Category Archives: Hyperlocal

Fear and loathing in Matera: the “unMonastery affair” on local media

A few weeks ago, the collaborator of a local TV station discovered some junk in a room of the Casale complex, in Matera. Among them, desks and office chairs; construction materials; empty bottles and cans; and conference materials, like flyers and posters. The complex hosted, for most of 2014, the world’s first unMonastery, a hacker residency project tied to the city’s victorious bid for the title of European capital of culture in 2019. The reporter decided this was an “affair”: the unMonastery affair. Foreigners come to Matera to dump their garbage! Shame on them!

I am a partner and co-director of Edgeryders, the social enterprise that helped mount the Matera unMonastery iteration. I know the project well, and I know the unMonasterians who were its life and soul. None would dream of just abandoning waste in an unappropriate place, and some are extreme recyclers and upcyclers. So I asked around, and, sure enough, it turned out that the room in question had been used as cellar since before we first inspected the complex in 2013 (see these pictures – the Dropbox timestamps show they have not been edited in over a year). It is likely that the derelict office furniture has been abandoned by the former occupant of the complex, a company called DataContact. With appropriate irony, DataContact’s owner also owns the local TV that mounted the “affair”.

During our tenure of the small part of the complex used for the unMonastery, the same room kept being used as a sort of cellar: a storage space for objects unMonasterians could not or would not recycle, generally with a view to later upcycling them. Like many cellars, it looks untidy, but that is hardly newsworthy. It is also worth noting that the unMonastery project devoted over 50% of its budget  (about 40K EUR) to renovating that part of the Casale complex, owned by the City of Matera and hence public property. This meant installing a kitchen; repairing the heating system; renovating the floors, damaged by humidity in the bottom floors; whitewashing the walls; reclaiming the space from some people who were occupying it illegally. The space was returned in way better conditions than we found it. What probably happened: somebody broke the door’s lock before the reporter wandered in, and that allowed him his “scoop”. Case closed.

Or is it? There is a lesson to learn here. Why did  the obvious scenario (“a windowless room at the bottom floor with junk in it? Must be the cellar”) escaped the local reporter? Why did he not check? Talking with some Materan friends, we made (partly for a laugh), three hypotheses.

  • The absent-minded journalist. Local media need local news, and “foreign hackers pollute Matera” is way sexier than “a cellar containing nothing of value is broken into”. Especially if you are selling ads to make a living, and therefore counting your page views is important.
  • The political conspiracy: Matera has local elections in the spring. The incumbent mayor is heavily associated with the European capital of culture candidacy  the “unMonastery affair” is an attempt to erode the consensus enjoyed by the current administration in the aftermath of the ECOC victory.
  • The nil-nil syndrome: Italians, according to my wise friend Annibale D’Elia, do not really care about winning, as long as your adversaries do not win either. In this culture, nil-nil is not a bad result; in fact it is desirable, because it allows the people in question to stage a fight without really fighting, to “change things so that things can stay as they are”, as in the supremely Italian novel The Leopard.

In the end, it is of no consequence why some local reporter decided to go for the “unMonastery affair”. What does matter, for this and the future iterations of the unMonastery, is this: the unMonastery wields considerable moral and intellectual authority. We might not want them, but we do not really get a vote in the matter. The smaller and more provincial the host city, the more the unMonastery and individual unMonasterians will be in the public eye. There will be awe; there will be jealousy; whatever its sign, there will be exaggeration. These things will simply happen; it would be wise to be ready for them. From a stewardship point of view, it would be good practice to take time-stamped photo- and video documentation of any public resource the unMonastery is entrusted with.

Open data: Emilia awakens

Last Tuesday I evangelized. I had been asked to introduce the theme of Open Data to a group of managers and employees in the Bologna City administration. I did it my way, by offering the point of view of someone who believes in Open Data as a valid strategy but does not deny its limits and difficulties (my presentation is titled “Lies, damn lies and open data”). In particular — it’s one of my many obsessions — I made a case for creating a context for those who tell convincing data-powered stories about the society we live in to shine, be admired and inspire others: a sort of TED for Open Data.

