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The “maker culture”, the new web, and a renewed drive for enterprise

A new drive for enterprise is being seen among young people according to the organisers of the “Festival of Collective Intelligence” (Festival dell’intelligenza collettiva), two days of meetings and debate that was organised by the CNA (Confederazione nazionale dell’artigianato) in Florence in early November focused, this year, on manufacturing and the “maker culture”.

The idea is not a new one. “Cultura#manifattura” (Culture#manufacturing) was the title for CulT Venezie, the European cultural exhibition that attracted more than 25,000 visitors (and a great many youth) for the three days of debate at the San Basilio Terminal, with particular emphasis being placed on the intersection between traditional Italian manufacturing know-how and the innovative technologies being used by today’s “makers”.

In times of crisis, when the traditional job opportunities become more scarce, both in large-scale manufacturing and in the service industry, one way out is that of the start-up, or entrepreneurship. According to statistics published by Movimprese (the statistics unit of Unioncamere), 100,000 new businesses were started from January to October 2013 by individuals younger than 35. That’s one-third of all start-ups during that same period. These were often technologically aggressive start-ups, active not only in retail sales (20%), the restaurant industry (5.6%) and construction (9.4%), but also in manufacturing and high-tech industries. Makers. “Digital natives” able to unite manufacturing and the web, bricks-and-mortar and digital, in new ways. It is a synthesis of the typically Italian brand of individualism and the tendency Italian’s have to keep their business tied to their roots, to strengthen social capital and mutually beneficial relationships, to bring together “individual” and “community”.

This neo-manufacturing “maker” culture is becoming increasingly popular. They have talking about it in the English-speaking world for a few years now with The Economist, for example, coining the phrase “additive manufacturing” (i.e. 3D printing, products made by adding layer upon layer of material to go from an idea right to the finished product). In Italy, this is manifesting itself in some unique ways, given Italy’s focus on dynamic small businesses and high-quality craftsmanship. Of course, it is a trend that is quite distinct from the idea that “small is beautiful” (an idea that had become an ideology of “microcapitalism”, of a brand of individualism that was not yet cooperative but no longer competitive and of family-oriented entrepreneurship), while also different from certain sociological interpretations whereby “makers” would replace the failing large-scale and mid-sized corporations.

More realistically, it is a phenomenon to be watched closely, facilitated, supported (both culturally and financially) and incentivised (through industry-centric legislation in the areas of lending, innovation, research and taxes). How exactly? A few interesting ideas came out of the CulT conferences in Venice. The story of Maurizio Costabeber and his DWS, a small firm in the province of Vicenza, tells of a 3D printer pumping out jewels with a filigree of such perfection that they cannot be copied. Or that of Riccardo Donadon, founder and chairman of H-Farm, who said, “In the world of the institutions, there is great ignorance concerning this phenomenon that we are taking part in, but we have to keep moving forward. Here, in the past, a manufacturing industry sprung up spontaneously. We knew how to make things. We always have known, and now we have to continue down that same path.”

Massimo Russo, editor of Wired Italia, a publication keenly aware of the primary aspects of innovation, reiterates, “Italy is at the centre of a great wave of innovation. With 3D printers, the manufacturing landscape is changing. With additive manufacturing, it’s no longer convenient to find labour elsewhere.” Custom products for markets in which a drive for originality is becoming increasingly common, as is the drive for flexibility without downtime or warehousing costs. A hybridisation of fast prototyping and actual manufacturing is possible given the right skills. “Hackers and makers need to come together,” Russo says. “And here in Italy, this hybrid individual has existed for ten centuries. They are the craftsmen, albeit digital ones.” Change is under way, and the future is bright.