Inspiration for a greener tanning industry from the Arzignano tanning district.

Public works and social learning

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Nov 13, 2019. An interview with economist Antonio Massarutto

Antonio Massarutto, associate professor of Applied Economics at the University of Udine, has dealt with the topic of the public consultation and large public works on several occasions. Over the years, he has devised a comparative analysis of instances where things have worked and where they haven’t, thus gathering valuable lessons.

As an economist, he recommends bringing the issues back to numbers “Even if the neutral expert is utopian, it is still important to stick to numbers while discussing the opportunity to proceed with large public works”. He fears that the risk is to enter a discussion where informed and uninformed opinions are worth the same .

Massarutto has repeatedly analyzed the dynamics of large public works blocked by the NIMBY effect, an acronym for Not In My BackYard. He argues: “In Italy, this happens frequently due to the high level of ideologization of issues, the symbolic use of territorial conflicts as an opportunity to bring about other kinds of conflicts, and a decision-making process that seems to be made to create hiccups for those who want to realize some type of public work“.

Massarutto further explains: “Even locating a normal plastic sorting centre becomes a problem because there is already a conflict in the area and a chronic inability by the public administration to manage the decision-making process”. He refers to offices with intersecting competencies and problems linked to changes in political majorities, adding: “In the Italian case, it might be more appropriate to talk about the NIMTO effect, Not In My Term of Office, which means not during my political mandate, for the dramatic incapacity of the political class to make decisions, trying instead to sneak out to the current mandate. In Italy, great pieces of public works have been completed when there has been political will”.

The first recommendation he offers is to understand the social environment and try to identify whether it is a ideological opposition or instead motivated by concrete, plausible and justified factors. For example, a landfill depreciates property values, can cause bad smells, generate trucks traffic for which it is legitimate for people to worry. When there is a concern of this kind, it can be dealt with.

The ideological opposition instead is more difficult to counter.

Therefore, a strategic step is to try and divide the “enemy” field of opponents. The economist explains: “Often they are opposed a priori, because they use that topic to regulate other issues and games, or even to affirm the status of a community that may have always been kept apart and mistreated”. As a typical case, he mentions the Val di Susa, where the community was first emptied in favour of the industrial city of Turin and then returned to assert its voice when Turin claimed the construction of the high speed train (TAV – Treno ad Alta Velocita’) through the valley.

He further says that, “it is important to analyze, if the opposition meets a certain level of social cohesion, linked to the industrial context as it seems to me to be the case in the Arzignano district where industry and communities are integrated. “He reminds that with widespread industrialization, where the well-being created is widely shared and it is easier to think that the social costs of development can be also shared, although this may change over time and perhaps at a certain point social costs may no longer be acceptable.”

Massarutto explains: “What we really need to avoid is that the two oppositions, ideological and motivated by real factors, weld together, because when the wall is sufficiently thick, there is always a politician or a civil servant available to take the requests forward and block the projects definitively.”

“Divide et Impera” and social learning is also strategic. Massarutto explains: “The project proponent must be available to put into play all the information, without silencing any impacts, and be really ready to concede, without hiding behind the authority of the public decision-maker or occupational blackmail or similar”.

In the case of the industrial districts of Arzignano and Chiampo, the fundamental question could be: are people aware of limited spaces to dispose industrial waste? Where the issue is in fact the collapse of the production system within 5 years (as indicated by the mayor of Chiampo who is also responsible for the environmental services for the province of Vicenza, on our website). If this awareness existed, a social learning process could lead to an understanding of the risks and opportunities of creating a plant in the area and developing a sufficient degree of social sharing on an important public work.

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