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Building a European South: the value of knowledge and markets

When talking about the South of Italy, two key terms come to mind: knowledge and markets. Let’s forget bad old habits involving claims for reparation (“…the State, which from the Unification of Italy onwards has humiliated and marginalised the South, must give us…), Neo-Bourbon nostalgia, and welfarist lures (using the “citizenship income” – the Italian welfare allowance dependant on income and citizenship – as a shortcut to find employment it’s just the latest unhealthy practice). Let’s think, instead, about productively investing in infrastructure, starting from education (quality schools and universities) and digital networks, and supporting all that’s required to encourage entrepreneurship, productivity and competitiveness, to enable companies to grow and fulfil their fundamental role as positive social actors for wealth and change.

More in brief, when redrawing the map of a Mediterranean territory that’s become strategic within international geopolitical and geoeconomics relationships (the war in Ukraine is the latest, shocking chapter in a series of wide-reaching changes), let’s reimagine the South of Italy as an economic area strongly integrated into the European Union as well as a dynamic space.

The chances arising from the constantly evolving “knowledge economy” and the “digital economy”, with their implications related to the extraordinary applications of Artificial Intelligence in all industry, services and cultural sectors – leading to a drastic alteration in terms of time and space – are precisely those that can situate the South of Italy in a position where seizing economic, civic, environmental and social development opportunities, rather than “making up for delayed growth”, is now the priority.

This is a novel European and international context that can only be understood by gazing beyond the narrow horizons of patronage-driven localism and provincialism. It’s a context that poses new challenges not only to Brussels and to Rome and Milan – the two Italian capitals where political power and innovative economy reside – but also to public administration bodies and social actors, starting with companies and without neglecting the more progressive and enterprising individuals hailing from the South of Italy.

These are the themes that resounded throughout the “Verso Sud” (“South-bound”) Forum, held in mid-May in Sorrento by Italian Minister for the South and Territorial Cohesion Mara Carfagna (“Over the course of a thousand conferences, the South has been defined as the ‘Mediterranean logistics platform’. And, today, we’re actualising that platform, thanks to major investments in its sea ports – €1.2 billion – and reforms and infrastructure provided by the Southern Special Economic Zones programme, because this is a territory that lies at the ‘heart’ of our development gambit. A territory where investing will finally be more convenient, easier and faster, thanks to reduced bureaucracy and tax relief measures.”). Those same themes were also discussed in Palermo at the end of last week, at the “Med in Italy” international meeting, promoted by the Confindustria Young Entrepreneurs organisation and chaired by Riccardo Di Stefano – “Med” as in the Mediterranean area, of which the South of Italy could become the focal point for “investments and innovation”.

Of course, a focal point not merely in geographical, but also in political and economic, terms. In a world where trade routes and power relationships are being redefined, under the thrust of the dramatic events we are experiencing (the effects of climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic and the recession, and now the war in Ukraine and its direct impact on European obligations), the push towards a veritable “paradigm shift” in political relations and social and economic development is accelerating.

What we need, in fact, is a critical reinterpretation of the many ideas that, recently, have guided the course of globalisation and the digital economy, as well as a plan for a “selective re-globalisation” that includes reshoring processes aimed at shortening supply chains (length makes them fragile and not very efficient) by relocating them in the heart of industrial Europe – without yielding to the temptation of protectionist notions but rather renovating and relaunching the whole international exchange system under the banner of fair, well-regulated trade.

Bringing back production in Europe – and as such in Italy, too – is what would bring the South of Italy into play, an area that should be made attractive in terms of resources, investments, talent, high-tech production hubs, as well as services, logistical infrastructure (ports, “sea routes”, interports as part of the modernisation of railway and airports), and knowledge hubs.

The South of Italy is brimming with smart and creative human capital – indeed, for years, young women and men from the South have had to leave their home towns in order to find better working and living opportunities elsewhere, from Milan to larger cities in Europe and in the world. And let’s not forget about its widespread entrepreneurship that, though fragile, endures despite the many constraints (a sub-culture built on patronage, prevalent inefficient and corrupt public administration, cushy temptations of welfarist assistance, rampant illegal work, and the many facets of an economy based on crime and terrorising mafia organisations that “bring bread and death”).

