Florence: Lessons from a Global Innovation Hub

While discussing innovative cities, one can’t help but think about those that were major catalysts for change in the past: Athens, Istanbul, Hong Kong, and Florence, for example. But how do they compare to more modern innovation hubs such as Silicon Valley, London, or Singapore? In this article, we’ll look at Florence - and 10 recognizable and applicable elements that contributed to its success throughout the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. We’ll also look at how Florence spurs innovation today.

We have recently been discussing and sharing views around what makes one city more innovative than another, and how best to determine this. In particular there is a focus on which locations are the leaders of today and which may be the foremost innovation hubs in the future.As part of these discussions, there have been multiple references to the cities that were the catalysts for major innovation in the past. These include Athens, Istanbul, Hong Kong and, perhaps most significantly, Florence – the birthplace of the Renaissance. A centre of creativity and innovation since the Middle Ages, this Italian city successfully sustained its leadership and influence for over 200 years.

Serendipitously, I was in Florence recently and so used the opportunity to do a bit of digging – reading, talking to resident experts, visiting some of the most important sites and initiating new discussions. As others, including the likes of Wade Roush and Eric Weiner, have highlighted, there are numerous potential parallels between what occurred in Florence in the 14th 15th and 16th centuries and what is going on today elsewhere in, for example, Silicon Valley, London or Singapore. But there are also several differences. I wanted to see if there were any innovation lessons to be gained if you consider some of the core insights around Florence’s past success through a contemporary lens. Moreover, I wondered how Florence is performing today?


First a bit of context: Between 1200 and 1300 Florence’s population rose rapidly from 50,000 to 120,000 and it was one of the five largest cities in Europe. But, the Black Death struck in 1348 and within three years the population fell to a mere 50,000 – a devastating impact. As with many other cities at the time, Florence faced a major challenge to rebuild from such as disaster. However, unlike most, it not only recovered far more effectively than many expected but, over the next 100 years, it became a leader in trade, finance, art and science and was a significant magnet for the talented from around the world. In many ways, some see that the epidemic acted as a catalyst for change. As a result Florence was able to lead the way as an innovation hub that perhaps changed the world more during this period than any other city since the peaks of Athens and Rome. All this, despite the fact it was not a coastal city and so was without a major port or fleet (both very important issues of the times).

While many have heard of Dante and Machiavelli and a trip round the Uffizi quickly shines the spotlight on the likes of Botticelli, Brunelleschi, Donatello, da Vinci, Verrocchio and Michelangelo, these iconic authors and artists were not the only ones changing perspectives. Florence was a centre of innovation of not just literature, painting and sculpture, but just as much of science, law and governance. What came together over a sustained period in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries in this Italian city was, in some eyes, just as, if not more, significant than what has more recently occurred in many of the current, albeit so far less long-term, innovation hubs.

Ten Key Insights

Reviewing our multiple explorations, there are perhaps ten primary elements of life in Renaissance Florence that would be familiar to many of those focused on building world-class innovation ecosystems today.

1: Reach and Influence

Florence’s core trade in the c14th was in wool and cloth: prior to the Black Death epidemic around 25,000 of the population was involved in this industry. Due to the associated travels of the many wool and cloth merchants, they, and their fellow citizens, were well informed about developments across Europe, North Africa and beyond. Largely because of this, Florence’s coinage, the Florin, also became the standard gold coin throughout the continent and arguably one of the first truly international currencies: it was the US dollar of the Renaissance. In addition Florentine bankers were highly connected, not only through the wool trade but also via the Church and especially the Pope. They established banking houses in London, Geneva and Bruges and, for example, were able to finance Henry the Navigator and the c15th Portuguese explorers who pioneered the route around Africa to India and the Far East. At the time, Florence was certainly a global centre of commerce and trade – of equivalent standing as London, Singapore and New York today.

2: Political Stability

While tyrants and nobles ran many other city-states of the period, rule in Florence was more egalitarian. Although not a full democracy, its middle-class played an important role with a number of guilds administering the republic. These were secular corporations that controlled the arts and trades. While some families, especially bankers and traders, evidently had leading roles and so were able to influence direction, there were seven major guilds that oversaw steady and sustained civic progress. Formed variously of lawyers, merchants, pharmacists and of course bankers, they essentially organized every aspect of the city’s economic life, helped to determine balanced legislation, and formed a social network that complemented and, in part, compensated for family connections. In a period of frequent upheavals and rapid transfers of power elsewhere, decades of sustained stability in the Republic of Florence provided a solid foundation upon which other activities could then be built.

