Banzi in the House (and on la Repubblica too!)

“Hello?” That’s me”. When, on Wednesday 18 June 2014, I received a call from the White House, I was reminded of the first time I had heard of him. “You know Massimo Banzi, right?”. Of course I did not know him. It was 13 February 2008 and I was talking with the director of Wired, Chris Anderson, the one who coined the long tail theory (he is definitely mythical). “Banzi who?”.
I remember I ran to look up his biography on Wikipedia but I couldn’t find anything. But, just to be certain, I also checked in English and there he was: “The co-founder of Arduino, the father of open source hardware”. This did not really help because I had no idea what Arduino was. As for open source hardware, it was clearly an esoteric formula for me; but I was still truly astonished by the fact that Wikipedia had a biography for Massimo Banzi in all of the languages of the world except, that is, in Italian.

“Can you hear me? There’s no Wifi here, not even 4G, go figure… The president has just arrived, Yes, Obama. He spoke for fifteen minutes. He said that he invited us here to celebrate the era of the makers”. Makers: people who make things. Massimo’s voice is adequate for his stature. He is imposing, with a beard and very lively eyes, and he always goes around, to this day, with a bag over his shoulder as if he were still at school. He went to school at Brianza, a technical institute. He liked working on computers and he met a professor who supported his talent; at university he enrolled in engineering but never finished “because there were too many slides and too few projects”.
He started doing his own projects, for a while he even worked as an investor in London, where he learned English perfectly, then he returned to Italy to work at ItaliaOnline. It was the dawn of Internet, 1994, and ItaliaOnline, I remember, had practically been thrown together by Banzi and his peers. Life is funny: IOL was the Olivetti group headed by Carlo De Benedetti. Banzi was one of the last employees and he left slamming the door because he felt underpaid. Twenty years later he became the president of the foundation created by De Benedetti to support the third industrial revolution: Make in Italy. All merit of Arduino.

Yes, Arduino. What is it anyways? So many people still ask me this. Ten years after it was invented, after it has conquered the world, becoming a “platform” for inventors. If the success of a thing is measured by the amount of imitations, then Arduino could be the answer to a question in a crossword puzzle. Without getting too into the technical aspect, an Arduino is a single-board microcontroller that serves to allow an object to carry out an action – to give it life. The name comes from the bar where Banzi met with a group of students from the School of Interaction Design of Ivrea: it was called the Gran Caffe Arduino, just like the celebrated king of Italy who ruled in the years around 1000. The idea was that of creating something easy to program and low cost in order to allow young people to make “living”, functioning prototypes.  This is how Arduino began: as a project for students, and now it has made it to the White House. Why? Banzi himself at a TEDTalk gave the best answer: “Because as of today you do not need permission from anyone to invent fantastic things”. The right to invent the future.

Banzi told this story two weeks ago to the staff of Italy’s Ministry of Education. I was there and, trust me, all present were amazed and very attentive: “Let’s bring Arduino into all schools!” someone exclaimed at the end. Banzi hopes for this, obviously: he hopes for a revolution in Italian schools like what is happening in many other schools around the world: “Instead of teaching abstract things, teach how to make projects. Project-based learning”. In America, for example, Obama sustains that young people should not just download an application on a phone, but must invent one. “In Spain, with the help of Telefonica, we are providing courses in electronics and digital fabrication for teachers who, in turn, make projects with their classes. Statistics show that students are happier and more motivated”. Is this possible in Italy as well? “Without an adequate school everything will collapse. If, instead, we put this energy into action, the Italy that has always been a nation of makers, artisans, and small inventors can restart”.

Massimo has an ambivalent relationship with Italy. He detests the carelessness of politics and the diffident and opportunistic behavior of many. But “made in Italy” has been printed on the Arduino boards. It is worth it to recount an episode that occurred a few days ago: the president of Google, Eric Schmidt, was in Rome for an institutional encounter and at lunch he asked to see Banzi. “At the table the usual litany began by Italians speaking badly about Italy and I didn’t see him anymore. We have incredible potential, it’s time to stop complaining”.

Obama invited Banzi to the first Maker Faire held at the White House. All of the guests left with a parchment with the golden seal of the president where it was written that if we don’t begin again to invent and produce things, we will never get out of the crisis and we will not create new jobs. “These words could be transferred exactly to Italy”. Now Massimo is busy transforming Arduino into a real company: “With real managers so that I can work solely on the projects. It is hard because we are five founding associates spread across the globe and for a long time we worked as a non-profit”. Arduino, it must be said, is an open source project and it intends to stay that way: it is open, the code of its cards is public and copiable. Its strength is the global community that has adopted it, that uses it to create marvelous projects, and that shares them online. But its secret, I can say after having followed it step by step, is Banzi’s determination, he never gave up, even when they ignored him (unforgettable the time when a minister at a dinner event insisted on playing games on his phone rather than listen to Banzi). He tried to do an Italian “thing” that was useful for everyone and he succeeded.


posted originally on La Repubblica



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