Before I started working in web3, exploring tokenized communities, social DAOs and the future of work, something about both personal and professional life simply didn’t feel right.
The platform through which I connect to the world, and the way I relate to my profession. Something was off, and as a consequence of this, I started venturing into a new realm looking for meaning and for something I could better relate to.
While exploring new venues of research, I bought a book by Adriano Olivetti, an entrepreneur and a political ideologist who in the mid of the last century paved the way for ethical business.
Web3 and blockchain are attracting people like me, that before even understanding the technicality of this technology are attracted by its value which at first might appear new in the context of building businesses, but in fact, they are not, and they have been explored by older generations of entrepreneurs.
It comes to mind a concept extracted from the writing of architecture master, Gio Ponti. He explains the difference between making a building as a work of art or as a work of engineering. The first will be timeless, while the latter will be obsolete and replaced by the following innovation. Can businesses be run keeping the same analogy in mind?
How Olivetti approached doing business, how he put it in context, is a work of art, a timeless and still relevant example of how entrepreneurship can be driven by values and principles such as social justice, human flourishing and sustainability.
He advocated for more humane working conditions, such as shorter working hours, higher wages and better access to education and leisure activities for workers. He believed that a successful business should also be beneficial to society, and he proved it with his factory, making sure to reinvest in the local community.
Adriano Olivetti's commitment to a new kind of leadership has inspired many entrepreneurs and thinkers over the years, and his movement has become a reference for modern-day ethical businesses.
From him, we can learn to invest in people, not only in profits, by creating a human-centred vision and standing for progressive causes. We can also learn to challenge the status quo and strive to create a more holistic and just world. Finally, we can learn that a successful business is more than a financial achievement; it’s also a tool for uplifting the community as a whole.
Olivetti was one of the first examples of a true brand. The company was not simply a typewriting machine manufacturer - it was an innovator in all aspects.
Its vision drove the development of four key areas: city and politics, factory, culture and image, and society.
For Adriano, urbanism was not just an aesthetic showcase, but a synthesis of all disciplines and social services to be used as investigative tools during planning.
His factory reform project drove Olivetti to the top of the market and pioneered the transition from mechanical to electronic calculators and computers
Its culture and image identified the company as an iconic brand in the consumer products and electronics landscape as well as in advertising, communication, and brand identity.
Lastly, Olivetti championed a welfare system, “from the factory to the polis”, that would reach far beyond the borders of their home town, Ivrea.
Olivetti was founded in Ivrea, a city that grew alongside the company expansion. Now part of the Unesco heritage, Ivrea was a one-of-a-kind model of interaction between business and society.
Here, both scientific and technological knowledge was in coexistence with ethical and cultural values. Olivetti was a company that was rooted in its territory and community since its early days.
The core of Olivetti was its factory, seen as the interconnected medium that could reconcile harmony among manufacturing, architecture and urbanism, and social well-being.
The individualistic and selfish society has been destroyed. A human society is being born atop its ruins: a concrete community.
Adriano Olivetti believed in the concept of community, a concrete community, that is capable to self-govern and that interconnects the factory and the environment. From him, we can learn that businesses should take responsibility towards society and reinvest their gains to benefit local communities. He also proved that it is possible to create hubs of technological advancement in urban, rural and even remote areas as long as a sustainable plan, that takes into account all possible stakeholders is set into motion.
The concrete community sees the Factory as the active, alive, nucleus of self-realisation, not alienation, through the work and the cultural, social, and emotional relationships within its geographical surroundings, where the individual could express a strong sense of humanity.
Adriano’s idea of community was sharp and quantifiable. Something not to be confused with communitarianism. In his vision, a community is a solidarity network oriented toward the future and guided by an idea of self-government able to plan a territory smaller than a province. An intermediate social body where scientific research, humanities, and structure for sociopolitical preservation work in synergy.
Adriano Olivetti was an advocate for a spiritual way of working, based on loyalty and respect for workers and the objectives of the company. He was committed to creating a culture of courage, initiative and coherence to ensure that the responsibility for others would always be respected.
Thanks to this vision, he created human-centred companies that brought progress not only for their employees but for society as a whole.
As a young engineering graduate, Olivetti travelled to America, where he observed how Henry Ford rationalized the production processes and where he began to conceive his principles of work organization. Impressed by the productivity achieved in America’s factories, he also considered that the subdivision of work into repetitive tasks generates alienation, and before transferring his learnings to Ivrea, he adapts them and transfers them considering a more radical change in the social life of workers.
As he would consider the social aspects of his workers, he believed that the scientific organization of work cannot go without considering the territory, its environment, its politics, and its social policies.
Within the organization, he also pioneers new dynamics of power, where authority and responsibility are not assigned anymore by hierarchy but by function. He encourage the rise of a workforce that would not be faithful, but loyal and culturally curious, open and proactive, counterbalancing the control that management had to sacrifice, to obtain a much more dynamic production.
