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The challenge for the young Italians in technological innovation

Digital format, 12/02/2021, Roundtable for Aspen University Fellows

Although Italy continues to offer proof of excellence in a broad array of fields, there is still considerable margin for growth in younger generations’ understanding and application of technological advances. The current Covid-19 pandemic and the possibility of stemming its spread with the mRNA vaccine have further underscored the need to invest in research and innovation in the interests of creating social and economic value.

An essential requirement for technological innovation’s being able to reach its potential is the kind of governance that can only come from institutions; from a system of rules, guidelines, approaches and processes capable of being applied in a cohesive and coordinated manner across the entire country. Financially speaking, research budgets need to be increased, in particular the resources earmarked for research doctorates. Another aspect, which has been the “weak link” for decades in the innovation value chain, is how to generate osmosis between universities and industry. While various Italian sectors and firms are acknowledged world leaders, businesses suffering a deficit in innovation could partner with universities to solve the problem – the widespread opinion on why technological development is a “bottom up” (demand-pull) process by which technological transfer must find a point of encounter with innovative “top down” impetus (application-pull).

In order to ensure a high level of technological innovation, young Italians must first feel they are citizens of the world. Moreover, it would be advisable not to over-specialize too early on; indeed, there needs to be a certain amount of interdisciplinary cross-fertilization and the broadest-based training possible, which the Italian educational system is eminently capable of offering.

One standout feature of the technological innovation of recent years is how fast it has been happening. The effects of history’s various industrial revolutions were revealed only incrementally over time; by contrast, society’s adaptation to today’s innovations is remarkably compressed, with something new always just around the corner. The most important technological developments are currently within the domains of biology and medicine. This year’s Nobel Prize for chemistry was awarded for the discovery of CRISPR/Cas9 in the treatment of genetic diseases. Nevertheless, if development is not accompanied by consideration of the ethical aspects of application, significant problems could arise in terms of comprehension, acceptability and competition between various areas of the world over adopting this type of innovation.

Another problem to be considered is legal in nature. There is growing asymmetry between the lengthy timeframes needed for the legislative regulation of technological applications and their speedy and unpredictable diffusion; e.g. it is possible, thanks to the techniques available today, to edit a person’s genome, yet there is no law regulating this practice. Increasingly juridical skills need to be supplemented with a deeper understanding of – and ability to anticipate – scientific and technological advances.

The new generations are going to have to have an interdisciplinary approach to interpreting and valorizing innovation. Different areas of knowledge – medicine, biology, IT, economics, philosophy and law – must be made to intersect, rejecting the preconception that the humanities and sciences are separate and mutually exclusive spheres, going back to a more expansive, interdisciplinary and encyclopedic concept of knowledge.  University degree courses and employment career paths are widening to include new opportunities that future generations are going to have to be able to respond to with commitment and enthusiasm, developing the capacity to interpret innovative technological resources to create economic and social value.