3: Funding and Patronage

Throughout the c14th and c15th, as the banking and trading families of Florence prospered they variously sought to exert their influence. While membership of the guilds provided the formal mechanism for civic sway, many of these families also pursued additional avenues. Key names of note included the Albizzi, Bardi, Corsini, Guasconi, Peruzzi and Strozzi clans who were involved not only in trading, banking and building numerous palaces but also in creating non-financial legacy, primarily through growing patronage of the arts. Many of the wealthiest families viewed the funding of altarpieces, frescos and chapels as a kind of penance for usury that was condemned by the church but inherent to their profession. As time progressed, patrons became increasingly interested in personal fame and worldly prestige: so lavish public display became more common.

Within this mix, the Medici family led by Cosimo de’Medici and later his grandson, Lorenzo, was the most successful banker of the period and the major patron of the arts. Over the years they moved from initially supporting libraries and funding studios to becoming the patrons of specific artists such as Donatello, Fillipo Lippi, Luca della Robbia, Uccello, Gozzoli and Botticelli as well as Michelangelo – to name but a few. The family was the catalyst for an enormous upsurge in arts patronage, encouraging others across Italy to commission works from the leading artists of Florence. Over the years, the Medici, and other Florentine families, used their wealth and a keen eye for talent spotting to fund perhaps the most productive period of art the world had ever seen. They were arguably leading on focused philanthropy and impact investing centuries ahead of the rest of the world.

4: Collaborative Workspaces

While some think of artistic geniuses working in isolation, the reality of Florence was one of multiple bottegas (workshops) where a host of talent collaborated on new ideas. Some estimate that there were around 100 of them spread around the city. Perhaps the most notable of these was that of Andrea del Verrocchio. Over the years it produced hundreds of paintings; sculptures in marble, bronze, wood and terracotta; gold-work, silverwork and ironwork; tombstones, marriage-chests, jousting-pennants, heraldic devices and suits of armour, alongside theatrical sets and costumes. It was an operation that Kenneth Clark, author of Civilisation, later dubbed ‘Verrocchio & Co’ and it was here that Leonardo da Vinci spent a decade as an apprentice. He was not only supporting Verrocchio, but also working alongside other painters such as Pietro Vanucci and Lorenzo di Credi and the sculptor Agnolo di Polo, as well as a host of other independent artists like Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Botticini, d’Antonio and Ferrucci – all of whom were associated with the workshop at one time or another. Within the bottegas cross-fertilisation and sharing of ideas was part and parcel of every day life. Five hundred years ago Renaissance Florence already had the very co-working spaces where long-term partnerships can develop that organisations in many cities are nurturing today.

5: Grand Prizes

Just as we now have X-prizes and numerous other calls to action, so did c15th Florence. Competition between the leading lights was rife and city-hosted contests were a familiar part of the innovation mix. One of the most famous was that of 1401 for the commission to design and build the ‘Gates of Paradise’ – the East Doors of the Baptistery – a competition that was partly funded by the Medici. This contest was won by Lorenzo Ghiberti and the gates are still a major tourist attraction today. Over the years there were many other open competitions, mostly organised by the guilds. For instance, another significant one was held in 1418 to design and build the dome on the Duomo di Firenze, the main church of Florence. This was won by Filippo Brunelleschi – just beating Ghiberti in what quickly became a long-term rivalry. Both as a means by which the ideas of many could be applied to a challenge and as a way of sharing projects around, open competitions became a high profile component of seeding innovation across the city.

6: Technology Development Centre

Florence may be a world-renowned city for its monuments and art museums, but it was also a centre of excellence for scientific research. As a groundbreaking piece of engineering Brunelleschi’s roof for the Duomo was considered ingenious. Seeking to emulate in brick what had only previously been achieved in concrete, not only did he create a unique combination of catenary arch with four internal stone and iron chains, but, in order to build it, he also had to invent totally new hoist-machines and cranes to lift the 4 million bricks used in its construction.