Here’s a key point: the aptly named Next Generation EU Recovery Fund, whose resources are especially important to Italy and its South – 40% of national funds are destined to the latter, if it proves it can invest them in productive projects and radical reforms – should be mostly used to support the southern region’s younger generations, to regenerate and relaunch their schools and universities, freeing such institutions from familial hegemonies that are stifling their potential and encouraging them to grow, building virtuous collaborations with the best Italian and European institutions and enterprises.

As a matter of fact, the 2021 investments from Apple and other high-tech companies in Naples point to a trend bent on enhancing local skills and talent in southern cities. Moreover, just a few days ago, news came in about similar ventures by Pirelli and BIP, in Apulia and Sicily respectively: on Friday, Pirelli announced the opening of a Digital Solutions Centre in Bari, integrated into the group’s international software services network, in collaboration with the Apulian region, university and polytechnic university, while BIP (Business Integration Partners, a multinational consulting company from Milan headed by Palermitan Nino Lo Bianco) has presented the project for a Centre of digital services in Palermo, interlinked with the other 13 BIP offices worldwide. These two instances represent a major acknowledgement of how the new dimensions of the digital economy and of smart working can offer extraordinary opportunities for growth, skill development and employment, as well as a recognition of the new generations’ capabilities and undertakings within a European and global context rather than just a local one.

Knowledge, entrepreneurship, skills and markets – as we said above.

Thus, drawing new knowledge, production and consumption maps has now become a real necessity in order to reassess political, economic and cultural decisions about “progress” and the geographic, social, gender and generational balance in the South of Italy, too.

Environmental and social sustainability, accompanied by strong reformist convictions, is key: we’re not talking about implementing green washing or welfare adjustments, but about forging a new political and economic path following the criteria inherent to a civil, circular and “just economy” (to reiterate the message from Pope Francis, a message also widespread within the most prominent international economics literature and major financial and business circles).

Italian companies possess some fundamental qualities at their core: the innovative power integral to a dynamic social capital and the depth of a culture moulded by industrial humanism, an ideology that has defined Italy’s economic history – a culture that combines historical awareness of its own open and multifaceted identity (and the South of Italy is an inspiring example of this) with forthcoming social and civil assets, with the ultimate aim of defining what can be termed the “future of memory”, a future with a distinctive Mediterranean flavour.

When talking about the South of Italy, two key terms come to mind: knowledge and markets. Let’s forget bad old habits involving claims for reparation (“…the State, which from the Unification of Italy onwards has humiliated and marginalised the South, must give us…), Neo-Bourbon nostalgia, and welfarist lures (using the “citizenship income” – the Italian welfare allowance dependant on income and citizenship – as a shortcut to find employment it’s just the latest unhealthy practice). Let’s think, instead, about productively investing in infrastructure, starting from education (quality schools and universities) and digital networks, and supporting all that’s required to encourage entrepreneurship, productivity and competitiveness, to enable companies to grow and fulfil their fundamental role as positive social actors for wealth and change.

More in brief, when redrawing the map of a Mediterranean territory that’s become strategic within international geopolitical and geoeconomics relationships (the war in Ukraine is the latest, shocking chapter in a series of wide-reaching changes), let’s reimagine the South of Italy as an economic area strongly integrated into the European Union as well as a dynamic space.

The chances arising from the constantly evolving “knowledge economy” and the “digital economy”, with their implications related to the extraordinary applications of Artificial Intelligence in all industry, services and cultural sectors – leading to a drastic alteration in terms of time and space – are precisely those that can situate the South of Italy in a position where seizing economic, civic, environmental and social development opportunities, rather than “making up for delayed growth”, is now the priority.

This is a novel European and international context that can only be understood by gazing beyond the narrow horizons of patronage-driven localism and provincialism. It’s a context that poses new challenges not only to Brussels and to Rome and Milan – the two Italian capitals where political power and innovative economy reside – but also to public administration bodies and social actors, starting with companies and without neglecting the more progressive and enterprising individuals hailing from the South of Italy.