Adriano Olivetti understood that innovation was not just about product development, but also about innovating processes and organizational approaches.
He believed that individuals and organizations should be in harmony and tried to reconcile the competing forces of individual versus machines, company versus nature, and global competition versus local community.
By doing so, he ensured that his business was not only economically successful but was a force for good, uplifting the lives of its employees and its host community.
Olivetti has long been a champion of innovation, not just in terms of productivity, but also in terms of organizational structure. This has been seen through its promotion of a participatory science of organization and its appreciation of an employee's versatility, rather than their status.
Olivetti sought to create an environment of engaged participation where everyone could reach their potential.
He encouraged the concept of corporatism, wherein businesses became entities owned and managed by workers and employees.
He tried to involve intellectuals in all aspects of planning to discuss and consider the transformations that society was attempting to make a reality.
He advocated for the replacement of the classic liberal triad of individual, representation, and state with the person, community, and order.
By advocating for this innovative model of governance, Olivetti hoped to create a more harmonious society, where progress and human values were guided by the fundamental principles of solidarity.
The centrality of the human must never be lost amongst the emphasis placed on productivity, rationalization, and performance. He believed in the importance of recognizing employees as people, and thus, endowed them with a sense of freedom within the organization.
Values such as personality or adaptability and conflict resolution skills were favoured over technical skills. In Olivetti, knowledge was cultivated regardless of its application to the interests of the company. Think for example that the employees' onboardings gathered multidisciplinary teams of people intending to foster pluralism and debate.
Olivetti was a big learning community which levelled the differences in background and education to break down social divisions. This approach anticipated more formalized approaches such as learning organization, situated learning and learning by doing. It enabled people to share and discuss their learnings from their collective experiences within the organization.
Convergences and divergences were used to build perspectives and meanings, creating an open atmosphere to explore the novel and the unknown as a proactive and lively body.
The factory should be seen as a primary unit of civic, social, and economic life, where the freedom to challenge ideas is encouraged, and status is not the only factor in determining the credibility of one's opinion.
Political conceptions of the business and the factory should be thought of as a political system of open debate between members to advocate for the improvement of wealth and production to benefit the lives of workers through equitable redistribution.
Participation should be at the heart of defining the culture of the company.
Adriano Olivetti had a unique approach to societal structure. He was neither capitalist, nor socialist, nor individualist, nor collectivist. Rather, he accepted every contrasting element in the right form and quantity so that it would bring harmony to a holistic and balanced system.
His vision resulted in a community that welcomes anyone who contributes and rejects any ideology.
He strove to foster a harmonious and inclusive society.
Adriano Olivetti's leadership was characterized by transparency and allowing expression to reach its full potential, with the right selection of talent based on competence and values.
His vision made a clear distinction between authoritative and authoritarian management styles, favouring the first over the latter.
Leadership was intended as the capability to think critically and to build inter-relational skills.
Olivetti has a long history of creating value not only for shareholders but also for employees and the surrounding environment.
Its organizational model manifested through urban design and architecture, is a modern industrial landscape in Italy and proof that the industrial city does not exist in a vacuum.
He took pride both in the business and scientific accomplishments of Olivetti, as well as its social objectives in "ushering humankind toward a new condition of freedom and achievement".
The paramount goal for any organization is to ensure that everyone benefits from its success. Life is not only about productivity; there is more purpose to be found in the benefits surrounding a given workspace.
It is key to make every member of the community familiar with both the community's problems and objectives to encourage participation and personal initiative.
Olivetti tragically died at the age of 60 with much of his visions yet to be realized.
Before his death, he was looking to start a foundation that would seek to divide his company among a variety of social forces, creating a type of property that was neither public, nor private, nor collective. This property would have been divided into four separate parts, with 25% of it going to the community, 25% to the workers, 25% to the family and shareholders, and the final 25% going to a university.
This essay is the summary of notes taken mostly from Adriano Olivetti’s writing and from an exhibition catalogue called “Universo Olivetti - Community, as a concrete Utopia”.
It is not a comprehensive overview of Olivetti’s work and thinking, but a personal synthesis and narrative that invites you to question what is the moral of this story and what can we learn from the experience of a visionary entrepreneur that in a pre-computer era was anticipating ideologies and values that only emerged half a century later.
I am sharing this essay on web3 blogging platforms with the hope to reach a general audience that thinks critically about progress, both technological and social.
Adriano Olivetti thinking and history is probably one of the factors that made me click on web3.
Timeless values can serve as guardrails in times when technology develops fast, disrupting existing product landscapes, and ultimately changing our behaviour.
The values that are prevalent in web3, such as decentralization and open participation, coupled with the pursuit of fairness and justice, are the same ones that make Adriano Olivetti’s experiment at Olivetti a success.
By creating an environment where people are free to express themselves and be creative, Olivetti enabled its community to work together to push boundaries and build something bigger than themselves.
His legacy is more relevant than ever before, especially in times when similar values seemed to be channelled through new technology enablers such as web3 and blockchain.