H-Farm. The school of the present builds the future

Domus meets Riccardo Donadon: not just negative disruption but great positivity, too, with new jobs, unprecedented scenarios, and huge knowledge and business opportunities.

“The world will experience major and unthinkable change over the next 10 years – not just negative disruption but great positivity, too, with new jobs, unprecedented scenarios and huge knowledge and business opportunities never seen in the past. All this is thanks to the digital age and all linked to digital developments.” All, all? “All. In the sense however that, as digital technology is enabling, this accelerated process will shift the added value elsewhere.” Someone like Riccardo Donadon might have followed a destiny dictated by geography and demographics. Born in 1967, in Treviso, middle-class and boasting a classical education at the Collegio Pio X and a few casual psychology studies in Padua, Donadon could happily and naturally have joined the family firm, as did and would do all the Triveneto locals like him, a place that, despite its lack of roads, was still Italy’s driving force. Actually, he did try working with his father for a few years but, although he loved Treviso, his mind was focused elsewhere: on America, the cinema, space and primarily that incredible thing that had just been born in 1990. “The Internet bowled me over. That’s why I accepted the Benetton proposal in 1995 to form and guide a crew that could narrate the Group’s sports story online.” This led to Mall Italy Lab, the first virtual Italian mall (successfully signed over to Infostrada and still alive and kicking).

The rest is history. In 1998, this tall, mild-mannered and stubborn young man smiled, said goodbye and along with just eight trusted friends launched E-Tree, a concept that immediately became the Italian web agency with a 26-billion-lire turnover in its third financial year, a super EBIT and 160 employees. A tasty morsel for Etnoteam which took it over, catapulting Donadon into Ca’ Tron facing the Venice lagoon to work night and day on his mature dream. “From the very first, H-Farm was a different platform, devised to create new business models but, more crucially, to accompany the digital transition and raise young people’s awareness of its potential.”

Awareness might well be the current translation of H-Farm which is structured like a Silicon Valley campus but remains a unique formula worldwide, especially after the inauguration of a new project that will host 2,000 students. “H stands for human because people are at the core of everything we do – services, relationships and interaction. Human because it is people who make the difference. The future we have dreamt of is only just beginning and we teach people to realise this and acquire the tools that will make them masters of the opportunities in this changed scenario which will not stop for Covid-19, quite the opposite.”

Donadon is convinced of this, as you realise because he lowers his voice even more. “The pandemic has busted entire sectors and brought others that seemed indestructible such as the fashion industry to their knees. However, the epidemic has offered a society like ours huge opportunities, not only in terms of clients. At last, everyone has seen the potential of digital technology and its inevitability. That is also why H-Farm has nearly always stayed open, save for the lockdown phase which was very short here. Our teachers almost always came in and taught lessons online from here. The same applies to the other two sectors of H-Farm.”

People in Italy often mention the Renaissance when speaking about successful businesspeople but the parallel hardly ever makes sense in Donadon’s case. Because, as Eugenio Garin explained clearly, creative potential was simply the other side of the 16th-century coin of entrepreneurial wisdom. “Why did we enter the school world? To offer new-generation technology, tools and content that will prepare students not for the past or the future but for the present. Because, without the present, there is nothing. An idea that doesn’t become concrete, a vision that doesn’t produce value, is not even an idea.” Donadon’s vision appears in all its force and physicality on the new campus opened on 7 September last: eight buildings that can accommodate up to 3,000 people and 2,000 resident students in Europe’s largest innovation hub, technologically avant-garde in Italy. It is also highly sustainable because 85 per cent self-sufficient thanks to PV storage and energy exchange systems.

“We decided on an international format to deliver a flexibility not guaranteed by the national system. This however did not stop us coming to agreement with a high-school pilot class that will receive our Oculus Quest virtual reality visor with which the teacher explains the solar system and the student encounters it in an immersive experience.” Not an idea but a concrete project opening the doors to the 21st century and where an iconic building was designed by 20th-century star Richard Rogers. “He asked to participate after seeing the master plan at the last Venice Biennale. What struck him the most? The space I believe which is the other great discovery after coronavirus. A space that will become an equipped park with more than 27 hectares of woodland open to the public. About 3,500 new trees and plants will be planted to restore the area’s original biodiversity. Because there is no future without the present but you can forget about the present if there is no harmony and respect.”

Born in Treviso in 1967, Riccardo Donadon is the founder of H-Farm, which today employs 600 people and since 2015 has been listed on the AIM market. From 2013 to 2018 he was a member of the advisory board for Unicredit, and since 2013 he has been on the advisory board for Università Ca’ Foscari.

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