Wednesday, March 13

Wow! Genova's New Science Center uses its Brain

This last week I attended the inauguration* of a new, awesome attraction in Italy in a place that already brings millions of visitors to wind their tiny medieval streets: Wow! Genova's Science Expo Center a place where kids of all ages can explore their world. The opening took place in a gorgeous refab warehouse in the Porto Antico [Ancient Port], just a meatball's throw from the terrific Aquarium.  Revamped years ago, the Porto Antico now includes other fun venues including a new museum, MuMa, a pirate ship & submarine, an outdoor ice rink and even a spanking new Eataly
Due south, along the same coast and in the same week, we all bore witness to the devastating fire that reduced the Naples Science Center [Città di Scienza] to ashes.  I often remark that Italy is nothing if not a country of contradictions; These two events revealed just how brutal two sides of the same coin can actually be.  Both committees knew full-well that a science center can inspire, thrill or even challenge people of all ages [like me trying to figure out how actually to see the 3D optical illusions at Brain]. The burning down of Naples, like the burning of Venice's La Fenice opera house or the bombing of San Giovanni Basilica in Rome is as tragic as the Taliban's taking out those Buddhas of Bamiyan.
- Picture from La -
But stepping off the expansive promenade of the old port of Genova and into the Wow! complex, reminded me just what it is that the politicians in Italy have long forgotten: The extent of the talent and unbridled potential of so many of its citizens, the brains, capacity and audacity of so many, and how incredible things would be in Italy, if the feudal lords would just get their greasy palms, hand-outs and abject mediocrity out of the way.  It can be done: just take a look at Italy's fashion houses from Armani to Benetton, to Ferraro, Illy Caffè or Luxottica that are the envy of the world.  These companies prove that when Italians are left to their own devices without the interference of the political class, well, Wow! 
Come to think of it, almost every struggling company from Alitalia, FIAT, to the big utilities & defense contractors, from the Post Office to the plethora of City "services", even the oldest bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi, once the personal piggy bank of the Medicis (and we've seen all the politicians thereafter), are all bastions of political patronage, payoffs and nepotism in the extreme.  Political hacks consider these and smaller off-shoots for their own personal festivities where one plays a backwards musical chairs--the chairs just keep getting added; not for hard-working, honest employees, but for an army of unqualified yes-men (and they're all men), lovers, relatives and incapable friends.  Filling up fake companies and real ones in exchange for votes, inexperienced mediocre cretins pretend to do managerial jobs while the guys at the top siphon the public funds.  The higher up you go, the more place holders (prestanomi) you'll find.  Million euro stipends are the order of the day, to keep the palms greased and the currency pushed into envelopes.  Middle managers and workers barely eke out a living with their meagre pay--and it is only thanks to them (and the legions of slave workers) that keeps the company afloat at all.  
Back in Genova, I had originally pitched the idea for a science center to an astute businessman.  He in turn, cobbled together more private business people to consider the concept.  We went to the Port Authority to check out the space.  It was perfect.  A contract could be signed.  The only delay was when the City, finding themselves slightly sidelined, lobbied a few faux regulations their way--the equivalent of making sure they had stables for unicorns handy, just in case one turns up.  Once again, instead of rejoicing the new tenants of a half-abandoned building, new life and new money for the City coffers, the civil servants did what they could to first foil the deal.  Thankfully, they have seen the light.  
It reminded me of the building of The Venetian hotel in Las Vegas.  Multi-billionaire Adelson showed up in Merano with bucketfuls of cash and took back home marble specialists, architects, even buying up an exclusive textile company so his hotel would have a real Venetian feel in their fabrics.  Venice Mayor Cacciari was apoplectic.  How could this rich, obnoxious American just come here and buy up our artisans?  And not ask for our blessing first?  How could he refuse to pay homage first with the Doge himself?  He tried suing Adelson for patent infringement of the image of Venice.  He was made a laughing stock when the Mayor of Paris, darting across the Atlantic to the opening of Paris Paris for the ribbon cutting, chimed in that it was an honor to see the Eiffel Tower recreated in Sin City.  And we all know what the Parisians think of Americans.  Adelson laughed all the way to the bank.
Regardless, from that first meeting in August 2011, the Science Center was opened in record time, by anyone's standards.  Wow! had gone into high speed, awarding contracts to capable architects, graphics firms, ad agencies, technicians and suppliers of every color.  Compare this with the re-opening of the State Museum, the Borghese Gallery in the '90s.  Fourteen years under "restoration" under various Ministers until Walter Veltroni, then Minister of Culture said, Basta!  He picked a date and it opened to the public to great acclaim. say...but he is a politician!  So effective was he, his party threw him out.
Wow! opened like clockwork--and opening up with it, jobs to a group of exceptional young people, all college graduates, each and every one oozing passion for science from every pore.  Families, school kids, the city itself will all reap the benefits of our work there.  And who knows?  Perhaps one day one child will become the next Rita Levi-Montalcini or Marisa Bellisario The surrounding attractions will benefit as well, as will the gorgeous palaces, museums, and other cultural events that Genova offers on a regular basis.  It is no accident that Genova was voted European Capital of Culture back in 2004.
As I like to quip, having long ago co-opted someone's piquant quote, Italy works despite its government, not because of it.  If we could only get the politicians to keep their noses (and their grubby hands) out of private enterprise, we could truly light this country on fire.

* [Full disclosure-I represent the opening exhibition and I refuse to refer to Genoa, Turin & Milan as cities in Italy-and have a hard time using Florence as well].

No comments: