values, from civil history to economic innovation. It has an extraordinary ability to compete, whether we look at competition on international markets or focus on the deeper meaning of the word itself, on its etymological root: cum and petere, moving together towards one shared goal. Development.

It is precisely these geo-economic characteristics that give it an extraordinary topical competitive advantage today. The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated the extreme fragility of large urban centres and has revealed the close relationship between the complexity of systems and their vulnerability. The widespread theory in the economic world of the inevitable success in the immediate future of large cities because they are more attractive and more suited to a dramatic increase in productivity (the strength of “economies of agglomeration”, which encourage the influx of talent, material and immaterial resources and innovative energy), is showing its limitations in this crisis, which simultaneously affects health, social factors and the economy.

In contrast, it is better to have more spread out areas, where productivity can be linked to quality of life, the cultural and social stimuli of the urban experience, with the beauty of the environment and strong social relations of local communities. There is no shortage of examples of this throughout the country. The strip of light in the photograph of Italy from space provides an excellent representation of this.

At a time when social and environmental sustainability is taking precedence over the race for personal success at any cost, the real economy is once again playing a primary role, prevailing over the speculative financial economy. Our productive North, with its great inclusive and collaborative social capital, can provide extremely interesting economic and social indications for the rest of Europe and the world. It could be an exemplary place to turn the values of the EU Recovery Plan into a reality: a green and digital economy, looking to the Next Generation.

Sustainable innovation. For this very reason, it is also a driving force for the development of the entire country. If we look at the long industrial supply chains that link the North and South (in the automotive, aeronautics and aerospace, agri-food, pharmaceutical and complex information technology sectors) and activities linked to research and training. Trying to bridge the North-South divide is a strategic choice and one which will be much more successful than policies of rebates and subsidies.

Of course there are limits, conflicts and contradictions. Cities, towns and villages need efficient material links and, more importantly, immaterial links (the European 5G network) and a better distribution of services, from schools to health and security, to productivity support activities.  It is however a possible development project, one in which we have many economic and social cards to play. It can be done provided we do so with the indispensable values of knowledge, skills and responsibility. A new reconstruction for Italy.