I had the honor to take part in Matera’s candidacy to European Capital of Culture 2019. Matera did win the title, but that’s not the point: the selection process, like all things human, is far from perfect. We could have made the same moves, and yet lose; or completely different one, and still win. In the days just before our final presentation to the adjudicating panel, we set ourselves the goal to win or lose, but for the right reasons either way. A right reason for losing, for example, could be proposing a courageous, solid project to a panel too conservative for accepting it. So, the lesson I learned from the Matera 2019 experience is not how you win, but how you cook up a sound, forward-thinking regional development project based on immaterial assets (a term I prefer to “culture”), digital networks, social innovation, and the key values, openness and transparency.
As seen from the inside, the process was a far cry from a heroic charge towards victory. Quite the opposite: it was riddled with delays, errors, approximations, misunderstandings, unexpected events and strokes of luck. If I had to describe it in one sentence I would say: the part of the candidacy that always worked were the citizens of the Basilicata region, and of Matera in particular. They did not miss a single beat: they needed some convincing, but once on board they gave the candidacy a massive, high-quality participation. Its more technocratic part, i.e. the public-private partnership Comitato Matera 2019 and its various allies and consultants (myself included), was made up of smart, capable people, and did some excellent things as well as some less-than-excellent ones; but that’s not why we won. Why? simple: more or less the same things could be said of the public-private partnerships built in the rival cities, all manned by smart and capable people, with their own successes and mistakes.
On citizen participation, instead, there really was no match. In Matera, citizens even managed to contribute to the candidacy in terms of process continuity: after the regional elections in October 2013, the regional bureaucracy had to be reorganized by the newly elected government. This choked the inflow of fresh cash to Comitato Matera 2019, and severely slowed down its activities. Bottom-up participation, on the other hand, followed its own dynamics, and allowed to city to keep things going even as the leadership of the local institutions sputtered. That said, the Comitato Matera 2019 group did a good job. An important part of it – perhaps the most successful one – was exactly this: activate and involve the citizenry, and give them space once they got involved. For the benefit of whoever wants to attempt something similar, here is a list of what I consider the smartest moves in the candidacy, in rough chronological order.
- Inclusive stance. The attention to inclusion was there since the inception of Matera's candidacy, and it was a top-down decision. The local and regional authorities first, and Comitato Matera 2019 later, focused on throwing the door wide open for anybody who wanted to be involved. This played a key role; as so many Italians, the people of Basilicata are generous, but suspicious of each others. Had the candidacy been seen as a tool for a group of insiders to get ahead at the expenses of other, it would have been drowned in mistrust and controversy. The personal style of Comitato's director Paolo Verri, very open, helped assert the right narrative.
- Web team. In summer 2012 we organized a free two-days of social media training, open to everyone. Participants were encouraged to volunteer to help the candidacy to gain traction on social media, and many did. This simple zero-cost move (several experts donated their time), led to inventing the MT2019 Web Team Matera's special forces on the social Internet. At the end of 2013, some rival cities got wind of what we were doing and imitated the move, but it was too late: Matera had already established a relative dominance on all the main social media. More importantly, crowdsourcing the social media presence offered to many citizens the opportunity to be active in the candidacy with a very low threshold – just commit a few minutes a week.
- Online community. Matera 2019's online community was born as a friendly environment to discuss and give input to the city's bid book, but ended up becoming a distributed R&D lab, oriented more to action than to debate. It was the place where, with remarkable patience, the web team repeated to everyone that would listen that everybody was responsible for building the candidacy, and offered help to anyone who tried to launch an initiative flying the Matera colors. And it was the place where, in 2013, a small miracle happened: some citizens moved from "they should do something!" to "Hey, maybe we can do something ourselves!". And sure enough, they launched several projects: So-called national railways, Matera Starry Sky, the Last Mile projects and the wonderful Long March at the very end. Low- or no-costs, citizen-led rather than Comitato Matera 2019-led, very effective in terms of mobilisation and local pride.
- Open (geo) data. "I am here to tell you about something called open data". This is how I started conversation over lunch with some local decision makers in October 2012. They had heard the term, but no explanation. Only a year later, the city had a fairly aggressive open data policy for a city of that size, and a formalized collaboration with top-notch open government NGO Wikitalia to kickstart it; today, it is the winner of a national award; it has even released five-star datasets in Linked Open Data formats (one of only four local authorities in Italy to have done so); and hosted the meeting of the Italian OpenStreetMap community in 2014. This not only is good government; it produces good government, because transparency and unimpeded access to information reduces controversy and produces trust. The experience with open data deeply influenced Comitato Matera 2019, so much that the candidacy's official motto was changed from a generic "Together" to a much more visionary "Open Future".
- Edgeryders /unMonastery. An alliance with the natively European Edgeryders community strengthened significantly Matera's international profile that, to be honest, was one of the weak spots of the candidacy. Bringing to town the world's first unMonastery put Matera on the map of many of the continent's hackers, activists and radical social innovators. unMonastery had an incredible international visibility, both on big media (from The Guardian to The Nation) than on the alternative circuits (Emergent Berlin, Improving Reality. Transmediale, Dazed...); and above all, it supplied a sandbox for the local community to learn how to interact with global innovators – an interaction that can be awkward, but that a European capital of culture has to be able to manage.
- CoderDojo. It is an international initiative to teach programming to children in a playful way. In CoderDojo Matera's story one sees the inner workings of the open ecosystem developed in town: it is first mentioned in May 2014, and immediately prototyped at the unMonastery. One of the participants to the prototype is the headmaster of a large school, who proposes to do a CoderDojo for all of his 1400 students. A group of programmers from the unMonastery and the city's growing open data community, start to train the tens of mentors needed to such a large-scale operation; the Web Team gets the word out and promotes the initiative; and sure enough, on October 7th the BigCoderDojo goes live. Over 1000 children take part, a world record.
- A designer as artistic director. Matera's candidacy had been taking on this hacker-ish stance, characterized by bottom-up initiative and attention to open source technology, before an artistic director was appointed. Had the artistic director been a traditional cultural manager, someone whose core skill is in organizing large scale artistic events with star artists, this stance might have been denied, and citizen participation pushed to a back seat. But that did not happen, because the city chose as its artistic director Joseph Grima, a designer. Designers are trained to value participation, and tend to be less élitist than your typical artist. Joseph fully supported the Open Future stance: his two flagship projects are a digital archive of cultural artifacts, much in the line of Europeana and Open Culture Data, and an Open Design School.
- Do the dirty work (I am especially proud of this one). In the late stages of the candidacy, I ran a small team that was the equivalent of Victor The Cleaner, the character interpreted by Jean Reno in the movie Nikita. At that point, citizens were fully mobilized; they had ideas and the ability to deliver them. So, we renounced being creative and focused on doing the dirty, boring work that made citizen initiative more effective and rewarding. We ordered T-shirts for CoderDojo mentors; hustled with local transport companies to get cheap bus transport for the participants to the Long March; persuaded local authorities to provide access to school gyms and hot showers for the Marchers, and neighborhood associations to organize parties to feed and celebrate them. It boiled down to hustling, doing efficient paperwork and paying for services quickly: hardly exciting stuff, but it did enable of citizen initiative and build trust and good vibes all around.
And yes, we won. What comes next – delivering the project, while holding on to our ethics and practice of citizen leadership – is going to be much harder than winning the title. I don’t know whether we will succeed (I don’t even know if I will be part of the next phase); but I do know that we did learn a lot, and the city has already been transformed in the way it sees itself and in what it thinks to be possible. What more could we ask for?