The M9 development houses Italy’s first digital museum and has been dubbed a ’micro-smart city’. Can it better unite Venice and offer takeaways for other European cities too?
Twenty years ago, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim museum catalysed the reinvention of post-industrial Bilbao. The model of investing in culture for economic gain has since been adopted elsewhere, with varying degrees of success, and it remains in vogue (Glasgow’s V&A museum is just one recent example).
So, what happens when smart city solutions are added to the mix? Could technology amplify the ’Bilbao effect’?
According to the Fondazione di Venezia, the answer is yes. The bank foundation, which invests in culture, education and research in Venice, has recently opened M9, a €110 million site that houses Italy’s first digital museum and has been dubbed a ’micro smart city’.
Located in the mainland district of Mestre, the aim of M9 is to spark urban regeneration in the area.
Located in the mainland district of Mestre, the aim of M9 is to spark urban regeneration in the area. Apart from the museum, the 10,000-square-metre Sauerbruch-Hutton-designed complex incorporates seven buildings, including a 16th-century ex-convent, an old factory and new builds. It also features a retail centre and an auditorium fitted with 4K video technology. Powered and heated by 276 solar panels and 63 geothermal pipes, it has been LEED Gold certificated for its sustainability.
Fondazione President, Giampietro Brunello, masterminded the project because he believes Mestre is in urgent need of investment. The population of Venice’s historic centre has plummeted from 190,000 after the Second World War to 55,000, as residents flee record numbers of tourists who saturate the centre and push up property prices and rents.
Rising water levels present an additional challenge, as demonstrated last October when the worst floods in a decade devastated the city centre.
Of the 1,000 Venetians that desert the centre annually, the majority end up in Mestre. But the district, which was subject to rapid and unplanned urban expansion following the Second World War, is poorly structured and has few major landmarks.
"Mestre lacks an identity and has never had a sense of autonomy," said Brunello. "We are using cultural investment to develop Mestre and requalify the commercial centre, as has been achieved with projects like Bilbao’s Guggenheim."
What’s more, Mestre’s strong transport links with other cities in the Veneto region mean the district will be especially vital to Venice’s future, said Brunello. "Realistically, Mestre is going to be increasingly important for the administration and coordination of the entire city,” he commented.
The digital museum, one of the first of its kind, could put Mestre on the map. Entirely objectless, it recounts 20th-century Italian history through archival documents, images, data and footage displayed with interactive screens, holograms and VR goggles.
Together, these technologies form an immersive environment whose high-tech features, explained Brunello, allow M9 to distinguish itself from the many more traditional museums located in Venice’s centre.
Entirely objectless, M9’s digital museum recounts 20th-century Italian history through archival documents, images, data and footage displayed with interactive screens, holograms and VR goggles.
Venice’s Mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, commented: "Until now, Mestre has served as a dormitory for tourists on visits to Venice. With this museum, we invite the world to discover both our history and our modernity. Spend a few days exploring not just the centre but the whole of Venice."
Smart city applications housed in three ’digital islands’ outdoors serve to improve visitor experience. These include information totems, electric bike stalls, free Wi-Fi, benches with USB charging sockets and intelligent CCTV capable of detecting criminal activity and medical emergencies.
The Innovation Retail Centre, surrounding the courtyard of the ex-convent, includes spaces for start-ups, pop-up stores and small creative businesses, as well as a cookery school and coworking spaces. It could draw entrepreneurial talent to the area while also providing M9 with an additional source of income.
Valerio Zingarelli, CEO of Polymnia, the Fondazione operating company that designed the smart city features, said: "A city is intelligent when it is financially self-sufficient," adding: "It must also be a platform providing the instruments to work, develop, innovate, invent and create. It must be a magnet for people with new economy skills, a place for entrepreneurial collaboration where companies can develop new ideas together".
But what can M9 teach Venice at large? As a ’follower’ in the EU-funded Smarter Together project, Venice implements ideas developed by ’lighthouses’ (Lyon, Vienna and Munich) in areas such as energy, data management and e-mobility to test their wider applicability. Venice was also nominated for the 2017 Smart City Innovator of the Year Award.
In short, Venice is already a hub for smart city innovation.
Venice is already a hub for smart city innovation.
Projects underway include a €28 million plan to make public transport in the Lido-Pellestrina municipality entirely electric, and BusLab, an initiative to collect ideas, suggestions and criticisms from citizens of the Gazzera suburb. In addition, intelligent solutions are being applied to the new social housing quarter of Via Mattuglie.
In October, Mestre launched the app-based ’Venezia Smart Parking’ which, according to the transport company AVM, could reduce air pollution by 30 per cent.
In the historical centre, international planners Ubergo mapped pedestrian movements with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth sensors in 2014 to create virtual and physical way-finding systems, helping reduce congestion in a city where 70 per cent of daily trips take place on foot.
In a separate initiative last January, the town council used laser emitters to keep track of surging crowd numbers during carnival celebrations.
However, all of these initiatives have a local focus. What M9 demonstrates is how technology can be used to diffuse the impact of projects territorially.
"We will take this technology into Mestre and the historic centre thereafter. M9 is just the point of departure."
"We will take this technology into Mestre and the historic centre thereafter. M9 is just the point of departure," said Zingarelli. Digital islands will be positioned around the two districts, and electric bikes will be made available in the historical centre and Lido. There are also plans to create a cycle lane between M9 and the lagoon.
This feels like a vital step in a city as divided as Venice. There have been four referendums on a proposed Mestre-Venice split since the late 1970s. M9 itself became emblematic of inter-district tensions last year, when reference to ’Mestre’ in the museum’s official logo was replaced with ’Venice’ – a change that provoked strong public disapproval.
But M9 could help bridge Venice’s disconnected districts, both physically and socially.
Jane Da Mosto, whose charity We Are Here Venice campaigns for a more sustainable future in the Venetian lagoon, recognises M9’s potential. "We must embrace M9 now that it is a part of reality, and hope that it offers a robust platform for articulating a long-term future for both Venice and Mestre in whatever form," she said.
And Zingarelli believes other cities can learn from M9. He said: "This micro smart model is replicable and can aid cities such as Naples, Rome and Florence; places where there is a vicinity between the historical city and the surrounding industrial area."
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