Recently, when I was in the Salone dei Cinquecento in Palazzo Vecchio for TEDx Florence, I realized that it had been nearly 1,000 days since my last visit to this marvellous place. I also realized that the theme of the conference, Innovation and Optimism, perfectly reflected my own thoughts about the elements that make up Florence’s ‘new’ Renaissance, perhaps better defined-to cite Roberto Benigni at the European Parliament-as a ‘resurrection.’ We just need to start acknowledging what is happening.
In July 2009, along with nearly 300 fellow Florentines eager to share ideas on the future of our city, I attended the first Barcamp held at Palazzo Vecchio. Our discussion of new trends, technologies and different ways to promote Florence’s important cultural heritage resulted in a critical mass of people who started thinking that something could change, and that they could make a difference. Italy was experiencing the first waves of the financial crisis coming across the Atlantic, so our outlook on the future was not exactly rosy; despite this, people were eager to propose solutions at the local level. And despite the economic crisis worsening over the next two-and-a-half years, things did start to change for the better in Florence.
New communities beyond Italy’s traditional ones (school, church, trade associations, scouts, etc) started to emerge. I am personally involved in one of these, the business networking association ToscanaIN, where I have met not only forward-thinking people, but also new ideas and great vitality. Girls Geek Dinners Toscana, modeled on a project born in California, is another such group; it is for young women interested in technology, and their meetings are fun and inspiring (I say this from personal experience, having managed to sneak in to one of them). These new communities complement the traditional ones, providing the sort of cross-pollination of ideas that fosters change.
New venues in the city have made it possible for the initial 300 people who gathered in Palazzo Vecchio in 2009 not only to continue meeting but also to grow their numbers. Le Murate, the location for the 2010 Barcamp, has been a regular stage for conferences, concerts and other arts performances during 2011.
New ways to share office space have also been introduced. ‘Co-working’ is no longer a foreign word at Multiverso and 22a/22, two places that go beyond the traditional shared office and have become places in which artists, architects, sound designers and programmers can collaborate and encourage growth in each person’s skills and knowledge. Francesco Baldini, who works in digital communications, explains that ‘Multiverso is not just sharing a roof and a rented desk; it is something deeper and more engaging. Sharing coffee breaks gives birth to new and interesting projects, training sessions, and meetings.’
Perhaps the most important aspect of these new approaches to business and economics is that they were inspired by successful examples in the United States and elsewhere in Italy. Looking outside the city’s walls for successful models to import and adapt to Florence is the first major step towards change; it says that the ‘not invented here’ culture no longer applies to Florence.
And the world has started to look at Florence with different eyes. The Uffizi, the Duomo and Ponte Vecchio will continue to attract tourists, but new reasons to visit Florence are being created. In 2010, ToscanaLab brought Internet enthusiasts and experts from all over Italy, reinforcing the idea that this city, and Tuscany in general, is one of the hottest spots for digital technologies. Similarly, the Buy Tourism Online conference, now in its fourth year, brought nearly 3000 participants to Florence in December 2011, marking it on the map as a center for knowledge about digital tourism.
In June 2011, the Italian interaction design conference Frontiers of Interaction moved from Rome to Florence, introducing the over 500 attendees to the latest advancements in social games, e-health and ‘disruptive innovation.’ Each one of the speakers, who came from all over Europe and North America, mentioned the inspiration they gathered from being in Florence. Co-founder Leandro Agrò (see TF 143 for an interview) says that the opportunity to visit Florence was a major draw for the 25 percent of speakers and attendees who were from other countries. However, as enthusiastic as these outsiders were, Florentines were less so: ‘While we were pleased with the support we had from local public administration, including the Fondazione Sistema Toscana, there was not much interest from Florentines themselves, who made up a mere one percent of the conference public.’
The world is also looking at our start-ups. In the past two years, many young people have opted to challenge the idea of the posto fisso (due, in part, to the lack of permanent employment contracts offered) and launch their own companies. Treedom, a carbon-offset venture, is one of these: born at the Incubatore Fiorentino, it now stands a chance to go to Silicon Valley with Mind the Bridge, a foundation that links Italian companies to American funding and opportunity. Grow the Planet, billed as ‘Farmville for the real world’ and created by a Florentine, was selected as a finalist at TechCrunch Disrupt, an important start-up competition held in San Francisco. In fact, according to the 2011 Mind the Bridge report ‘Startups in Italy: Facts and Trends,’ Florence is the third most prolific city for the production of new business, following Rome and Milan.
Lorenzo Martelletti of Treedom says, ‘I see a new wave of entrepreneurial enthusiasm here because people are seeing successful new models. This wave flows from Silicon Valley through Europe (London, Berlin) and down to Italy. In Florence, I have participated in events, business plan competitions, incubators, and met people with smart ideas and ventures in clean-tech and web spaces. Here’s some food for thought: what if the new Renaissance that people say is now taking place in Silicon Valley can be somehow connected to, or brought to Florence?’
Even from these few examples, it is clear that change is happening in Florence. If we connect the dots, we will understand that the vis polemica-the habit of criticizing-of our fellow citizens has turned into a constructive force that is shaping a new city and new Florentines. Let us hope that 2012 will be the year that we all recognize this, for it is only a resurrection if you say it is.