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What’s happening to Industrial Districts?

Looking at Industrial Districts (ID) from a territorial point of view means studying one of the most important specifically Italian economic model which has built Italian Economy. “Despite all the cases worldwide, ID have typically characterized Italy since the 1970s, becoming a peculiar trait of its economy and a relevant source of socio-economic development and growth. According to ISTAT, [in 2009] Italy comprises 199 ID, mainly in fashion, furniture and food industries, that is, those industries which are conventionally labeled as the ‘made in Italy’. In particular, ID located in northern-eastern Italy are considered models of economic efficiency, innovative output, and high employment levels. The relevance of the model of ID for the Italian economy and society has also engendered an intense research production on the topic, contributing most in what has been addressed as the Italianate variant of the Marshallian industrial district” (Alberti 2009).

According to Giacomo Becattini definition, an industrial district is “a socio-territorial entity characterized by the active presence of both a community of people and a population of firms in one naturally and historically bounded area”(Becattini 1990). Nevertheless the Industrial District is also known as a dissipating model because of its inclination in wasting territories (Becattini 1973 says “campagna urbanizzata”; Indovina 1990; Boeri, Lanzani, Marini 1993). These features generated many different situations according to origin, history, placement, types of production, way of soil consumption (Becattini, Bellandi, De Propris 2009).

Crisis status and regeneration which affected industrial districts in the last 15 years highlight a really large variety of the ways of transforming territories (Bellandi and Caloffi 2014). Because of this multifaceted way of coping with change it is finally possible to draw a completely new geography of productive industrial territories pointing out those incredible various models of transformation.

Six main Italian industrial districts (Pistoia, Canelli, Veneto, Murgiano, Montebelluna and Biella) are the chosen case-studies which has been explored. The choice has been made according to two parameters: (i) each case has to face relevant and very specific issues; (ii) each case has to be supported by a quite deep literature (both urbanistic and economic). The hypothesis is that it is possible to observe reindustrialization processes by the point of view of the territory focusing on the transformation of a specific economic model.



Pistoia, the janus faced district

Pistoia Flower and Garden District is one of the largest in Europe. Crisis provoked many problems to the district which has been reorganized in the last years. The territory is actually divided into two parts. From one side big and strong stakeholders which run alone and own the most part of the territory (one firm owns almost the 10% of all the cultivated area). From the other side a producers association which collect very small companies. The division is more and more clear and it changed completely the shape of the territory.

Canelli, the contract district

This is one of most ancient and important wine district in Italy and it includes all the production chain, from wine production to packaging. While it was previously organized in very small companies and wineries it has been decided by the firms themselves, research centers and territorial authorities to connect them in a sort of consortium to integrate specific expertise and products. The network of enterprises changed completely the way the territory is meant by inhabitants and the economy is now hold by a “network contract” which is meant to promote innovation, change products and production system in all the industry-chain, increase quantities, open an e-commerce and share know-how (Osservatorio dei distretti 2015).

Veneto, an horizontal district without territory

A Meta-District is a “thematic area of horizontal policies, without a territorial bound and with a strong multisectorial integration. The main feature is transferring knowledges into the scope of application” ( Regione Lombardia: Giunta Regionale 5/10/2001 n. 7/6356). It’s a completely different idea of ID because in this case the relation with the territory is weak and its classification is made according to main themes. Even though the definition excludes the territory (and this is at least unexpected compared to Becattini definition) the main issue is that in the Meta-district the territory is interpreted as horizontal. In Veneto Food Meta-district, which is the best performing industrial district in Italy in 2014, the territory is however disappearing. The district is formed by a collection of companies which have subscribed. Single subscriptions replace the proximity, which was one of the most important feature of Industrial District.

Murgiano, the weak district

This quite large district born in the ‘50s grew thanks to Pasquale Natuzzi who powered up a real industrial process in the’70s and ‘80s(Viesti, Luongo 2013). The best performances of the district are during the second half of the ‘90s when the amount of export is one of the highest in Italy (ibidem). Crisis completely reorganized the district with big processes of delocalization and a change in the production system with a lot of negative implications. The main causes seem to be found in a so called “individualistic temptation” (Greco 2012) together with a “territorial dissimilarity” (which the analysis of the Osservatorio Nazionale dei Distretti Italiani is pointing out).  Here the industrial system reorganization has generated a territorial dissimilarity which is leading towards a separation of the district in two different territorial entities (with different policies). In a context of reshaping the transition seems to be difficult because of the “individualistic temptation” of some of the biggest firms and the “collective requests” which seem to crush (Greco 2012).

Montebelluna, the knowledge district

It was born over a hundred years ago as a district of the boot (work boots, military boots, sky boots…), and Dolomite – the oldest brand in the world of mountain accessories – was born there too. Today Montebelluna district produces a wide variety of sport and leisure shoes, making forays in the clothing industry. Even though a big delocalization process has affected the territory, since ‘70s – thanks to its high-level know-how – foreign companies made investments in the area, and now its reputation attracts brains from all over the world, to work in research laboratories and in the direction of many big companies: “when multinational corporation discovered that rising ideas on skyboots were all thought by Montebelluna they decided to localize there parts of their production chain to get access to the creative cluster and the local knowledge system” (Rullani 2014).

Biella, minor vivacities in the surplus district

Biella Wool District is one of the most ancient Italian districts born in 1816. Because of many crisis Biella lost the 50% of its economic weight since 2001. It’s a radical change because the enterprises decrease from 3.000 to 1.000 and the district operators from 30.000 to 15.000 (Maggioni 2008). Together with the economy the demography and the welfare system changed a lot: the aging society is a real social problem and all the villages in the mountainous territory around the main city are aging as well generating many social problems and needs (Sulis 2011). Nevertheless the stalemate generated the strengthening of the survivors. The active firms are stronger than before and the district is shrinking around them leaving a large amount of overstock space (urban surplus) and infrastructural surplus which doesn’t seem it could be recycled anymore. Notwithstanding a stuck situation the district generated an inner net of “minor vivacities” which are trying to deal with the social problem. It’s a minor welfare system created by many little associations, private institutions and groups of people who are reorganizing the territory and trying to give an answer to social demands. An interesting company’ welfare system recovery is also part of this new “minor welfare” structure.


Michele Cerruti But



“What’s happening to Industrial District?” is the topic of a Phd Research which is carried out by the author at the Doctorate School of Urbanism of IUAV in Venice.

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