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Making Milan “fly” in manufacturing, research and culture

“Far volare Milano” (literally: “Make Milan fly”) is the slogan that Assolombarda (the largest, most important regional arm of Confindustria) uses to convey the meaning behind the work being done by the association’s president, Gianfelice Rocca, and all of his team, that of reinforcing the region’s role as the leading driver of economic growth throughout Italy. It’s an ambitious goal, yet also very pragmatic given the 50 projects that focus on developing industry (manufacturing in the Lombardy region is valued at 27.7% of GDP, which is ten points above the national average and is already well above the 20% target that the EU wants to reach by 2020) as well as on enhancing services to make them more competitive, expanding credit for businesses beyond the traditional banking relationship, simplifying taxation, legislation and bureaucracy generally, making the justice system more efficient and effective, protecting against the infiltration of organised crime (which distorts markets and leads to a form of competition that erodes wealth and civil order), attracting international investors, reducing the cost of energy, increasing social responsibility and safety in the workplace, increasing the efficiency of digital networks, focusing education and training on real needs of business, and developing and disseminating new technologies. This is no list of vague promises, but a true plan of action from 2014 to 2016, one made of deadlines, milestones and mechanisms for measuring progress and performance. This enterprise is an actual social entity that has been given form.

The culture of enterprise is, by its very nature, at once both competitive and inclusive. It thrives on innovation in the broadest sense of the term (i.e. products and production systems, new materials, new forms of labour relations, new languages and tools of governance), and it grows through dialog and interaction with industry, services, research centres, schools and government. It is expressed through projects that bring a range of actors together. The strategy of Assolombarda is an excellent example of this. Presented just last week (after extensive analysis and the preparation of proposals), the strategy was immediately well received by both government (i.e. the City of Milan) and business (through the Chamber of Commerce) and opened the door to broader based, more constructive dialog. Not the typical list of good intentions, but a real commitment to developing Milan with a view towards Expo 2015 and beyond.

What city are we talking about exactly? About a “polytechnic” Milan, a city backed by tradition and that incorporates both knowledge and production, pure research and applied research, education, communication and creativity. And also about a metropolitan Milan, much like the vast – even “boundless”, as sociologists such as Martinotti and Bonomi sometimes say – city that looks from the northwest of Italy out to the rest of the Lombardy region, to the northeast, to Emilia and to the rest of the nation. And of a Milan that is regaining and redeveloping its international vocation. Competition is not limited to business; it also happens between regional systems, and Milan has much to learn from Munich and Bavaria, from Barcelona and the creative, industrious Catalonia (the dynamism of which is getting the area out of the crisis better and faster than the rest of Spain), and from Lyon and the area of France that creates networks of high-tech excellence.

It is a competition that the city can win, because this metropolitan Milan of which we speak boasts a system of both public and private universities (with both Politecnico and Bocconi taking top spots in international rankings), excellent research facilities, a level of human capital that, based on the parameters of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), places Lombardy on a par with or better than Switzerland (and well above the OECD average) in terms of students’ scientific skills, and a series of firsts in scientific research in the area of life sciences. This blend of manufacturing, finance, high-tech, creativity, culture (from publishing to music, theatre to contemporary art), and organisations that promote social cohesion already make Milan a driver of growth, but this energy needs to be unleashed by placing businesses at the centre of programmes of environmentally and socially sustainable development and by laying claim to a system of tangible and intangible infrastructures that will enable the economic machine to express its full potential. Milan as a “hub of knowledge”, once again an attractor of international business and committed to being a “start-up town”, a physical and cultural home for new and innovative businesses.

From all of these points of view, Milan is an “open society”, to borrow a fascinating concept from Karl Popper, one that remains vibrant despite all the “traps and snares” preventing the full expression of its strength and dynamism. It can move forward and drive Italy forward, too, with its feet firmly planted in Europe.