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Will Italy wake up?

September, 1999

disponibile anche in italiano

  Giancarlo Livraghi
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I'm not "nationalistic". I believe in free and open markets, cultural diversity, etc. But when it comes to the net I'm getting a bit nervous about my country being so sluggish in catching up. Our (ugly and silly) national anthem sings about "awakening" and I can't wait for us to actually open our eyes to the realities of a changing world.

The number of internet "users" in Italy is increasing much faster than in past years. But the activity of our companies and organizations online is weak and messy. The internet is truly an open system; if we are not as good as the Americans, or as people and companies in several other countries, the blame is on us.

A spokesman for Confindustria (the national federation of industries), Massimo Bucci, stated on September 14 that he is worried because in the last three years imports were up 33 percent, exports 13. He commented that "our companies are losing their competitive edge" and "are unable to intercept internal demand". I think that's near-sighted, because regaining the lost ground in our local market isn't enough. Our economy depends on export. Even the rest of the world shouldn't be too happy if we don't export more, because unemployment is high and if we don't sell our goods and services we won't have the money to buy anyone else's.

In the internet... it's even worse. E-commerce is in its infancy and we have no reliable data of what is being exported or imported; but it's pretty clear that most of the purchases in our country are from foreign suppliers and our export online activity is extremely small. Italy's share of the world's economy is between 3 and 4 percent, but our presence on the internet is less than one percent. We have 15 percent of GNP in the European Union, 19 percent of the cars, over 22 percent of the mobile phones... 7 percent of the internet (and that may be a somewhat optimistic estimate).

We are weak in quantity... even worse in quality. Italian companies are confused, hesitating, incompetent in the use of the internet. That has been mumbled and whispered and grumbled by most of the people who have been really studying the situation, but ignored by the mainstream hype – until a short while ago. For the first time on September 4, 1999, Corriere della Sera (Italy's leading newspaper) published a full-page report about how alarming the situation really is: Italian companies are being defeated on the internet – and most of them don't know how to operate effectively online. The day before, a big convention of Italy's most powerful people in the economy and in politics had finally come to understand that this is a serious issue. I wonder why they were several years late in finding out; and they don't seem to have a clue about what's really needed to solve the problem. But, at least, now the truth has come out of the closet.

There are some rather distressing scenarios ahead of us. Let's suppose that more and more people get online and they start buying. Unless our companies do something serious abut online business, our (already poor) import-export ratio will get worse. Dozens of "portals" are being built to try to herd our people where they will be easy to find. To some extent, they will succeed: and through those portals will flow more and more one-way e-business, in which we are at the losing end. Except, maybe, for tourism... but there aren't enough jobs available for waiters, maids, cooks, etc. to solve our unemployment problem. And most Italians (unemployed or porly employed as they may be) are snobbish about their work. They don't want to be "servants". Many of the jobs in the hotel and restaurant business are taken by immigrants.

We are not going to get out of these treacherous doldrums as long as our companies (large and small) dither with boring online catalogs, "just to be there" websites or lazy sprinkles of colorful but pointless banners. The time has come to get much more serious about an effective use of the net. Not just to "intercept" some of the local business, but to sell worldwide. 99 percent of the potential online market is outside our borders. As always, but more so in this case, the name of the game for a country like ours is "export or die". Now hat we are (at last) aware of the problem, I hope to see some real action.

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