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Southern Italy: business, culture, innovation

  • Naples
  • 13 May 2024

        Anyone who knows anything about history knows that the Mediterranean Sea has been a setting for both conflict and commerce for millennia; even the discovery of America and the development of new maritime routes were unable to undermine its lasting relevance. This fact is borne out by numbers such as its combined GDP (comparable to that of the United States and higher than China’s) as well as by the recent expression of interest by powers such as China itself and Russia. This interest is forcing the US to maintain a considerable presence in the region and forcing Europe to keep a mindful eye on geographically closer regional powers such as Turkey and Iran. The main challenges reverberating across the Mediterranean concern security, migration, energy supply and climate change, along with the consequences of those phenomena on the populations of both its northern and southern shores. All this inevitably puts the spotlight on the Mezzogiorno (Southern Italy) the Mediterranean’s geographic center of gravity and a key cultural, social and economic pivot.

        Southern Italy’s geographic position makes it especially key to the production and supply of energy. A favorable climate coupled with major national and supranational investments could potentially give the region a leadership role in the energy transition, particularly in terms of renewable energy production. In fact, various southern companies are already working on innovative green energy storage technologies that could make a significant contribution to the national mix. In terms of supply, in addition to major material infrastructures, diplomatic ones such as the “Mattei Plan for Africa” would do well to make the Mezzogiorno their launching pad.  In any case, the energy sector is not the only sphere engaged in innovative development. With support from national agencies and within the framework of the PNRR (Italy’s National Recovery and Resilience Plan), important investments are being made in precision mechanics, pharmaceuticals, agrifood and aerospace; regarding this latter sector, Campania and Puglia are among the top three active Italian regions. Undertakings of these sorts can contribute to the creation of a backshoring scenario that could redesign the Mediterranean as a vast platform of industrial zones.  

        This, of course, should not mean neglecting the area’s other vast dimension of development: tourism. The problem is that the statistics contradict the image of a South already surviving on tourism: 80% of foreign visitors to Italy never travel further south than Rome and not even a single southern Italian city ranks among the top 15 Italian cities for hotel presence and the convention scene remains marginal. While nothing can be said against the basic quality of services offered in the South – from artisanal craft to abundant wine and food offerings to natural heritage to life style – much remains to be done at the level of transport, infrastructure, reception facilities and, most importantly, “de-seasonalization”; all essential to keeping up with other Mediterranean competitors, especially in promising segments such as “silver tourism”, for instance.  

        Attracting a range of age groups also means confronting the issue of healthcare, which must be viewed as a fundamental ethical commitment as well as an economic asset. Making the Mezzogiorno a destination not only for tourists and visitors, but also for new residents attracted to an advantageous lifestyle and tax conditions, means concentrating efforts on making quality healthcare services available across the territory. Also important in this sense are both infrastructure investments – essential to territorial medicine – and training. Indeed, forming new professionals capable of flanking doctors would help close the current gap more quickly by helping to alleviate the geographic disparities between regions.  

        In order to meet all these challenges, southern Italy needs to be able to rely on a high level of human capital – consisting, not least, of young people with the skills and knowledge essential for development – which would at least partly compensate for a decidedly inferior social capital. Indeed, the ubiquitous presence of organized crime, an underdeveloped civic sense and a surfeit of small corporations with large client pools are all factors that slow growth. Certainly, the demographic problems with which Italy is burdened are a strong incentive for young people to leave the southern part of the country in particular, which has sparked discussion of the looming risk of “desertification”. A possible solution to the problem could be to look once again to the wider Mediterranean: making Italian training – notably IT-related – available to a broad user pool of young people from North Africa, for example, with the creation of “bilateral” Mediterranean universities over the next few generations, would change the face of the region’s societies and economies and have a significant impact on the quality and quantity of migration flows.