These are the themes that resounded throughout the “Verso Sud” (“South-bound”) Forum, held in mid-May in Sorrento by Italian Minister for the South and Territorial Cohesion Mara Carfagna (“Over the course of a thousand conferences, the South has been defined as the ‘Mediterranean logistics platform’. And, today, we’re actualising that platform, thanks to major investments in its sea ports – €1.2 billion – and reforms and infrastructure provided by the Southern Special Economic Zones programme, because this is a territory that lies at the ‘heart’ of our development gambit. A territory where investing will finally be more convenient, easier and faster, thanks to reduced bureaucracy and tax relief measures.”). Those same themes were also discussed in Palermo at the end of last week, at the “Med in Italy” international meeting, promoted by the Confindustria Young Entrepreneurs organisation and chaired by Riccardo Di Stefano – “Med” as in the Mediterranean area, of which the South of Italy could become the focal point for “investments and innovation”.

Of course, a focal point not merely in geographical, but also in political and economic, terms. In a world where trade routes and power relationships are being redefined, under the thrust of the dramatic events we are experiencing (the effects of climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic and the recession, and now the war in Ukraine and its direct impact on European obligations), the push towards a veritable “paradigm shift” in political relations and social and economic development is accelerating.

What we need, in fact, is a critical reinterpretation of the many ideas that, recently, have guided the course of globalisation and the digital economy, as well as a plan for a “selective re-globalisation” that includes reshoring processes aimed at shortening supply chains (length makes them fragile and not very efficient) by relocating them in the heart of industrial Europe – without yielding to the temptation of protectionist notions but rather renovating and relaunching the whole international exchange system under the banner of fair, well-regulated trade.

Bringing back production in Europe – and as such in Italy, too – is what would bring the South of Italy into play, an area that should be made attractive in terms of resources, investments, talent, high-tech production hubs, as well as services, logistical infrastructure (ports, “sea routes”, interports as part of the modernisation of railway and airports), and knowledge hubs.

The South of Italy is brimming with smart and creative human capital – indeed, for years, young women and men from the South have had to leave their home towns in order to find better working and living opportunities elsewhere, from Milan to larger cities in Europe and in the world. And let’s not forget about its widespread entrepreneurship that, though fragile, endures despite the many constraints (a sub-culture built on patronage, prevalent inefficient and corrupt public administration, cushy temptations of welfarist assistance, rampant illegal work, and the many facets of an economy based on crime and terrorising mafia organisations that “bring bread and death”).

Here’s a key point: the aptly named Next Generation EU Recovery Fund, whose resources are especially important to Italy and its South – 40% of national funds are destined to the latter, if it proves it can invest them in productive projects and radical reforms – should be mostly used to support the southern region’s younger generations, to regenerate and relaunch their schools and universities, freeing such institutions from familial hegemonies that are stifling their potential and encouraging them to grow, building virtuous collaborations with the best Italian and European institutions and enterprises.

As a matter of fact, the 2021 investments from Apple and other high-tech companies in Naples point to a trend bent on enhancing local skills and talent in southern cities. Moreover, just a few days ago, news came in about similar ventures by Pirelli and BIP, in Apulia and Sicily respectively: on Friday, Pirelli announced the opening of a Digital Solutions Centre in Bari, integrated into the group’s international software services network, in collaboration with the Apulian region, university and polytechnic university, while BIP (Business Integration Partners, a multinational consulting company from Milan headed by Palermitan Nino Lo Bianco) has presented the project for a Centre of digital services in Palermo, interlinked with the other 13 BIP offices worldwide. These two instances represent a major acknowledgement of how the new dimensions of the digital economy and of smart working can offer extraordinary opportunities for growth, skill development and employment, as well as a recognition of the new generations’ capabilities and undertakings within a European and global context rather than just a local one.

Knowledge, entrepreneurship, skills and markets – as we said above.

Thus, drawing new knowledge, production and consumption maps has now become a real necessity in order to reassess political, economic and cultural decisions about “progress” and the geographic, social, gender and generational balance in the South of Italy, too.

Environmental and social sustainability, accompanied by strong reformist convictions, is key: we’re not talking about implementing green washing or welfare adjustments, but about forging a new political and economic path following the criteria inherent to a civil, circular and “just economy” (to reiterate the message from Pope Francis, a message also widespread within the most prominent international economics literature and major financial and business circles).

Italian companies possess some fundamental qualities at their core: the innovative power integral to a dynamic social capital and the depth of a culture moulded by industrial humanism, an ideology that has defined Italy’s economic history – a culture that combines historical awareness of its own open and multifaceted identity (and the South of Italy is an inspiring example of this) with forthcoming social and civil assets, with the ultimate aim of defining what can be termed the “future of memory”, a future with a distinctive Mediterranean flavour.