The digital transformation is revolutionizing the business world. Quick and unpredictable changes modify in an ever increasing way the backdrops against which companies and institutions operate, putting their leaders in front of controversial topics and problems that are hard to solve. Among them is Claudio Dascalzi, CEO of Eni , who looks to new technologies, and in particular to artificial intelligence, with an alternative perspective. “AI runs the risk of becoming a trend and being part of a certain ideology that is dominating the innovation conversation, unfortunately.” An interview
So in terms of innovation and artificial intelligence, you have an alternative position...
Mostly, I try to be objective. We spend our lives creating our comfort zone. Mankind needs security. It’s clear that when you’re not able to do this, you follow stereotypes and trends. Artificial Intelligence runs the risk of becoming one of those trends that discounts a certain ideology which, unfortunately, is dominating these debates. The comfort zone, as I was saying, is a necessity. But it leads us to chasing things rather than anticipating them. This is the biggest issue of the public debate on innovation.
At Eni, did you not chase innovation?
No, at Eni we decided to anticipate them. To go in a different direction compared to everyone else. If we had done what other competitor companies did we would have been at the bottom of the game. Of course it would have been easier for my actions to be approved by the board but today the company would be done.
Could you give us some examples of anticipating innovation?
I can make a few examples. It’s been six terrible years for oil and integrated gas. Some things have saved us. Although Eni is smaller than other competitors, we made different decisions. Some related to competencies, research and exploration. This allowed us to reduce our cost because we no longer have to buy our resources. Exploration is today a competitive advantage of ours. It was a risky choice that went against the tide. Our idea was to explore, to find assets and then sell a part of them. The innovation is in the idea. Imagine something you can’t see, thinking of something you don’t have. And this is what innovation is: an act of faith that becomes an act of love. When you have an idea, it’s rarely bottom up. They are always top down. The conception happens when the idea is presented and included in the organism of society. It means foreseeing risks, working more, and developing specific technologies. The effort is all in minimizing uncertainty. To do so you need to maximize competencies. Only after can the productive and commercial activities happen.
What does this mean in terms of numbers?
It means that in the worst period for the industrial sector in 4 years and a half, we invested 1 billion in research, 4 billion in 4 years and we have increased the number of our researchers by 30%. We started scientific research in 2014 and implemented it, and in three years they have become concrete industrial events. We have revolutionized but we still need to invest a great deal. We have contacts with 70 universities and research centers, which have seen a four-fold increase. The crisis is not over, if you look at the price fluctuations and the demand that is impacted by tariffs and geopolitics. This means we must continue on this path. In 2010 we started to give African gas to local communities in countries who had it. This is risky. I was lucky in that all of the boards I worked with did their research, carried out their investigations and support me. Today we have a time to market that is the fastest in the industrial sector. The sector’s average is six, seven years, we are sitting at two and a half, three. An ability that has allowed us to reduce our debt by 45% while for others it was increasing by 30%.
So innovation of ideas and of people. And what about technology?
Technology follows. Everything we have done in terms of circular economy, the ability to take urban organic waste and turn it into energy, we couldn’t have done it without advanced chemical and physical competencies . It’s only when you reach this that technology enters the picture, and through ideas and visions it deploys tools to reach the objectives. Technology is always just a tool. There is no AI product that can imagine or invent a road that does not exist. People write new melodies when they know the notes and musical theory. Technology cannot do this. The true challenge is not artificial intelligence.
What is it, then?
For a large company the challenge is to bring change to all 35 thousand employees. We have met with all of them to tell them what we are doing. It’s social action inside, not outside. We are working within more than without. This is because we need to get the whole company out of its comfort zone. Having a vision that is not shared with others is meaningless. Also because implementation depends on them.