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portrait of Pier Luigi Sacco

Pier Luigi Sacco

Professor , IULM University

portrait of Emily D’Alterio

Emily D’Alterio

Editorial & PR Officer , Europeana Foundation

Culture, impact and artistic expression in the digital transformation of society: Lessons from Professor Pier Luigi Sacco

We discuss cultural heritage and impact with acclaimed professor of Cultural Economics and Deputy Rector for International Relations at IULM University, Milan, Pier Luigi Sacco - a self-proclaimed optimist who vividly illustrates the potential of free expression and unbridled content creation in the digital transformation of society.

Pier Luigi Sacco at A Vision for European Cultural Heritage 2025, May 2018, Varna, Bulgaria

Measuring the surprising consequences of culture

Although Professor Pier Luigi Sacco initially studied economics, when it comes to measuring the impact of culture, he states that the current state of evaluating the economic impact is ‘really just a scratch on the surface’.

Professor Sacco was invited to the Europeana Foundation offices to help progress our work on the development of a methodology for measuring the impact of cultural heritage activities. During his time, he discussed the importance of measuring the different types of impact that occur as a consequence of interacting with cultural heritage.

Professor Sacco says, ‘The most relevant impact that I can think of is in behavioural change. The fact that people, when they get in contact with culture, have a powerful cognitive and emotional response that affects their behaviour. This is a relevant consequence for things like environmental sustainability, social cohesion, innovation, or health.’

Professor Sacco’s own research shows the surprising societal consequences of connecting with culture. He explained that during his research project Recycling Waste: Does Culture Matter? he was able to show that when people engaged in a higher level of cultural participation, they were more likely to recycle, irrespective of education or income.

Professor Sacco says, ‘I think this opens up a completely new kind of game, where culture can find a new citizenship in the policy arena, where it plays a fundamental, rather than an accessory, role. Rewiring the notion of impact connected to the most established policy agenda rather than trying for cultural policy in itself, conceived in its own way.’

In this way, we can see that interaction with cultural heritage is more complicated than a traditional consumer cycle of production and consumption. Through an evaluation of the impact of cultural heritage, it is possible to determine surprising social consequences that connect to European values and impact on matters important to society and policymakers alike.

‘The interesting thing about the digital is that it's not simply a way to dematerialise our expression, but also an incredible way to enhance our capacity to generate content.’

However, if our behaviour is affected by our interaction with cultural heritage, how is this then impacted when we interact with digital culture? According to Professor Sacco, while he doesn’t deny the dystopian risk factors associated with the ‘wild-west’ digital space, the self-proclaimed optimist illustrates the beauty of digital transformation in its ability to democratise, and even at times homogenise, artistic expression.

‘The interesting thing about the digital is that it's not simply a way to dematerialise our expression, but also an incredible way to enhance our capacity to generate content,’ says Professor Sacco, ‘You can compress in the space of a laptop what previously was a recording studio. The consequence is that the production of content has become so easy and so affordable, that basically everybody does it, the sharp separation between authorship and audience is blurred.’

So how then does the Mona Lisa compare to an image taken on a camera phone? How does Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata compare to a piece built on Garageband? At Europeana, we pride ourselves on democratising culture and placing one’s personal legacy item next to acclaimed cultural heritage objects - but does this somehow diminish the value of the latter - or both?

While Professor Sacco admits that the evaluation is often that these modern expressions cannot stand up to the comparison, the tools in which we measure the items do not equate either - essentially, the rules are different. He states that the Mona Lisa was produced under completely different circumstances to that of an iPhone image and the tools and processes we use to measure the impact of these need to also change.

The way that society responds to culture is ever-changing. Unlike the Romantic artist, whose individualism creates the meaning in itself, the meaning in a digital space comes from the shared experience of many people using digital tools to create content at the same time.

Professor Sacco says, ‘This is interesting from the cultural point of view because it's still the production of meaning, but it’s now less individualised and more collective. So we are entering a new phase, in which we have to rethink most of the categories through which we have evaluated the meaning and the importance of content creation.’

It is clear that the digital has created new opportunities for collective expressionism. However, these new processes of content and cultural creation as necessitated by the digital require a new set of tools for measurement.

Removing abstract concepts and measuring culture’s true value

Measuring the impact of culture has always been a difficult task. As Professor Sacco says, ‘There are no other human activities which are solely purposed to generate meaning. This is one of the reasons why we think of the appreciation for culture as something that does not need any further justification.’

‘Rather than just developing abstract arguments about how important culture is, I want to show you that culture plays a much bigger role in what you already deem important than you could think of,’ says Professor Sacco. ‘If we start thinking that culture is really powerfully influencing our way to adapt to societal challenges, to all kinds of circumstances, then we need to develop compelling methods for measuring this.’

Interaction with culture has extensive, and incredibly important, consequences. The ability to interact with digital culture and repurpose it in areas of content creation has social effects we are only just beginning to comprehend. With the further development of measurement tools and further research, it is easy to see why Professor Sacco is optimistic.

He concludes, ‘Unleashing personal interest in creating content doesn't necessarily make humankind better, but certainly makes us more aware of the potential, and this is something that I like.’

Do you want to measure how culture transforms the world? Download the Impact Playbook today. Part II of the Impact Playbook will be available at the end of December. Sign up for the Impact newsletter for more details.  

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