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Trend 9 December Dec 2020 0725 9 December 2020

Digital know-how and innovation: how Italy’s artisans will make a comeback after the pandemic

The Lombardy branch of Confartigianato (the association serving artisans and small businesses) has found that as many as 77% of businesses have either already invested or plan to invest in digital innovation. A must-have in the wake of the pandemic and in today’s world, and it has to start with training

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Courage, passion and a large dose of perseverance. These are the traits typical to the world of craftsmanship, which has reached a turning point in 2020. According to data from Confartigianato, there are 1.3 million artisan businesses in Italy (as recorded last June) and 2.66 million people employed in the sector. The sector was hard hit first by the recession and then by the pandemic. The numbers paint a clear picture: in 2014, there were 76,000 more artisan businesses than there are today. Spurred on by the shockwave of the pandemic, today like never before the sector is focusing on digital innovation for its comeback, starting with training schemes for newcomers.

“Italy’s artisans have traditionally been innovators, often making their own tools or machinery. Now digital technologies will give them that extra edge. Digital makers could be a real driving force for the Italian economy,” the former leader of the FIM CISL trade union federation Marco Bentivogli wrote in his book “Contrordine Compagni”.

The pandemic has accelerated the digital revolution, which is now essential for the survival of businesses. According to data supplied by Confartigianato, before the outbreak of the pandemic 13% of SMEs had no digital experts, 20% did not have a website, and 32% had no cybersecurity tools. But now Confartigianato estimates that by the end of the year, 122,000 more businesses will be using e-commerce and already by September there were 24.9% more than last year.

“The innovation process varies from one company to another, but we need to bear in mind that digitalisation is never a goal in itself, it is the means: the goal of any company is to stay competitive on its markets,” explains Roberta Gagliardi, who leads the competitiveness unit at Confartigianato in Lombardy.

The innovation process varies from one company to another, but we need to bear in mind that digitalisation is never a goal in itself, it is the means: the goal of any company is to stay competitive on its markets

Roberta Gagliardi, head of the competitiveness unit at Confartigianato in Lombardy.

Writing extensively on the topic is Stefano Micelli, a Professor of Business Economics and Management at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, who has carried out a study to show how traditional sectors have been influenced by technology. “Over the last six years,” Micelli explains, “there have been a lot of changes and there are still huge development opportunities for those companies that can combine Italian know-how with the new technologies. Digital makers have an important place in the history of Italy.”

We are not talking about large corporations but about the new generation of makers, people who know how to get things done and make products that, thanks to new technologies, can also be customized to the requirements of the final user. In some cases, over the years this movement – as Micelli explains – has brought traditional companies associated with ‘Made in Italy’ and the maker culture closer together, producing some interesting results. But this is not enough: more structured progress needs to be made.

The challenge for artisans in these times – Micelli admits – is obvious. The pandemic has clearly played a role, but it is not the only factor. “I have observed a growing disconnect between the academic world and the world of work,” Micelli says. “We need a country-wide plan to increase technical training courses and to help the ‘Made in Italy’ sector to grow intelligently and effectively.”

The Maker Faire in Rome is an important annual event for artisans and digital makers, which this year has moved online (December 10-13) due to the pandemic. It is a trade fair for digital artisans and a meeting point for new artisans, technology enthusiasts, professionals, schools, universities, research centres and companies. This year’s programme includes training webinars and courses with a focus on those skills required by Industry 4.0 and the green sector.

Artisans today are not just carpenters, shirtmakers or 3D printers, but also new entrepreneurs in the online world who create Apps and wi-fi networks, or work in the green economy. One example of the new breed of artisans is Tapecode, founded in 2012 by two youngsters from Apulia, Nicola Perrini and Vito Tafuni. “We give clients exactly what they ask us for, whether that is a website, an e-commerce platform or an App for their business,” Perrini explains. The latest Tapecode product is called Portamelo, a platform designed to connect small retailers with their clients. But the product portfolio of these two young makers also includes Apps like Yourfiles, similar to Dropbox it has been designed to help accountants manage their clients’ tax data, or Vogon, a debt collection App that sends notifications that gradually become more intrusive.

We need a country-wide plan to increase technical training courses and to help the ‘Made in Italy’ sector to grow intelligently and effectively

Stefano Micelli, Professor of Business Economics and Management at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice

For traditional companies it is often the case that unity is strength, enabling them to make a big leap forward in innovation. Franco Baccani and Renato Nieri Argenti, respectively principal and instructor at the ‘Scuola di Pelletteria’ (leather workers college) in Scandicci in the province of Florence, have one such story to tell. “Leather working means a lot, perhaps even everything in this area,” Baccani explains, referring to the social and economic value of an industry that employs 44,000 people and has a long history in the province.

“In our sector, the evolution in digital technologies has clustered small artisan businesses, which allowed them to work with the big names. The small artisan business of the past no longer exists,” says Nieri Argenti, who, before becoming an instructor, had managed a small leather working business for over 40 years. “In this sector the greatest impact of the digital revolution has been on the e-commerce front: this has become an indispensable showcase due to the pandemic, but it will be increasingly necessary in the years to come,” Baccani explains. But “as far as production processes are concerned, to become artisans our students don’t need to learn a lot: first they learn to work by hand, then on machines. The tools we use are almost the same as 50 years ago,” Nieri Argenti concludes.

Shoemakers are experiencing a new-found vitality thanks to those artisans who were able to reinvent themselves using digital technology. The work they do is nothing like it was in the past.

Paride Geroli, president of the association Calzolai 2.0 (Shoemakers 2.0)

However, not all these trades have stayed exactly the same as they were in the past. Shoe manufacturers are one such example where the production process has changed enormously. Italy has 3,900 registered shoe manufacturing businesses, almost 500 fewer than eleven years ago. However, for the president of the association Calzolai 2.0 (Shoemakers 2.0) Paride Geroli, “Shoemakers are experiencing a new-found vitality thanks to those artisans who were able to reinvent themselves using digital technology. The work they do is nothing like it was in the past.”

Mauro Tescaro, head of the Politecnico Calzaturiero del Brenta (a training institute for shoe manufacturing in the Veneto region) has also noticed this wave of new ideas: “This profession has changed dramatically. Nowadays youngsters first have to learn to sew shoes by hand, so they know how it is done, then they learn how to use the machinery they will need in their professional lives.”

Machines and biometric systems are the present and the future, and will allow shoemakers to help their clients choose the right shoe, even remotely. “The internet offers unlimited opportunities: shoemakers can now use e-commerce to expand their client base, but it also allows them to offer additional services like handbag repairs or customisation, which are more and more in demand,” Tescaro points out. The key point is another however: “Today we are witnessing a generation change: many shoemakers are stepping aside so that younger ones can take over. This is a positive development: fresh energy will bring innovation in processes and new ideas.”

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