Plagued by scandal and financial woes, Italy has long been making headlines for the wrong reasons. We meet five people striving for change in the country.
Italy may only just be emerging from the most painful recession since the war but for Josef Prader his home province was doing rather well already. Semi-autonomous South Tyrol shares not only the language of neighbouring Austria but much of its prosperity.
From his offices in Bolzano, the provincial capital, Prader has created a private bank that weathered a financial crisis with relative ease and continues to grow. A year ago the Prader Bank launched a €100m “minibond” fund in which debt is purchased exclusively from regional businesses. In February the bonds were floated on Milan’s stock exchange. The idea was to encourage investment of local public funds in the Trentino-South Tyrol region which could have ended up abroad says Prader. Regional institutions benefit from the interest they earn and local businesses have a key new source of liquidity. The localised nature of the bond trading cuts costs and boosts security.
Top-notch service is also key. “It’s about giving people what they want, an individual service instead of the old conveyor-belt banking,” Prader, 49, says. The Prader Bank he founded – of which he is ceo – serves private customers and liquidity-rich companies as well as institutions seeking discreet expertise in managing cash, property or art investments.
After working in Austrian banking for five years, Prader saw a gap in the market in his home region and swooped. But this was in 2006, before the crash. “Luckily we invested prudently,” he says. “Nothing in Argentina. But a lot of investments in Switzerland, Germany and Austria. We’ve not been hit by a single default.”
Prader says his bank will retain its adaptable structure. “It’s in our dna,” he says. “The bank has only 58 other shareholders. We might get up to 100 but I wouldn’t want any more than that.” He adds that Rome could learn from its neighbours north of the Alps. “Italy has to think: ‘why would foreign firms want to invest here?’ If there’s too much red tape and very high taxes, then they won’t.”
Italy could also learn from South Tyrol, particularly in the way it has cut bureaucracy from its political structures. “It’s about investing in infrastructure that benefits the population.”
From the brooch that adorns her neat bouclé suit to the elegant crest of her coiffure, everything about Anna Maria Tarantola is precise. Seated behind her tidy lacquer desk, surrounded by banks of TV screens, she describes the path that brought her to the top job here at the Italian state broadcaster RAI. “I spent 41 years at the Bank of Italy,” she says, wafting a hand that glistens with antique rings. “I had been appointed by Mario Draghi as deputy director general. This was something quite significant. I was the first woman to hold the post.”
Then in July 2012 Tarantola received a call from the then Prime Minister Mario Monti with a job offer. “[He] asked if I was willing and available to be appointed as president of RAI,” she recalls. “He said: ‘You are independent and you know the problems of governance’. So I said ‘yes’. It was a challenge – it was really a salto nel buio [a jump in the dark].” With no experience in media, Tarantola assumed control of an organisation in crisis – RAI was losing €245m a year. Then there was the quality problem: much of the prime-time output seemed to be stuck in the past, full of showgirls and light on culture.
In her first 18 months, Tarantola shaved €100m off the budget. With a “strategic industrial plan” only a veteran economist could muster she made a slew of new appointments, imposed a new process for acquisitions, installed a better strategy on sports rights and reduced the workforce by 700, saving €50m.
Tarantola has also set out to change the ethos of the organisation. “I insist on a meritocratic approach,” she says. “To choose the right person for the right job at the right moment.” She admits that the new approach was something of a shock to some at RAI. And so has been her practice of rigorous information sharing and accountability. “Every employee has a duty to know and manage their responsibilities,” she says. “It must be very clear. If somebody doesn’t behave well, he has to pay. For the first time we have dismissed some people who haven’t behaved.”
To many in Italy, RAI’s wayward trajectory was not just down to managerial failure but also a result of political influence during the Berlusconi years. The publicly funded company of nearly 11,000 employees is run by a nine-strong board, seven of whom are political appointees. Because its commercial competitors were (and are) dominated by the media-baron-cum-prime-minster, RAI struggled to remain independent.
Tarantola puts it more delicately: “There was a shift from what we call pedagogical broadcasting to a commercial one – less focused on culture, on education, on values.” Some things still remain harder to change though: the majority of rai’s board are still political appointees. rai’s influence over public life in Italy should not be underestimated. There are 14 television channels, 10 radio stations and a film production company, RAI Cinema, which has worked on more than 400 films.
Tarantola’s desire to reinstate public service values is clear. She has already created a new channel, rai 5, for arts, travel and culture. She also has strong views on the universal appeal RAI must cultivate, the role of education, on diversity in the workplace and the representation of women in the media.
“We have to present women in a very correct way,” she says. “We must show how women actually are in society and within the economy – the positive contribution they make.” As Tarantola gathers the reins at rai, we expect to see fewer showgirls and more powerful female protagonists on Italian public network of the future.
While Italian politics inches towards a generational changing of the guard, other segments of society are betting on the young to shake things up. One such beacon is Marco Velardi. Three years ago, at the age of 28, Velardi was appointed creative director of De Padova, one of Italy’s most respected furniture brands. He has surrounded himself with fellow rising stars such as Luca Nichetto to come up with pieces that blur the lines between indoor and outdoor and that complement De Padova’s portfolio of classics from design greats such as Vico Magistretti.
In the design world, Velardi is the fresh-faced poster boy of a new generation. He serves as editor-in-chief of Barcelona-born Apartamento, a cult magazine that captures the lived-in look of homes owned by musicians, artists and photographers. It’s a fresh approach to interiors not shared with many of Europe’s established design titles. He also runs creative agency SM Associati, which helped brand start-up design ventures Discipline and Wrong for Hay. Velardi’s art direction skills have been applied to everything from album covers to wine labels.