My point of view is summarized in my slides. But the most interesting thing in the seminar was certainly the enthusiasm and the energy of the participants. Attendance was very high (about a hundred people); the top management was there en masse, and had invited along colleagues from the Regional administration and the University e-gov people; participation was vibrant (even too much: when I finally made it to lunch it was 2.30 p.m.!); and questions were very high-level. The organizers themselves were taken by surprise.

I would like to take credit for the result, but it would not be honest. It was obvious that an old story is looking for new ground to unfold once again, and that is the story of the civil servants that made Bologna and the whole Emilia region a source of inspiration for local administrations worldwide. Brilliant people, motivated by a strong public ethics, who designed the city’s future and built it under the leadership of effective and well-loved mayors like Giuseppe Dozza, never surrendering to the economically powerful. The Emilian model lost its magic decades ago for many reasons, not the least of which is a deteriorating quality of political leadership in the region. And yet Tuesday proved that civil servants in Emilia maintained a culture of serving the public, and are autonomous enough to raise their gaze from the day-by-day to interact with economist-musicians and their weird ways. The administration’s autonomy is clear from the date of the seminar: it was held just before the elections, so there was no one home to give or deny permission. These guys just went out and did it.

Let’s not get carried away, but it looks like the story of the Bologna city administration is about to get going once more. It is a powerful story, and it could have far-reaching consequences.

L’Emilia s’è desta

Martedì scorso ho fatto l’evangelist. Mi si chiedeva di presentare il tema Open Data a un gruppo di dirigenti e funzionari del Comune di Bologna. L’ho fatto a modo mio: ho provato a dare il punto di vista di chi crede negli Open Data come strategia, ma non se ne nasconde limiti e difficoltà. In particolare — è un mio chiodo fisso — sento il bisogno di promuovere contesti in cui viene premiato, valorizzato e indicato come esempio positivo chi racconta storie basate su dati e convincenti sulla società in cui viviamo: una specie di TED per gli Open Data.

Il mio punto di vista è riassunto nelle slides. Ma la cosa più interessante della giornata è stata senza dubbio l’energia con cui il seminario è stato accolto. Sono arrivati in tantissimi, un centinaio di persone (erano presenti molti alti dirigenti sia del Comune che della Regione, e i referenti dell’e-government all’Università); la partecipazione è stata alta ai limiti dell’accanimento (sono andato a pranzo alle due passate); e gli interventi e le domande sono state di livello eccellente. Gli stessi promotori (grazie Osvaldo Panaro, Leda Guidi e Massimo Carnevali!) sono stati presi in contropiede.

Mi piacerebbe potermi prendere il merito di questo risultato, ma non sarebbe onesto. Si vedeva benissimo che c’è una storia che vuole ripartire: la storia dei dirigenti e dei funzionari pubblici che hanno fatto di Bologna e dell’Emilia un modello per le amministrazioni locali di tutto il mondo. Gente brillante, motivata da un forte ethos pubblico, che ha progettato il futuro e lo ho costruito con le sue mani, guidati da sindaci capaci e amati come Giuseppe Dozza e senza soggezioni nei confronti dei poteri economici forti. Questo modello è in crisi fin dagli anni Ottanta per molte ragioni, non l’ultima delle quali è il deterioramento della qualità della leadership politica emiliana. Eppure la giornata di martedì ha mostrato che i dipendenti pubblici dell’Emilia hanno tenuto sul piano culturale: mantengono abbastanza spirito di servizio e capacità di visione da sentire il bisogno di alzare lo sguardo dal loro day-by-day e abbastanza autonomia da farlo e basta, senza aspettare permessi o imbeccate. Un segnale forte di autonomia è che il seminario è caduto in un momento di vuoto di potere, immediatamente prima delle elezioni, ma nessuno ha detto “aspettiamo il nuovo assessore”.

Diciamolo sottovoce, per scaramanzia, ma forse la storia dell’amministrazione pubblica bolognese sta ripartendo. È una storia potente, e potrebbe arrivare lontano. Da bolognese in esilio, faccio il tifo.