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Speech delivered by Minister Tria at the OECD Conference on Culture for Local Development


Dear Secretary General,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me to join this OECD International Conference dedicated to culture and local development. The wonderful venue that welcomes us today, the Scuola Grande San Giovanni Evangelista, is an example of how Venice is mastering the process of transforming culture and beauty into a business opportunity and a lever of growth for the local community. 

Leveraging cultural assets and promoting cultural and creative industries is a new frontier of economic development and investment in human and social capital, which OECD is rightly emphasizing in this conference and in its agenda on culture and local development.

While the testimonies of similar activities from the past are abundant, the growing importance of intangible capital and digital technologies make contemporary projects in the cultural area ever more challenging and their promises far more reaching than even in the closest past.

Heritage goods, in particular, which characterize our “art cities” and make them icons of attraction for scores of tourists, scholars and other interested visitors, are complex and intriguing monuments, whose restoration, rehabilitation and possible patterns of re-use pose some fascinating questions of cultural economics and urban planning.

Some of these questions concern the past social role of our urban centres, as structures combining a plurality of military and civil functions, as well as to their gradual degeneration and loss of identity under the slow abuse of mass consumption. A related set of more compelling questions concerns the key role that heritage goods can have in the preservation and development of our cities as both unique ensembles of historical heritage and as places of great potential for enlightened cultural production. 

The patrimony of historical buildings and sites in Italy is huge and yet hardly known in its characteristics and potentialities. Estimates of its value range from 300 billion to a trillion, depending on which use and non-use value, and related development prospects are considered.

As in most cases, where planners are faced with the problem of managing, servicing and rehabilitating pre-existing structures, historical and cultural values are not naturally associated in an obvious pattern of economic use. In fact, use and non-use values appear to be somewhat in contrast with each other, and both the pressure of urban growth and of impending “cultural” tourism suggest dangers of degradation and loss of authenticity and intrinsic values.

The trade-off between preservation and valorisation, which looms large in all planning and management of heritage goods, appears relevant in the case of historical sites, and especially so in the case of large structures in the middle of our famous “art cities”.              

While re-launching public investment is important for core infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, historical buildings are the largest depositories of heritage goods and hold a vast potential for both public and private investment. Past experience of this type of investment is still limited, but many success stories are available from other countries and from Italy as well.

These stories suggest that rehabilitation and re-use of historical buildings and sites can spur economic development by creating areas of vibrant cultural and economic activities. While in many cases the historical sites remain cultural points of reference for the identity of the local communities, they can also be effectively integrated with the social texture of the modern cities and the other spatial references that can be identified as conducive of economic growth.

Because the threat to authenticity that many economic activities, including mass tourism, pose to local communities is pervasive, valorisation of historical sites through restoration and rehabilitation projects are also a worthy challenge to re-construct cultural centres, and to develop public-private partnerships for the accumulation of tangible and intangible social capital.

Italy has increasingly relied on cooperation with private entities  to protect the value of its artistic heritage, while guaranteeing respect and prominence of public interest.

Leveraging the heritage goods for development is also linked to the question of urban planning and to the difficult task of preserving authenticity, and not only physically maintaining the monuments, the buildings and the surrounding sites. In this respect, promoting investment to rehabilitate and enhance the value of several buildings and monuments in a sort of cultural district is an appealing idea, since it captures key desirable characteristics of value formation for heritage and culture:

  1. an effective link between the monumental and archaeological wealth and a local vital economy,
  2. the conservation of intangible heritage through the continuing production of material culture,
  3. the assertion of viable model of social life with “authentic” links to the community historical identity. 

For these purposes, the minimalist “hands off” policies traditionally advocated by conservationists for historical sites may not be the most appropriate. It is true that in principle, cultural districts cannot be engineered directly and simply and may prove to be impervious to planning efforts.

Many of the successful cases in Italy and elsewhere show that a proactive strategy with a strong leadership and an ample partnership with the private sector may be needed before, during, and after restoration has been completed. Improving the capabilities of the public sector to select, evaluate and steer the appropriate projects to successful completion are also a critical area where resources should be allocated to ensure that the common interest is served effectively.

Valorizing historical buildings through rehabilitation and creative re-use finally requires benefit sharing with local institutions and other stakeholders. Animation, participation and deliberative democracy are the tools to involve local communities in the restoration efforts, to create or reinforce their sense of ownership of the buildings, as well as to lay the premises for a longer term involvement in related activities of “loving care” maintenance, and production of material and immaterial culture.

Let me now go back to the city that hosts us for my conclusions. Venice has not just built its fortune over its history – which could be profiting but short-sighted choice – it turned its heritage into a component of a variegated cultural and creative industry that got its success on the international stage. This kind of an approach should be adopted when policy making is involved in the areas of culture and development.

We shall not just rely on the past successes but integrate technological and financial innovation into existing business models to unleash the full growth power of culture. To this end, it is pivotal to compare experiences and to discuss what is already working and where.

This requires an upfront dialogue between private operators and public institutions, like the one we experienced in this conference. Gathering up different ideas and approaches, we can improve our national policies and elaborate a shared vision on what is really needed to fully exploit the cultural level for growth.

Thank you.