Policy is conversation

The Visioni Urbane project – just now entering a new phase – taught me a lot. Our problem, in a nutshell, was this: a legacy decision bound the Basilicata regional administration to spend €4.3 million to build “creative workspaces”. These funds were to be “one shot” and earmarked for capital expenditure: we were to spend them in bricks-and-mortar at the beginning of the process, and then there would be no more. There were no ongoing resources for activities to take place therein. How to prevent creative workspaces closing doors immediately after their launch?

The answer could only be “by turning to the market”. The workspaces would become a platform for Basilicata creatives to invent, produce and bring to cultural market, products, products that could attract paying customers. Fine. But what products? Film? Music? And which kinds of film and music? Who would be their customers? How to produce them? Through which channels to distribute them? It was crystal clear that the small advisory group put together by the central government and the regional administration had no chance of solving the puzzle on its own. The only way of doing it was to mobilize the fine-grained knowledge embedded in the Basilicata creatives themselves.

The issue was not to “do research” to extract this knowledge form local creatives. Culture in Basilicata is predominantly financed by the public sector, a common situation in Italy. The market coincides with the local politician who greenlights the project. Local creative people, therefore, have almost no experience of markets: they actually tend to be scared of them. We needed a process that would produce at the same time the awareness of both the problem (public sector funding of cultural activities is scarce and unreliable) and the possible solutions (thinking up cultural products that are “hot”, that “people want”). Perception of the problem without its solutions would produce a defensive reaction, whereas we needed creatives to be optimistic and adventurous enough to innovate.

To get creatives fully involved we needed to treat them as equals, as a subject – as opposed to the target – of policy. So we structured Visioni Urbane as a conversation, much in the Cluetrain Manifesto spirit. And a solution – quite sophisticated, hand-on and utterly unconceivable at the beginning of the process – emerged. I tell the tale in a short essay, Policy as conversation,, to be presented at eChallenges 2008, in Stockholm, on October 24th. You can get it here.

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