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“Eco’s Triangle” and the economy of science and culture

It was an ode to Italian excellence and international prestige for the country’s culture and our particular approach to science, not to mention an implicit indication of strategy: Italy’s future lies it the development of the country’s cultural heritage, in Italian creativity, and in the nation’s ability to construct and disseminate research and innovation. In his speech for the appointment of Claudio Abbado, Elena Cattaneo, Renzo Piano and Carlo Rubbia as senators for life, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano was very clear, as was his explicit reference to the lesson of Luigi Einaudi (who had, in his time, appointed great intellectuals such as Arturo Toscanini, Umberto Zanotti Bianco, and Trilussa as senators for life).  Institutional roots and a forward-looking Office of the President. Memories. And a high-profile political reference insisting, convincingly, on the need to bring a much-awaited end to government after government cutting spending on culture, education and research, thereby compromising the future of the new generations and the proper development of the nation.

With this speech, Napolitano embodies the best in Italian culture of enterprise. The new sources of competitiveness lie in the quality of human capital, in social capital (the relationships of skills; the ability to work together, which continue to characterise the best in widespread capitalism; the territory, districts and networking), in “innovation capital”. Despite it all, Italian industry has managed to survive through these years of great crisis only by promoting innovation in products and processes, by challenging the competition on international markets, and by taking advantage of that particular Italian trait that is a constantly changing mix of design, quality, business sophistication, and resilience to change— the result of a culture and of a type of intelligence that keeps pace with the times and looks to the future.

Bruno Arpaia and Pietro Greco, in their book La cultura si mangia! (published by Guanda), offer up data in this regard that provide some food for thought. In this work, the authors refer to the “triangle of culture” (as defined by Umberto Eco) and its important insights into the economy. The three points of this triangle are: a) the cultural industry of design, craftsmanship, the visual arts, audio-visual media, publishing, entertainment, and new media; b) the full cycle of education and learning, from elementary school through to secondary school, university and then life-long learning; and c) scientific research, technological development and the production of high-tech products and services.

These are the pillars of development in many countries around the world—from the US to China, from Korea to Germany and on to Brazil— and they already underlie a large part of the world’s economy. Indeed, the goods and services of this system of production based on scientific research (the whole world of high-tech) account for 30% of global GDP. The creative industry is worth another 15% of GDP. Education, roughly 6%. In other words, over half of the world’s GDP is based on “Eco’s triangle”. It is the knowledge economy, and a challenge for Italy and for Europe as a whole—an essential tool in the new frontier of “record manufacturing” and in retaining competitiveness. Thus far, Italy has responded poorly, investing just 1% of GDP in research and cutting investment in education—largely coming out of the salaries of school and university personnel—year after year. Conversely, the other major European nations, from Germany to France, have increased spending in these areas in what Massimo Sideri (in Corriere della Sera of 1 September) calls the “cocktail of innovation” or the “trilateral network”: industries that invest; universities that conduct research and education to train highly-skilled students; and a series of other conditions created by governments and public bodies to favour start-ups, starting with both physical and intangible infrastructures (e.g. the Silicon Valley in the US, London’s Tech City, the Silicon Wadi in Israel, and other high-tech districts in India, in China and in Russia). These are examples that we would finally learn to follow, as we have now also been reminded by the senators for life appointed by Napolitano.