Culture and tourism are the most common lenses used for observing Venice, but a new one – technology – may soon provide the means to encompass both while supporting the agenda of their evolution.
Culture and tourism concern the production and sharing of meanings or content aimed at more and more varied groups of people. All observers agree on the fact that the numbers of world tourism are increasing, both in terms of absolute growth and diversification of the level of expectations. This directly concerns Venice, where the widespread dependency on its uniqueness may sometimes have delayed innovation.
Now, however, the urgency of change is imposing itself with increasing frequency; the aim is to relaunch Venice’s uniqueness, consisting not only of its artistic aspects but also of the features of its physical environment, such as the absence of road traffic and the continuous relationship with its natural environment, which elsewhere require large investments, consensus building and long-term political determination.
Culture and tourism are based on the conservation of the tangible and intangible heritage in order to offer events, develop relationships, propose experiences, build identities with functions aimed as much at tourists as at residents. Conservation is possible thanks to an active network of public and private cultural institutions, be they highly visible or operating in the background, where skills are cultivated whose progress and recombination generate, among other things, the contents of the events.
The tale of Venetian exceptionalism, its storytelling, will never be able to let go of its bonds with cultural organisations, as it would then suffer the consequences of becoming mere entertainment: this would be a great loss even in terms of profit margins. Maintaining the vitality of the cultural organisations is a topic often reduced to that of their public funding. It is often heard from their directors that “We have already made huge savings; more than this is not possible”. This is a widespread sentiment that nevertheless takes for granted that there is no better way than the one currently adopted to manage its operations. But often this is not true, as evidenced by the successes of the Gran Teatro La Fenice in balancing its books or the Civic Museums in the development of all performance indicators, including profitability. In these cases, technological innovation is predominantly of an operational nature. The most well-known understanding of technology is that of computing, and one is immediately put in mind of the growing use in the museum sector of profiling software, making possible the acquisition of a capacity for selective interaction with the visitor, and the use of big data analysis techniques to gather information about current and future trends in tourist flows. Tourism and cultural operators are starting to use computer technology to request solutions that are more suited to their specific individual needs with a personal contribution that is sometimes fundamental for the planning of their service.
All this involves the acquisition and exercise of skills that change the structure of decision-making, determining the rise and decline of managerial functions, with continuous shifting of the border between competence and authoritativeness. This context requires an organic relationship with the major training centres and universities above all, but also with the leading companies involved in these processes.
Innovation begins as an offering of new tools, such as access to the management of greater levels of complexity, but is achieved through radical changes in the governance processes of organisations, with all the well-studied resistance typical of such a scenario.
There is also a more complex level of innovation in Venice that is based on the integration of different technologies: the production of clean energy through geothermal wells, the use of the energy reserve included in traditional construction, the recovery of abandoned land for production of fruit and vegetables. This is Fondamenta Novissima, a project of urban regeneration of abandoned industrial areas of Giudecca that draws in businesses, project finance, cultural institutions and social cooperation. In this case, the technologies have an enabling function in relation to the social innovation processes concerning energy management and the cultivation of urban vegetable gardens, in line with a model already established in Northern Europe, Canada and the United States, building a community environment in which subsidiarity and autonomy will play a decisive role.
Bruno Bernardi is professor of Economics at the Università Ca’ Foscari di Venezia and since 2016 has also been chairman of the Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa