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Industry and services, reviving the north west, for more balanced development in the heart of Europe

Getting the north west of Italy moving again. And promoting the recovery, in the new maps for Italian development, of two geographical areas – Piedmont and Liguria. While the decline of these regions may differ somewhat in terms of scale (greater in Genoa, less in Turin), it nonetheless creates imbalances that are reflected in the competitiveness and productivity of the whole of Italy’s most dynamic territory, which is located at the heart of industrial Europe.

This objective – which has long been highlighted in the analyses carried out by the studies and statistics offices, as well as in economic literature, debates and conferences conducted by the most informed social players – has recently come to the fore in public discourse with the paralysis of transport all around Genoa, as a result of the maintenance work being carried out on the motorway system in order to ensure its safety, which has led to congested traffic and the closure of the port, as well as resulting in major repercussions for the entire north of the country. “Genoa is an island which is far away from everything; the city and its port are cut off from communications with the rest of the country and with northern Europe as a whole, and we are at risk of extinction,” declared Luigi Attanasio, president of the Chamber of Commerce (in the Corriere della Sera, 5 July), ready to send a white paper on the serious flaws in the infrastructure to Palazzo Chigi, as well as to the offices of the European Commission in Brussels: “In economic terms, what’s happening now is worse than the Morandi Bridge collapse.” The Chinese shipping company Cosco (one of the leading international maritime operators) has written to its customers recommending other ports – Rotterdam or Antwerp. And the risk is that once the once the docks have changed, the traffic will be gone for a long while, with profound economic consequences for the whole Italian system (and on the State coffers: less commercial traffic, less in the way of customs duties and other taxes).

The damage suffered by Genoa affects the entire north west. “The heavy restrictions on traffic on the motorway network are also undermining the competitiveness of entire economic sectors in Lombardy, from manufacturing to tourism, resulting in rises in transport and logistics costs, as well as leading to negative effects on the operation of the Ligurian ports, with inevitable repercussions on exports throughout the area,” explains Alessandro Spada, president of Assolombarda (in Il Secolo XIX on 2 July). For some time, however, the entrepreneurs of Assolombarda, the Industrial Union of Turin and Confindustria Genoa have been denouncing the limitations of the logistics systems within the region, criticising the fragility of the infrastructure and the stagnating construction sites: “In 2019, 80% of the projects being monitored didn’t move forward compared to the previous year. And this lack of new infrastructure is combined with the fragility of the existing systems,” continues Spada.

Here’s the point: completing the new infrastructure – from the third railway crossing to the “Gronda di Genova” motorway bypass and all the other works that will enable the entire north west to connect with the rest of the country and with the relevant areas in Europe, including the high-speed rail network – is a responsibility that falls to the government, as is increasingly clear, but those in charge are have unfortunately proved to be careless, indecisive, and rather too prone to putting things off.

Infrastructure is one of the core elements of the recovery plan that the government must present to Brussels in order to benefit from the Recovery Fund resources, which are geared towards the environment and the digital economy, and more specifically, environmental and social sustainability and innovation. But for infrastructure, the government must seek to access the funds that already exist in the public budget but which cannot be spent, due to the tangle of regulations, bureaucratic red tape and the complexity of the various checks that must be carried out: another of the themes upon which the entrepreneurs of Lombardy, Piedmont and Liguria have been particularly insistent.

Still in relatively recent memory is the acronym which, during the economic boom of the fifties and sixties, was used to refer to the “industrial triangle”: Ge.Mi.To, which stands for Genova, Milano, Torino. Today, the fear is that this acronym will become synonymous with suffering, and with an economy painfully in difficulty.

Here, again, we see the harmony of the north west. For some time now, development maps have identified a “new industrial triangle” between Lombardy, the north east of Italy and the Emilia-Romagna region, characterised by high-quality manufacturing, innovative services and a strong emphasis on exports. More specifically, it is the automotive sector – which once played such a central role, with Fiat in Turin, and a very strong supply chain in Piedmont – which now incorporates new areas of reference, from the Motor Valley in Emilia-Romagna and the high-quality component supply networks that span the Lombardy and Veneto provinces, setting their sights on the major German car manufacturers.

The goal is to strengthen Italy’s industrial heart, which lies at the very core of the European manufacturing sector, not least to reinforce the drive to rebuild European supply chains after the pandemic forced us to critically reconsider long industrial supply networks, abandoning these in favour of more balanced “short” industrial supply chains within Europe.

The paradigm of reference is the development of the so-called “A4 region“, the macro-area that stretches from Piedmont towards the Friuli region and the Adriatic Sea and towards Emilia-Romagna, following the outline of one of the busiest motorways in the country and one of Europe’s major “corridors”, the West-East route. Extending from the Atlantic to the Balkans, this road represents a fundamental axis in the north-south intersection which is centred at the point where the Piedmont and Lombardy regions meet, between continental Europe and the Mediterranean. It is this location which – through a fundamental overhaul of the port system, from Genoa to the Adriatic – can help breathe new life into the flailing economy.

Indeed, it is a zone which is teeming within highly competitive businesses (mechatronics, rubber, plastics, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, agro-food, etc.), many of which already meet the criteria and objectives of sustainability, digital culture, the data-driven economy and the so-called “knowledge economy”. Here, too, are numerous universities and training centres of international renown, and away from the chaos caused by the pandemic, these institutions are more appealing than ever to international talent. Moreover, this is a region that is well aware of the fact that it is connected with the rest of the country, a region that must act as an allied driving force for a balanced approach to development that also engages the south of the country.

Together, Turin and Milan have a safe bet on the table: they are already home to a number of powerful points of connection within the world of industry, finance (Fondazione Cariplo and Compagnia di San Paolo, Banca Intesa’s leading shareholders, are the most obvious manifestation of this) and last but not least, education (with a number of collaborative projects between the two polytechnic universities and leading international schools). Added to this is a network of transport infrastructures (the Alta Velocità high-speed rail network, but also the motorways) and interesting cultural partnerships (MiTo, the music festival in September, is a good example of this). And finally, a geography that is made up of relationships, and which also involves another of the regions known for its industrial quality, Ivrea, ever associated with the memory of Olivetti, as well as with the current research into new possibilities for business development.

In the post-COVID recovery era, and in order to overcome one of the deepest recessions in our history, the “new” north west may become a key pillar of support for Italy, by highlighting and strengthening the network of relationships between the various industrial supply chains, centres of the “knowledge economy” and innovative services. In a nutshell, collaboration and competition are words that can act as a guiding light as we seek to relaunch the country. And the “Northwest Passage” is a fertile road towards balanced development.