Not many regions of the world would pity Tuscany for its problems. The birthplace of the Renaissance and one of the world's most loved travel destinations will likely garner little sympathy from locations that struggle to move past unflattering reputations, or battle against anonymity; from unattractive post-industrial areas that must rely on creative photography to have enough decent imagery for brochures; or from those that must import culture, and try to manufacture a sense of heritage out of nothing. Drenched in beauty, blessed with an embarrassment of cultural riches and imbued with historical greatness, Tuscany could not keep people away if it tried. "Our problem is the region is just too beautiful," sighs Monica Colom, head of the investor relations unit with the office of the president of Tuscany.

But beauty can be a poisoned chalice.

Advertisement

Take the Tuscan tourism sector. The region’s magnetism is undeniable: it is simply awash with visitors. But there is a fine line between being awash and being overrun, and at certain times of the year – for example, the start of spring, when fDivisited – the famed medieval streets of Florence are clogged with gawking North American tourists and college kids. And having hordes of visitors injects cash into the economy, but how much of it is of lasting value? How many of these visitors, once they have ticked ‘see Michelangelo sculptures’ off their travel to-do list, will come again? More importantly, how many are potential investors?

Affirmative action

These are questions regional authorities began to ask themselves a few years ago, amid fears that Tuscany was becoming nothing more than a ‘Renaissance Disneyworld’ – or, worse in some minds, Venice. To help address these quandaries, and to modernise Tuscany’s tourism offering, Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi – Italy’s first public-private autonomous foundation – was set up in 2006. After an international search, Dr James Bradburne, a British-Canadian architect, designer and museum specialist, was brought in to head the foundation.

“For tourists, the real question is not why they come here – because that is easy – but why would they come back and why would they stay? That relates to tourism and also to inward investment and business visitors,” says Mr Bradburne.

The answer to appealing to both demographics, he believes, is creativity and innovation: making the most of what history and nature have bestowed but presenting it in a fresh, modern way; tapping into old competencies to make them relevant; and leveraging technology to bring the past to life. In that respect, the foundation’s approach presents a model for wider economic development efforts for Tuscany, and is in line with the thinking of the Toscana Promozione investment agency, which is promoting FDI in priority sectors such as life sciences, information and communications technology, renewable energy and real estate.

“People work better surrounded by the physical traces of creativity, and Tuscany has a lot to offer in terms creativity and inspiration,” says Mr Bradburne. The reality is, he adds, “it is a lot more inspirational to work in Florence than in Stuttgart”.

Top of the hill

He will not get much argument from one of the region’s latest investors, Japanese diesel engine maker Yanmar, whose executives should win an award for most clever corporate site selectors. Tasked with choosing a location for a new European R&D centre for the Osaka-based company, they opted not for an industrial park or commercial premises but rather a picturesque hilltop villa in a residential area of Florence, complete with awe-inspiring views.  

“We looked at this house and thought to ourselves ‘this looks like a research centre’,” says Shuji Shiozaki, president of Yanmar R&D Europe, with a satisfied smile. Indeed, it is easy to see why the serene setting and verdant vistas would lend themselves to dreaming up new designs.

But he states that the tangibles are also in place in Tuscany, such as relevant skills, a good grounding in research and strong university links.

Once a communist region, Tuscany until recently was ambivalent to such business arrivals and made little effort to court foreign companies. Many in the political classes were openly hostile towards foreign investment, while others saw industry as sullying the perfect prettiness of the place. But the current regional leader, in office since 2010, takes a different view. “If we put all of the onus to produce wealth on the old beauty of Tuscany, this weight will become unbearable,” the president, Enrico Rossi, tells fDiin an interview in his Florence offices. “For the beauty of the region to survive we must balance it by fostering business and industry.”

Design-led

Tuscan officials stress that in any case beauty and business are not mutually exclusive. “Yes, there is a sense of style, of design, of beauty – it is in the genes of Tuscany,” says Stefano Giovannelli, managing director of Toscana Promozione. “But, to take one example, the most beautiful yachts in the world are made here – they combine perfectly the design, the beauty and the technology.” Mr Rossi also points to the yacht cluster as one that is both a boon for business and also attracts tourists; the same can be said of the world-renowned Tuscan wine industry as well as agribusiness. 

“Tuscany is well known as a region – for art, culture, the Renaissance. That is the umbrella, and under that you have design, research, technology,” says Mr Giovannelli.

Tuscany also now has a president who is happy to brandish this umbrella for the sake of attracting FDI – a new approach in this old region. Not only that, he has been known to hop on a plane and go straight to corporate headquarters overseas to visit chief executives in order to win investments, as he did, successfully, when US pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, a major investor in the region, was considering expansion options. In days past, Tuscan leaders may have felt they only needed to sit in their fresco-painted offices, looking out on Piazza Duomo, and wait for the world to come to them. Now it is understood, the traffic must flow both ways.