The Viganella Effect: what the light-bringers of Italy teach us about technology

I gained a new respect for the Finns after I spent a week north of the Arctic circle one December. Believe me, -45 is no joke and hard for those who have not experienced it to comprehend.

But it wasn’t actually the cold that bothered me so much as the dark. For a week I saw no sunlight. At midday there was a thin red line on the horizon which was so weak it couldn’t even banish the shadows, and then it was pitch black again. Even in as little as a week this experience had a profound effect upon me. I suddenly understood why my Finnish friends got a little giddy in the pale winter sunlight of Barcelona in February when they attended Mobile World Congress. While the African delegates shivered, those from the far north became uncharacteristically talkative. There were smiles. No, not just smiles – grins. And not just because of the Fazer Blue.

My trip far north of the Arctic circle left a lasting legacy. Whenever it’s cold, dark and wet in the UK, I regale my children with tales of how the Finns have it so much worse. “Minus 7!” I scoff. “That’s cardigan weather in Finland”.

But people don’t have to live so extremely north to suffer from lack of light in winter. Those that live in deep valleys, suffer because of the effects of geometry.

After his town had weathered around 800 dark seasons – that lasted from 11 November until 2 February each year – Franco Midali, mayor of the little Italian town of Viganella, wondered if it had to be this way. He had an idea that if the town could build a mirror high on the mountainside, they could bring the sunlight down into the valley floor.

It look seven years for local architect Giacomo Bonzani and engineer Gianni Ferrari to complete the mayor’s vision – largely because the regional government wouldn’t fund what they regarded as a crazy idea. But on 17 December 2006, on what came to be known as the “day of the light”, an 8×5 metre mirror, with software to track the sun’s path, was unveiled high above the town. For a little over EUR100,000, three “dreamers” had brought mid-winter light to the town’s 200 inhabitants.

The idea was so intriguing that other towns with the same problem were keen to learn and adapt the idea. By 2013, Rjukan in Norway had erected three giant mirrors on its own mountainside and brought sunlight to a town that had previously lived in darkness for five months of the year.

Midali pointed out that the idea had “a human basis” – a desire to let people socialise in the winter. It was as simple as that.

What the light-bringers of Italy can teach us all is that there was no technical reason not to fix this problem sooner – the technology had existed for decades – and the problem wasn’t money either (when spread over a generation the cost is about 25 cents a day per inhabitant to bring light to the dark season). Rather, the main barriers were a disbelief that the problem could be solved, and a lack of understanding about its impact on the people of the town. This points to two extremely important issues: the need for co-creation and the democratisation of innovation.

People are innovative by nature and innovation does not belong to some technical elite. Ordinary people are the experts on the problems they face in their own lives, and given the right tools are more than willing to solve these problems. Democratising innovation opens up the funnel of creativity that has been narrowed by access to technology and finance. If we succeed in doing that, innovation will accelerate, revolutionising people’s lives and propelling us forward. My personal hope for the digital world is that it will unleash a tidal wave of innovation, because we’re no longer having to reject so many good ideas due to limited innovation capacity, and we are able to give more people the tools to realise innovation.

Counter to this vision is the hard reality of human nature. For much of our history, people have retained power by restricting access to knowledge and technology. This created technical have’s and have not’s. It led to inequality and exploitation of workers. But as bad as that was, what’s worse is irrelevance and obsolescence. As technologies such as AI automate functions previously performed by humans, we risk some humans becoming obsolete and irrelevant. If we take this approach then over time a greater proportion of humans will find themselves in this category as more functions are performed by machines – including thinking functions.

One of the great criticisms of the Industrial Revolution was that over-specialisation and over-concentration of labour meant that workers stopped problem solving, stopped thinking and stopped learning how to problem solve. They became human robots rather than the autonomous workers they had been prior to mechanisation. That was a tragedy. I do not view technology itself is ‘evil’, but the way in which it is applied can have ‘evil’ effects on some people’s lives. One of these could be the disengagement and obsolescence of humans. It would be a terrible tragedy if we end up creating technical alienation – which you can already see the early seeds of – rather than engaging more people in co-creation and innovation.

Closing the digital divide is not about creating more consumers. Inclusivity is more than a hashtag. In order to close the divide and democratise technology we need to open up access to creation and by so doing create more creators. We also need to share the benefits of digitalisation more widely. If we fail in this task, then the digital world will become a tyranny rather than an enabler, and humanity will be the poorer for it.

Postscript: on a direct level, there is a huge opportunity for large technology companies to help communities like Viganella realise their dreams. When you consider how much money is spent on advertisement, PR and promotion in our industry, a modest EUR100,000 donation could transform an entire community’s life and provide hugely positive PR in the process. Donating technical know-how as part of the charitable work companies do, could also be directed at this type of life-affirming project. While crowd-sourcing innovation means that the Viganella solution could be improved, creating ideas that can be applied in more locations and maybe combining it with other technologies – such as solar power – to light up the dark corners of the world and make them more bearable for inhabitants.