How best to define innovation? What does it really mean and how would you define it as a concept? Better still, are innovation and technological innovation (essentially) the same thing? And finally, what is innovation? To answer the questions, tightly bound to one of today’s buzz words, we went along to via Solferino in Milan, to the office of Massimo Sideri, Chief Editor of the Corriere della Sera’s innovative core: the Corriere Innovazione. Why him? Because of the Gordian Knot that Sideri has to untie every single day: how can we talk to the general public about innovation, without slipping on that banana skin of two figures with diametrically opposed views - the progressives and the conservatives?
Sideri, let's get something straight: are innovation and technological innovation related? What’s the difference between them?
This is a misconception. In fact, it’s a misconception squared: innovation is not synonymous with technology and technology is not a synonym for computers. Innovation is inherent to the history of mankind. Fire is a technology, one that revolutionised the world perhaps even more than the internet has done. The narrative on innovation shouldn’t be pigeonholed, as if forms of technology exist in separate vacuums. And that’s especially because heading down that route is the easiest way to incite anxiety among your readers. A lack of understanding of any phenomenon creates nervousness, fear. And that goes for innovation, too. What we need to do is what Piero Angela did for science in the 70s and 80s. I’m not saying we need a strict method for teaching about innovation, but we do need to explain the advancements taking place today clearly and transparently, without hiding behind a language that’s incomprehensible to the rest of the world.
Words are your craft: could you give us a definition of innovation?
A great question, one that will go unanswered. There are so many definitions out there, but none has satisfactorily hit the nail on the head. The only approach is tautology, and by that I mean explaining what innovation is through the very concept of “innovating”. And that’s not good enough. I try to come to terms with it through Nicholas Negroponte who, at some point, said, “Innovation is something that no citizen wants from his State, no employee wants from his company and no family wants from its own children.” The meaning here is obvious: innovation means change. Mankind tends to find reassurance in the status quo. Innovation, on the other hand, has its pros and its cons. The key is to find a balance between the two extremes. And that’s why I think innovation needs to be governed.
Innovation is not synonymous with technology and technology is not a synonym for computers.
You’re job is to talk about it, rather than to govern. How do you balance these anxiety-inducing aspects with the more reassuring ones of optimism for the future?
My position is a reasonably hopeful one. I don't buy into Rousseau’s myth of the noble savage. I believe in the future for which we’re headed. In his novel the Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck tells the story of American families who flocked to the big cities in the wake of the Great Depression. There’s no question that Americans in the 60s and 70s were generally better off than they had been during the hard times in which the novel is set. But that social transformation of course brought with it the loss of old jobs and the creation of new professions. I believe those telling the stories of change need to take an educational approach, one that highlights where to go for information and how to welcome the opportunities being created, so as not to get left behind.
When it comes to innovation, which concept will be the most diehard?
Thinking that people are interested in smartphones or in technology for what they are. That’s not it. People are much more interested in the social impacts that smartphones have. No one cares how a microchip works; but as soon as you start explaining how that device can change their lives… that’s when you catch their attention. And that goes for all forms of innovation.
Which are the must-read authors for anyone that doesn’t want to miss the innovation train?
Keynes, Rousseau, Marx, Schumpeter. All the authors who knew how to read and interpret times of change. If, instead, you’re looking for someone contemporary, I’d suggest Oxford lecturer, Professor Luciano Floridi. He’s a philosopher who also runs the Digital Ethics Lab at the English University. Worth keeping an eye on.
We Italians often fail to value our own innovators to the extent that we should.
You haven’t mentioned Mark Elliot Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Bill Gates, Elon Musk… I mean, if I really have to go fishing among the big Silicon Valley names then I’d say Jeff Bezos because, after having met and interviewed him, I can say with authority that he’s an extraordinarily intelligent man. But I’m not 100% on the Amazon myth, just as I’m not 100% on any of the big Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Honestly, I’m much more interested in the scientists that are about to embark on undeniably successful entrepreneurial paths. Italian ones, with a bit of luck.
And that’s where “Eustachio syndrome” comes in - a concept to which you have devoted your book, published by Bompiani. What’s it about?
Bartolomeo Eustachi - also known as Eustachio - was an important Italian professor of anatomy at the University of Padua in the 16th century. A scientist of the highest class who, despite being the father of intricate human anatomy, would be almost entirely unheard of if it weren’t for the Eustachian tubes in our ears. The title of my book, la sindrome di Eustachio or “Eustachio syndrome”, refers to a certain deafness that Italians have for our own culture and science. Our history tells us that we are much more innovative than we give ourselves credit for. Americans, on the other hand, have exceptional abilities in self-promotion - perhaps more than they do when it comes to innovation.