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Culture tells the story of enterprise at the festival di Vicenza: Industry meets theatre, writing and music.

Taking the culture route to foster growth and competitiveness in our companies: good manufacturing, quality and innovation culture. And consolidation of “culture factories”, publishing, theatres, conservatories, film and TV locations, the creative networks where memory blends with new digital languages and basically brings industry to life by talking about it. This is the dual challenge that Italy and its entrepreneurs and intellectuals are facing, at a time of deep and radical transformation of the economy, but also of social and cultural relations. A challenge that will be played out above all by businesswomen and businessmen seeking new, enhanced legitimacy, an equilibrium that balances “value” (profit, legitimate economic interests hinging on the business) with “values” like environmental and social sustainability, competitiveness with the need for community (both words originating in the Latin root “cum”, together).

These are the themes that underpinned “La cultura che racconta l’impresa”, a conference on how culture can speak about business, the closing appointment last Sunday at Vicenza’s traditional three-day “Festival Città Impresa”, in which entrepreneurs, economists, ministers, politicians, trade unionists, cultural figures meet to discuss the economic and social state of play in Italy, especially in the north east, where enterprise plays a sturdy central role, both in the past and for the future. Stories of innovation and of production and cultural challenges, of the local roots of manufacturing and international perspectives; the decline of “small is beautiful” ideology (with the “amoral familism” that cripples the viability of local capitalism), and the need to explore issues of productivity, competition and sustainable development. And of good corporate culture.

Culture, we have said, as a distinctive competitive edge for Italian companies. To understand this better, a brief quotation from a great economic historian, Carlo Maria Cipolla was in order: “Italians, used since the Middle Ages to producing beautiful things that please the world, in the shadow of the bell towers.” That sentence sums up the substance of the country’s industrial identity: long-established tradition, the firmly-rooted widespread enterprise (“in the shadow of the bell towers”), manufacturing, design (“beautiful things”), and venerable international expertise. These venerable values are very topical, producing economic value. This boils down to a “polytechnic culture” as a constantly renewed fusion of humanistic wisdom and scientific expertise, which is exquisitely Italian in this sphere.

Culture as an essential tool for supporting all the new challenges posed by innovation in these times of digital manufacturing, 3D printers, big data, cloud computing, etc.. Culture to decrypt and rearrange the complexities and contradictions, and to give economic drive to an innovation that invests in productions and products, materials, communication and marketing languages, training, industrial relations, governance processes, stakeholder relations, understanding of cultural and social diversity in the countries where the best Italian companies grow and internationalize.

“Polytechnic culture”, we might add, as the relationship between science, technology and their representation. As found, for example, in the reflections of Leonardo Sinisgalli, engineer-poet and Pirelli manager in the 1950s, also working for Olivetti (two of the best creative sites in the Italian business culture), later running Civiltà delle macchine, the Finmeccanica Iri magazine that made such a positive impact on the period of the economic boom. Nature to be transformed, respecting it. And science. Manufacturing and good culture once again. Sinisgalli writes: “Nature knows how to manufacture objects, it doesn’t manufacture instruments. Nature doesn’t feel the need to control or measure, doesn’t need to repeat exactly the same gestures, to linger in the same thought, in the same formula. [. . .] Nature can manufacture perfect polyhedrons, cubic lattices, hexagonal lattices; pentagonal symmetries, ovoids, logarithmic spirals. [. . .] The wheel is not a creature, it is only a symbol, little more than a number, a figurative number that can go here or there. It cannot stop, nor go back. If not by accident. Nature has tasked humanity with these responsibilities.”

Another keyword that resounded at Vicenza was responsibility, for a better way of producing, but also of consuming, of building a more balanced relationship between the economy, society, people. And to make this working tell a great story using the media that culture offers us: writing, theatre, photography, cinema, digital products, or – why not? – music (compose a concert, a suite, a symphony, a “choral”, starting from factory atmosphere and noise?). In a word: factories open to culture, with men and women of culture going to factories. To open debate and understand each other. To recognize that they are essential parts of Italian development. And forge the bonds of a community. By the way, “community” was the keyword for Adriano Olivetti’s best corporate culture.