Raise your hand if, until a few years ago, you thought that the future of Italy’s economy lay in craftsmanship. Or that young people would take the reins of our traditional know-how, introducing innovations in terms of form and substance. Stefano Micelli is one of those who would raise his hand. In 2011, on the eve of the second wave of the recession, Mr. Micelli – an economist and Professor at the University Cà Foscari in Venice – wrote an essay entitled “Futuro Artigiano” (Future Craftmanship, edited by Marsilio). His essay was to introduce a minor revolution, becoming the first book, in 2014, to win the Compasso d'Oro, the most important award devoted to the Italian design: “I had businessmen come up to me and tell me that they finally understood what they were doing,” he reminisces with a pinch of pride. “Bank officials who reinvented themselves as craftsmen, and now sell their products worldwide. In our own small way, we have started to change the perception of a world that, so far, has been highly stereotyped, revealing its charm and its potential for innovation”.
What do you mean when you say that craftsmanship has been highly stereotyped?
When we think about craftsmanship, we usually waiver between two extremes that are best avoided. On the one hand, coarse and rudimentary work – a handmade bomb, for example, that does not explode. On the other, something akin to art, made to perfection and extremely expensive, and therefore targeted solely at the financial elite. In both cases, we wrong an expertise that is the backbone of our economy. An inclusive, open, democratic know how, on which we have built the very concept of Italian quality.
What does Italian quality mean, in your vision of craftsmanship?
It is an attribute that has two implications. The first is a particular way of doing business, a “bespoke” form of industrialisation. We Italians have always shied away from serialisation, and turned up trumps with customization. This is true in fashion and design, as well as in the mechanical field, and applies to small and large enterprises alike.
And the second implication?
It is a different approach to work; one that is fundamental for those who produce a variety of tailored articles. Craftsmanship is active, not passive. It involves a conscious effort, culturally rooted in a passion for creativity, resourcefulness and things well done.
This passion you speak of seems to have infected young people, as we can see from the birth of the transnational maker culture. The question is, will this concept of work become predominant, or will it remain a niche market?
It depends on the scenario. In some sectors, these phenomena are already taking hold. Just think of wine and beer producers. They produce less, however they customise their produce, working differently and, in the end, earning more. There are many small businesses, in a variety of sectors, that already tackle the market in this way. Medium-sized companies have also changed their organisational and managerial approach, to some extent adopting this particular way of working. I do not expect an army of makers.
“You can’t have technicians who are insensitive to the country’s cultural traditions. And you can’t have managers who do not appreciate and understand the implications of manual labour.”
That’s fine for businesses, but how about the people they hire? How far are our schools from adopting the new paradigms of craftsmanship?
They still have a long way to go. The goal, for a country like Italy, is to try to build plausible bridges between humanistic and technical cultures. You can’t have technicians who are insensitive to the country’s cultural traditions. And you can’t have managers who do not appreciate and understand the implications of technical know-how and manual labour. The real problem in Italy is structural, and is linked with the absence of secondary technical schools. We struggle to train people with an advanced technological profile. Sweden’ secondary technical schools churn out 800,000 technicians per year, whereas in Italy this figure is at most 10,000. They haven’t yet penetrated our popular culture.
The rise of these new paradigms of craftsmanship goes hand in hand with the diatribe about robots and, more generally, about job-stealing automation. Do you share these apocalyptic fears?
Anyone who has studied the history of technology is aware of the fact that major innovations require widespread competencies, and a multitude of people capable of harnessing any new instrument’s potential. It is important to leverage our country’s cultural and historical capital. However, it is equally important to embrace the latest innovations, such as the digital code, which our students need to know how to handle. It is only by incorporating new skills and competencies that Italy can hope to preserve its artisan tradition.
Part humanists, part programmers…
We must think of innovative technologies, not as being at the service of the elected few, but as something ubiquitous, democratic, within everyone’s reach. Today – and here I wish to focus on small businesses, as the cornerstones of a new direction in economic development and social cohesion – we must conceive and reinvent businesses as a new means of pooling together craftsmen, cultural institutions and schools, so as to draw maximum benefits from a consolidated relationship between culture and production. The success of Italy’s craftsmanship is largely due to its ties with an extraordinary culture. Low-cost technologies can be exploited to renew the bond between business and culture. This is the only way to give Italian craftsmanship a new lease of life.