Velardi is as keen as the older generation on safeguarding the highly skilled network of craftsmen that is unique to Italy’s furniture industry. “Everybody now is raised to want to be a brain but we need to ensure we have people who know how to work with their hands,” he says. “If you do prototyping for a chair or sofa, it’s easier to drive to Brianza outside Milan instead of going to China and waiting six months and getting the wrong colour or texture.”
Velardi predicts the coming months to be marked by a reshuffling as Italian firms, many still family operated, look to grow. His creative involvement in De Padova, run by second-generation Luca De Padova, is the perfect example of Italy’s design dynasties trying to update themselves by employing fresh blood.
When it comes to selling furniture, Velardi argues brands need to retool. “The idea of De Padova is not about living in a mono-brand world; it’s about creating your own style. When you walk into our store you feel at home. Many companies are stuck in a traditional mindset and promote this standardised ‘Made in Italy’ design. It’s a safety blanket. There needs to be more risk taking.”
Days before Christmas, when most Italian MPs were retreating to the comfort of their family homes, Khalid Chaouki decided to spend three nights in more squalid conditions. He flew to the island of Lampedusa to stay with asylum seekers at the “centre for first assistance” (CPA) to experience first hand how Italy deals with those desperate to reach its shores.
In the dilapidated facility that for thousands of people each year is a first taste of Europe, the 31-year-old met Eritreans and Syrians who had been there for months – including survivors of the October sea disaster, in which more than 300 died. He was indignant and, denouncing the “inhuman” conditions, demanded the CPA be returned to its nominal function – as a short-stay centre for up to 96 hours only. It was, he wrote in a letter to newspaper La Stampa, “a situation of total illegality”. By the time he had left, most of the centre’s residents had been transferred.
Chaouki’s one-man sit-in has helped mark him out as a powerful advocate for reform in a country grappling with divisive rows over immigration and racism. A journalist by training and inter-cultural mediator by vocation, Chaouki was elected last February as an MP for the centre-left Partito Democratico, and he now seems determined to inform – and improve – the fraught national debate on immigration. “My mission in this phase is to show Italy the degree to which it is in its interests to form an alliance with the ‘new Italians’,” he says.
Born in Casablanca, Chaouki arrived in the northern region of Emilia Romagna in 1992. It was snowing and he, his parents and his brothers, had to live in one room. The community around them was welcoming, and even if his family faced “a genuine kind of ignorance”, it was better then than it is now, he says. “There was a desire to discover.” Fast forward more than 20 years and Chaouki believes the potential of that period has been squandered by political irresponsibility and incompetence. The Italy of today is home to “widespread ignorance”, he says.
In January an MP for the right-wing, xenophobic Northern League “blacked up” in parliament. Cécile Kyenge, Italy’s first black minister, is the target of almost daily humiliations and abuse. Chaouki, too, receives his share of hate mail. “I, who am a parliamentarian of the republic, am still told: ‘You’re not Italian. Go back to your country’,” he says. “And worse: ‘piece of shit’, ‘Muslim’, ‘terrorist’.” He shows no sign of being deterred. Near the top of his hit-list is Italy’s outdated citizenship law, a hangover from the country’s past as a place of emigration which makes a child born in the country to foreign parents wait until the age of 18 to become Italian. (He himself had to wait until 2005 for his citizenship.)
“Until now there has never been a recognition shared nationally that Italy has become a country of immigration, a multicultural country,” he says. “We need a national vision that says Italy has changed.” Is he optimistic? “Yes, ultimately, because we’re nonetheless starting to see results. I see it in many ways: in the fact that now we are talking a lot about the fate of refugees and immigration in general. The fact that racism, whatever else, is talked about, whereas before it was referred to as folklore and propaganda. Finally we’re calling things by their name. This is a sign of change.”
“Why is it so difficult to bring change to Italy?” asks Alessandro Fusacchia, the 35-year-old political adviser and policy maker. In a country where the old ways have certainly not proved to be the best ways, it is a question that he believes needs to be asked with urgency.
It is not a lack of talent, Fusacchia argues. Italy is a country of “pioneers... there are plenty of extraordinary Italians”, but they have so far failed to organise and put pressure on the political elites for reform. Rete per l’Eccellenza Nazionale (rena) hopes to bridge that gap. Established five years ago by Fusacchia and a group of young professionals, RENA is part lobbying group, part network, involving Italians both inside and outside the country.
“We try to act as a broker,” he says, showing government that there is a demand for change and working with those reformers in positions of power. With high unemployment, a growing number of Italians are moving abroad but Fusacchia, who has lived in the US and elsewhere in Europe, does not fear an Italian brain drain. “We don’t feel you have to keep people in Italy against their will. But how do we ensure that this country creates more opportunities so that people who go away at some point come back?” The organisation runs an annual invite-only summer school for talented young Italians abroad who might consider a return home. It also lobbies government ministers and proposes changes to legislation.
RENA has its critics, those who believe it is too “top-down” and too close to some of the old Italian power structures to be a viable movement for change – but Fusacchia, a one-time adviser to the minister for economic development who is now working with foreign minister Emma Bonino, argues that change is more likely to come from working inside the system.
In many ways RENA is the practical response to Beppe Grillo’s populist anti-politics Five Star Movement, which gained 25 per cent of the vote in last year’s election. It is not enough, Fusacchia says, to merely oppose. “Once you say this is not working, get rid of it, you must also be able to rebuild the country. How do you design a new Italy?” That is the question he hopes his generation can answer.