Alongside this and several other architectural developments, Florence was also a catalyst for science. Most notably Galileo and other Tuscan scientists pioneered the study of optics, ballistics, astronomy and anatomy. It was in nearby Pisa where in 1604 Galileo conducted his famous experiments with falling objects and developed the universal law of acceleration. Five years later, after his invention and use of a host of new telescopes, many of which you can find in the Galileo Museum next to the Uffizi, he published his first booklet proving the Copernican theory that the planets moved round the sun, and not the other way round. Despite substantial protest from the Church, he changed the way we think about our planet. As the so-called ‘Father of Modern Science’ Galileo attracted a host of students and other scientists, many of which also made Florence their home. In many ways, for many an aspiring scientist in the c15th and c16th it was the place to be – very much the MIT, Silicon Valley or Cambridge of the time.

7: Interdisciplinary Talent

Way before we started focusing on becoming specialists in one field or another, Florence also supported interdisciplinary flair. It was a hotbed of polymaths and cross-skill movement of talent. Leonardo da Vinci is perhaps the most famous, mixing painting, sculpture and architecture with invention, anatomy, engineering and mathematics, but he was not alone. For example Michelangelo was primarily a sculptor with little experience of painting beyond small works – and yet he was specifically chosen by the Pope to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The Pope was confident that, having shown prowess in one area, he could in another – and so it proved. In Florence, it was not only accepted by patrons that talent could be interdisciplinary and multi-skilled; they actively encouraged it.

8: Leading Universities

In terms if education, Florence has been a major centre for centuries, originally founding institutions for its own citizenry, but then attracting scholars from elsewhere, especially from Greece. The Florentine Republic established its first university, the Studium Generale, in 1321. This was recognised by Pope Clement VI in 1349 and eventually became the core of what is today the University of Florence. Leonardo studied anatomy in a, now-affiliated, teaching hospital. Galileo, another beneficiary of the Florentine education system initially went to, and later held a chair at, the nearby University of Pisa – at the time within the Florentine Republic. In addition, and under the patronage of Cosimo I de Medici, the Accademia dell’Arte del Disegno (Academy of the Arts of Drawing), which would be the forerunner of today’s Accademia di Belle Arti (Academy of Fine Arts), was founded in 1562. This was the first academy of drawing in Europe. With the later creation of a number of additional universities – many linked to different guilds – Florence became one of the leading multi-university cities in Europe and a strong magnet for students from across Italy and beyond.

9: Progressive Regulation

Often missed out of historical analysis, Florence was also progressive in regulation, both generally and also specifically to support innovation. Indeed, the Republic of Florence awarded the first Italian patent in 1421 – for a barge with hoisting gear that carried marble along the Arno River. In comparison to other city-states at the time, Florence had a more equitable legal system that enforced adherence to statute. Whereas, for example, in Venice nobles dominated the governing institutions and hence legislation, in Florence the Ordinances of Justice largely managed to keep the overbearing behaviour of nobles in check. In fact, the judicial system in Florence was separated from the political system and, notably, also manned by foreigners. That is not to say that politics did not influence regulation, but rather than institutions did not enable this influence. In Florence, more than most other states, common law was adopted and judges were given greater powers of discretion. As a consequence crimes such as theft were more likely to result in prison terms rather than corporal punishment. In running the city-state, the economically focused guilds also provided and lobbied for regulatory direction. As such, and as a centre of invention, it is little surprise therefore that Florence should have been one of the first to recognise intellectual property and provide the protection of associated income.

10: Bold Civic Leadership

Lastly, and cutting across many of the other nine elements, this city had the benefit of civic leadership that was strong, bold and determined, willing to take risks, but also well aware of what and where greatest impact could be achieved. No doubt the wealth, aspirations and vision of many of the banking families such as the Medici was pivotal in funding and positioning Florence as the cultural and scientific centre that it quickly became. However, in parallel with this, the all-important guilds were evidently highly influential in making sure that things got done. One of the unique characteristics of the guilds was that leaders rotated every few months to both ensure that momentum was maintained and to keep up the focus on economic success. Again, while other cities were run as fiefdoms by nobles and dictators, albeit some of them benevolent ones, the egalitarian balance achieved in Florence seemed to work well. Just as was highlighted in this recent post on the companies making bigger bets, the leadership of this city were driven by enabling and realising bolder innovation than their peers.

There were other features of life in Florence, as many excellent books, share. But, from an innovation perspective, these ten elements seem to be both substantial and highly relevant to those driving policy and action around creating similarly successful ecosystems today.

