The global tales of small cities

Some thoughts on digital storytelling for my hometown (and, possibly, many other places)

In the age of global storytelling powered by the Internet, the movement of knowledge is the key factor in a city. The more we are able to represent on the Net our ideas, our experiences and our skills, the more likely they’ll find relevant stakeholders to engage conversations, collaborate or trade with. My hometown Pordenone, a small town in the North East of Italy, has a huge potential, higher than what you would expect from a city of its size, but by now it is not taking advantage from it. Would you burn a bench of payable Treasury bonds in the main square? That’s how such a waste sounds to those familiar with digital communication.

The first impression that Pordenone gives to people connecting through the web and social networks is ordinary, an anonymous place like any other. Who comes up here would instead discover that we organize extraordinary parties for living monuments of the world literature; that we spend one week a year together with a good hundred of groundbreaking intellectuals; that every week small and large events attract people from outside Friuli Venezia Giulia, from other parts of Italy, often from abroad. It is the city where silent film’s researchers and passionates gather from all over the world each fall. The city where artists and craftsmen active in unusual and innovative niches live. The city where companies and associations with bold and contagious visions of the future grow.

All this does exist, but often it is barely recognizable even by those who live here, evidence that we’re probably more efficient in organizing than in communicating. Evidence, above all, that we are rich in energies but we are still unable to connect them, systematically supporting those who works hard and increasing opportunities for the city as a whole. The jackpot is high: what the globalization of labor and material goods has taken from the Pordenone of washing machines, refrigerators, televisions and furniture, the globalization of knowledge may now return to the Pordenone of cultural events, of innovative companies, of excellences in professions and arts, of makers and craftsmen that pander to the dematerialization of their assets.

Capitals, metropoles, cities of art will always be more attractive compared to our peripheral and narrow county. But large cities are also more complex: connecting the dots in Milan is much more complicated than connecting them in Pordenone. This is the moment when people-friendly cities have better chances to emerge, cities that share a strong identity, a vision of the future and hunger for relationships. Time is a competitive factor, and here we have been loosing a lot of it.

We have proven to be able. A year ago we were preparing to welcome five hundred Alpines from all over the nation, ten times the number of residents, questioning every detail of our routine. No matter the excuse. The fact is that for a few weeks, under the pressure of a deadline out of scale for our habits, close behind the coat of arms of the city which shows the doors open, we communicated much more than we usually do and we explained so much about ourselves to others. We built network, we worked in networks and, for the first time so aware, we used the Internet to revive the brand of our city throughout Italy and all over the world.

We could start from here. Internet is the operating system: it adheres to the natural networks of our society, it enhances affinity between people and contents, it builds bridges amongst territories and it allows interesting information to spread quickly. It is easier than it seems, but it is counterintuitive because it struggles against decades of media literacy: the Net asks you to let your readers go if you want them to come back, to cooperate with your competitors if you want to compete, to give away your products if you want to sell them. These are technologies based on experience, like learning to ride a bike or to swim: once you find your balance, it becomes an acquired skill.

The gap is cultural, not technological. Internet is not a showcase or a bulletin board where you hang posters: it is a tool for relationships more than a tool for contents, and it becomes powerful and useful the more it learns about us. There’s no use for occasional press releases on the Net: you need a publishing plan that fosters a coherent narrative day by day. Used to close past contents in a closet, we neglect the importance that archives assume in this environment: our history is the source of reputation and social capital, which are the currencies to be spent in the knowledge economy.

The most frequent objection, even in less improvised organizations, is that we lack skills and energies. Skills will be in any case a competitive requirement and we urge to acquire them. As for energies, digital communication is not some sort of superstructure added to our previous tasks and even less a service that can be outsourced. It is a travelogue that should come as close as possible from the brain and from the heart of a passion or an activity. It is a method that reshapes the schedule of overall communication: it can be challenging at startup, but a good web-based publishing project allows significant scale economies in terms of both cost and time. Above all, it is an investment: the amount of direct and indirect returns and contacts shortly pays back the investment.

Provincial was once who was hardly reached by the stories of the world. Today provincial is who doesn’t strive to get his stories in the world. Pordenone is a very contemporary city, there is no reason why it should communicate as in 1995. The effort can only be collective: the initiative of individuals or institutions can be an incentive, but it is not enough: the flywheel starts only when many people do their part. At the end of this strange transition that we have been calling crisis for almost eight years now, the redistribution of responsibilities in all aspects of our common life will be an inevitable, colossal process. What about beginning to deal with it where it promises to create benefits for all of us?

(This article has been originally published by Messaggero Veneto, a local newspaper. It refers to Pordenone, but more generally to many other small towns rich in stories to tell. It is available in Italian on my blog.)