It seems that across Western Europe communities and municipalities are reassessing what it means to have a good life. This week I was invited to Piedmont in Italy to speak at BESAlessandria to talk about the Museum of East Anglian Life and the Happy Museum. Mine was one of a series of talks held throughout May which covered topics such as culture, health, and innovation. This was all in the context of BES benessere, equo, sostenibile or equal and sustainable well-being.

BES is a programme run by The Italian Institute for National Statistics (Istat), the equivalent to the UK Office of National Statistics (ONS). Earlier this year Istat published BES, a study of sustainable well-being focussing on the following themes:

• Health

• Education and Skills

• Work and leisure time

• Social relationships

• Politics and Institutions

• Security

• Subjective Well-Being

• Landscape and cultural heritage

• The Environment

• Research and Innovation

• Quality of Services

The inclusion of cultural heritage is clearly of importance to Italians and is in contrast to the UK well-being indicators established last year which omitted culture as a principal subject domain.

The event in Alessandria was organised by the Cultur Svilluppo (Culture and Development Alessandria), an agency supported by the philanthropic Guala family. Writer Guilio Massorbrio, one of the organisers, told me that the best response to the economic crisis would be to re-imagine a future based on equality and well-being.

Alessandia is a town of about 90,000 people, midway between Turin, Milan and Genoa. Last year the municipality was declared bankrupt. Many public services were dramatically pared back. Museums reduced their opening hours, the number of exhibitions and other public activities.

I spoke about the community based approach at the Museum of East Anglian Life and how the Happy Museum project was encouraging other UK museums to re-imagine their purpose, encompassing the values of Benessere, Equo e Sostibile.

The people I spoke to in Alessandria talked of a crisis not just of economics but of morality and trust in institutions and politics. There seemed a desire to wrestle power equally from the state and private sector, so that citizens were more active in running their services. While this (on the surface), might mirror the ideas of the Big Society in the UK, there are differences. In the UK the premise of the Big Society was to spin-out public services to mutuals, social enterprises and community groups. However many services have been assumed by private contractors or have been reduced and stayed within the control of local government. In reality the local state doesn’t trust the community to run services and ‘new modes of delivery’ are less about democratising services and more about saving money. In places like Alessandria where only the very essential services are maintained there is a vacuum which could be filled by community activists.

What is encouraging about the Italian experience is a clear commitment to valuing the environment and culture alongside economy, social relationships and health. All are viewed as essential to individual well-being. As Guilio Massobrio told me “La Dolce Vita may have been a myth, but we can to imagine a new future where we all use culture to contribute to Well-being, Equality and Sustainability.”

Tony Butler, Director of the Museum of East Anglian Life and the Happy Museum Project