Innovative Florence Today

Five centuries on, we can ask what is the current state of innovation in Florence and its environ? Has the Renaissance leadership been sustained or, having endured periods of foreign rule from Austria and France, did the city lose momentum? After it later became part of the Kingdom of Italy and then its capital for a brief period in the c19th, did Florence rekindle its past leadership or has it been significantly diluted by years of gradual decline?

The answer, it seems, is that although not appearing on any of today’s varied top 10 lists of the world’s most innovative cities, innovation is in fact still having significant impact in the region and beyond. While they are fewer visible ‘rock-stars’ within Florence’s population of 380,000 than there were in the past, there is sustained activity.

Economically, Florence’s many museums and iconic architecture have made it a major tourist stop on the Grand Tour – now attracting over 16m visitors a year. Equally, with several major universities and design institutes hosting over 75,000 students including thousands more US students on over 35 study programmes, most staying for at least one semester, the city is clearly an education centre of note. In addition, there is the nearby Chianti region, an established global wine centre for over 300 years, which today is providing a good share of Italy’s $7bn annual production. In terms of other sectors where innovation is perhaps more visible, Piaggio, creator of the iconic Vespa and now Europe’s largest scooter manufacturer was founded in Florence and has its global HQ nearby. Other local and regional firms are also active in sectors such as metalwork, pharmaceuticals, glass and ceramics.

However, in many eyes, by far the most significant industry today, and one that can trace its history back to the wool merchants of the c14th, is that of fashion. Florence and its nearby Tuscan neighbours, such as Prato, is a leading centre for the industry and a recognised ‘global fashion’ capital. Amongst others, it is the home of Salvatore Ferragamo, Gucci and Roberto Cavalli. But this is just the tip the iceberg. Look deeper and beyond these flagship Florence-based brands, many of the worlds’ other major fashion houses all rely on Tuscany to design, innovate and manufacture their high-end products. As was kindly explained to me by Gabriele Goretti offer a coffee at the IED Institute, although most global brands prefer not to acknowledge it, Florence and not Paris, London or New York is where much of the design and production of the leading fashion lines takes place: indeed it is estimated that up to 80% of all the world’s luxury goods are made in Tuscany.

Being ‘Made in Italy’ carries weight. While China, Turkey and Bangladesh are global centres for fast-fashion and cheap garment production, Italy, and the Florence area in particular, is very much leading at the higher end of the market. If Milan is considered to be the ‘global stage for fashion’ then Florence and nearby centres are where many of the products that bear the names of Prada, Gucci, Burberry, Givenchy and DKNY are actually made.

In some eyes, many of the global fashion brands could even be considered to be acting as the modern Medici. They are financing and supporting a thriving, world-leading industry made up of hundreds of subcontracting SMEs, many of which that have been collaborating for centuries. Networks of both technological and artisan SMEs are leading innovation in the high-end fashion industry. They are driving technology transfer around areas such as computer-aided production, laser cutting, alongside RFID and NFC integration as well as 3D printing. In addition, via a number of joint labs with several of the leading design schools and universities, they are seeding a host of collaborations for the future.

Taking just this example we can highlights how, centuries after its acknowledged peak, Florence continues to drive progress. Although not as visible to many and probably less visionary in terms of overall civic leadership than in the c15th, through a highly interconnected and developed ecosystem, this region still has influence, global reach and even evident patronage. Within its chosen fields, it is an epicentre of collaboration and knowledge transfer across multiple skill-sets supporting many partnerships between industry and academia.

One could say that 500 years on from its alleged peak, Florence and the wider Tuscan region continues to tick many of the boxes that make it a leading innovation hub. Just as much today as in the past, it provides a valuable role model for many.

About the author

Dr. Tim Jones is a recognised expert in innovation, growth and futures. He is the author / editor of eight books and a regular speaker on innovation leadership, growth platforms and future trends. For over twenty-five years he has worked with many leading multinationals, governments and universities identifying emerging opportunities: A leader in collaborative programmes, Tim has made his name in helping organsiations to see the world through a different lens and so reveal new areas for potential growth. Tim is Programme Director of the Future Agenda – the world’s largest open foresight programme; leads the annual Innovation Leaders analysis that profiles the companies making the most of their innovation investments and is also co-founder of a global advisory network, The Growth Agenda.