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Imagining Interview 16 July Jul 2018 0830 16 July 2018

Can innovation balance the scales between risk and a collaborative system?

Technological advancement is a multifaceted matter, explains physicist Massimo Caccia. That is why it is important to compare the stakeholders and subjects involved in the main processes involved, especially now that the advance of technology is about to change lives

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Do we really not know how to innovate? Is it true that the challenge posed by new technologies fails to draw in our small and medium-sized enterprises? Has the bridge between private business and research really crumbled? We really need to bust these myths.

Massimo Caccia is a particle physicist and coordinator of large research projects. He was at CERN in Geneva for a long time, but now teaches at the University of Insubria and is among the most active scientists in studying the impact new technologies have on daily life and social policy. For around 20 years, Massimo Caccia has worked to promote research results in collaboration with industry.” Simply put, his line of work is innovation: the risks involved and the opportunities it affords.

Technological advancement is a multifaceted matter. That is why it is important to compare the stakeholders and subjects involved in the main processes involved,

Massimo Caccia, physicist and lecturer at University of Insubria

Risks. Why are the processes of technological advancement so risky? Because it can be true that, “researchers and companies don't communicate with each other,” due either to a stubborn way of thinking or to falling victim to stereotypes. If we look at the innovation index, it seems our country is still far behind in that respect and therefore also in terms of advancement. “Right now new challenges are opening up and, soon, they will change the very fabric of our society, economy and perhaps even our relationships. From artificial intelligence to deep learning the problem is always this: how can we encourage collaborative research?” How can we share our philosophies and values? And, as such, how can we create common operational strategies?

Next to risk is opportunity. This is precisely where the opportunity lies, in forcing the stakeholders in the process to communicate so that technology can innovate in a way that benefits society. Even when there is diversity and, at times, diverse opinions. “If we look at the active forces driving production processes, we see there’s a great opportunity for change,” Caccia explains. “Especially when we look at the technologies that will change our daily lives in the years to come.”

The real driving force behind innovation is the challenge of bridging a gap between opposing sides.

Massimo Caccia, physicist and lecturer at University of Insubria

“Technological advancement is a multifaceted matter. That’s why it’s important to put the opposing parties involved in the key processes in a room together.” Professor Caccia notes that we need to progress one step at a time and begin with the big strategies. “The first point of opposition/comparison is the belief that the State is an innovator versus the belief that the State has no role whatsoever in the process of innovation.” But even here, things are changing.

The second point is promote research results: how can they be brought into the circle of innovation? Here, “the opposition/comparison is between the new driven approach - where money drives innovation - and those that believe in the importance of contacts and the transfer of skills and competencies”. The former is the chosen path of English-speakers, the latter of the École polytechnique fédérale in Lausanne and the Instituto Pedro Nunes in Coimbra.

The third point regards intellectual property. “Here there’s a gap - that we need to bridge - between two totally complementary positions: on the one hand there are those who don’t see the value in protecting intellectual property with patents and, in a certain sense, sanctify the right to property and the right to joint patent ownership; on the other are those who believe the most important factor for sharing information is open innovation, giving anyone a right to it even where no one owns it.”

The fourth point is understanding how the large and medium-sized companies will pursue innovation within their own strategies. For example, there are “large enterprises that have adopted open innovation processes to huge gain,” and medium-sized companies that entertain more exclusive relationships with single, university research bodies and innovate with startups.

“Rewinding the tape and trying to formulate a response,” says professor Caccia, “we can say that everyone - even the biggest sceptics - is already convinced that the big investor who turns up with risk capital and can absorb the huge failures and successes that accompany innovation is the State. Having society’s all-round welfare as a priority means the State can afford to take a series of actions that no venture capitalist can. The problem is preventing a situation in which the risks are nationalised and the returns privatised. The challenge here is adopting a model based more on a shared philosophy than on rules.

It’s a long road and one that needs to be built carefully, “in the large universities as well as in small research groups, in a way that means they build partnerships with businesses.” There needs to be a change in mentality within companies: too many companies feel they almost have a right to access know how and make use of certain skills, simply because some of the research is publicly funded”.

On this point, Caccia concludes, We need to look to the models in the English speaking world, where the public-private relationship is based on advanced frameworks. Innovation is - above all - linked to the concept of collaborative research, in which a system of royalties allows companies to reduce the financial cost of research. In this model, however, companies share rights over the outcome of research, usually performed within a university setting. On the other hand, if those companies want full property rights, they have to commit to paying market prices for them.

Within such a framework, “which is, first and foremost, a cultural one before it is a legal one, there is a forward motion that, luckily, is beginning to take hold here in Italy.” Our economic fabric of small- to medium-sized enterprises may not an insignificant obstacle, but every obstacle is a challenge. The real driving force behind innovation is the challenge of bridging a gap between opposing sides.”

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