The Italian industrial areas (districts with small and medium-sized firms, linked by local networks) are an excellent model. Their micro-enterprises, well known for their competitiveness, their entrepreneurial spirit, their capacity to innovate and skill in adapting to the market, are generally the heirs of the long Italian tradition of craftsmanship; they have now organized themselves into networks that make them extremely efficient.
As Florence Vidal clearly demonstrates, these Italian industrial areas are flourishing and make a major contribution to the good reputation of Italian goods. Their very good results (200 industrial areas in 1998, with 2 200 000 employees and 42.5 % of manufacturing jobs) make them key elements in the Italian economy as a whole. As each one specializes in producing just one product, in a flexible system of almost total vertical integration, they benefit from considerable economies of scale, and they are renowned for their good design, creativity and efficiency.
The areas are complex systems that rely on network coordinators who look after the links with national and international markets and funding for projects. They also cooperate in consortia for specific projects, and hence benefit substantially from sharing costs, while also being supported by many local agencies that encourage their development and back their interests by fostering social cohesion, entrepreneurship, product specialization, flexible working and interactive governance.
Florence Vidal examines whether this admirable concept is transferable. The industrial areas are at present concentrated in Central and Northern Italy, but will they continue to prosper and spread to the South, and perhaps to other European countries? Efforts are being made in this direction, with varied results.
As for the future, what will happen when the links based on geographical proximity are replaced by telecommunications links? Will it be possible to reconcile globalization, competitiveness and e-commerce with locally based social and cultural groupings relying on social integration? Will the industrial areas be able to cope with moving into the virtual world and become crucial links in worldwide networks? The author concludes with several scenarios.