He is Adjunct Professor of Knowledge Economics, Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Faculty of Entrepreneurship, University of Tehran (Iran), and a Guest Professor at the University of Tartu (Estonia).
Tiziana Casapietra: I was intrigued by a recent article in “Il Sole 24 Ore” about your book “Entrepreneurial Renaissance”, currently available in English (Springer). The Italian title could be Rinascimento 2.0 (Renaissance 2.0). Could you tell us about the main concept of the book, based on the idea of a new Renaissance, a contemporary Renaissance, which, however, still looks to the Florence of the Medicis?
Piero Formica: The book was inspired by something that happened to me fairly recently. I had gone to a small Tuscan town to see a particular work of art from the Renaissance. I’ve noticed that usually when you go into a museum you come across a young man or woman, usually with a degree from DAMS or in Cultural Heritage, who issues your ticket and there might be a guide or you are offered an audio guide. On that day I thought that had these people had been educated in the style of a renaissance apprentice, just as would have happened in the workshops of Verrocchio, not to create sculptures or paintings as they did then, but to create physical and virtual contemporary realities, then these people might have become renaissance entrepreneurs of art instead of ticket checkers. I imagined young men and women with degrees which covered the humanities as well as technology, working together to give rise to all sorts of innovative ideas and situations. This is the idea behind the book. The second aspect which I would like to emphasise, still based on the same fundamental concept, is that these young people fulfil that role because they have been educated to become employees. They responded to a job offer, which could have come from the public or the private sector, which required those particular services. I think, however, that there are many artistic and cultural renaissance resources in Italy which could be harnessed by entrepreneurs. But how do we go about this? The crucial point here is that we must redefine the notion of what a school is. In this country, and in Europe, we use the term reform. To reform means to give a new form to something that already exists. All reform starts from the principle that we must improve on something we already know how to do. School is a top down system based on teaching: there is a teacher, there are text books; you have to more or less regurgitate what the teacher tells you or what the exam boards want, and then you are classified as competent and expert in a particular field. In the current best case scenario, these experts descend into their well of knowledge and, as they bathe in the well, they gradually start to lose their capacity to see because their well is always dark inside. In the end, while they do become more and more knowledgeable, they also come to know less and less, and once they reach the bottom of their well, they know nothing at all. This is the stage of what we call a super-specialism. When a phenomenon occurs like the current converging of the sciences – this is not the first time in human history – in which physics and philosophy embrace each other, diving into the well and staying there becomes damaging to one’s personal, social and economic health. Our country suffers a lot because it is based on a structure of these wells which call themselves professions. These professions are sustained by the law and are endorsed by representatives of the very same professions in parliament. The professional order relies on creating a system which a potential client cannot access and must not understand. The professional order therefore becomes an essential intermediary to interpret the law on behalf of those who uphold the law. This is the structure that produces the figure of the lawyer, the notary and the accountant, for example. This is the reason we have an enormous number of students in our Faculties of Law – this is a country of lawyers – in contrast to the small number studying physics or chemistry. The first step in redefining the notion of school is to switch from teaching to learning. This is not a new idea. Giovanni Papini, a great Italian intellectual who has been largely forgotten about, wrote a book on redefining school in 1914. According to him, a school should be a collection of learning laboratories where students chat amongst themselves, exchange ideas, come up with new ones, and teachers are more like coaches or mentors, who listen and give direction and guidance when needed. It is an arrangement that works from the bottom up, a system where one’s idea becomes confused, it con-fuses with another’s idea and creates a third and so on. Naturally you could object that you need a lexicon to be able to chat to each other. Lexicons can easily be transmitted through teaching, as well as through technological and digital means, but this is not the point. The point is to overturn our current practice. This should become our practice, but in order for it to become common practice, we must remove the teachers’ outdated garb and give them new clothes and this, of course, takes time and effort. Who is already doing this in other countries? Enlightened entrepreneurs. Elon Musk did not like the elementary school his children went to in Los Angeles and used his own money to create “Ad Astra”, a school with a Latin name. It is very expensive to attend “Ad Astra”, but Elon Musk funds those who cannot afford it, as long as they show talent and motivation. This system of patronage is similar to that of the Renaissance. Our social model, our life style, is not going in this direction unfortunately, because when we make money we invest it in buildings. When I studied at Cambridge, in England, it consisted of colleges and potato fields. Once students had become successful entrepreneurs they became Business Angels. Business Angels are people who invest some of their money in other people’s ideas, generally those somewhat younger. Currently one of my colleagues who was a high level manager in several companies, has invested his money in young Chinese talent instead of buying houses, a yacht and an SUV and, at 76 years old, divides his time between Cambridge and China. Cambridge nominated him professor in residence which is most interesting. The university involves these entrepreneurs because it thinks that they can provide information, suggestions and the stimulus to help students create businesses. In addition, as knowledge nomads, they can build bridges between Cambridge and the rest of the world. These are some examples of situations and people which I call renaissance. And this happened during the first Renaissance too, the one that spread from Florence to Bruges in Northern Europe, and then on to the rest of the world. Another interesting element is the link between so-called dead languages and living ones, especially between Latin and English. We believe that Latin is a dead language; however it is a language that is very much alive, although unfortunately not in Italy. A famous high school founded over a century ago in Tampere, a city north of Helsinki, has had a Latin radio programme for years. Radio Bremen also broadcasts in Latin, and of course Radio Vatican makes some programmes in Latin. But here at home, we are missing out on this opportunity. Latin is a living language because its culture is alive. If its culture were dead, Latin would be dead too. We also have to understand that by losing our linguistic ability, we are no longer able to comprehend the meaning of words. How many people know what the Italian word semaforo (traffic light) means? The French have resolved the issue by saying Feu Rouge, (Red Fire), and the English use the word light. But in Italian, the word semaforo has its own specific meaning that those who have never studied Greek, for example, do not understand. And then there is English, the established language of today, as modern Italian was during the Renaissance. English is the language that conveys today’s art, technology. Techne in Greek also means art. Therefore putting the culture of today side by side with the culture of yesterday helps build these bridges. John Keynes said that the history of opinions is important to understanding the future. Not to predict it, but to understand it. And Mark Twain said: history doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes. These are several of the ideas in the book that cross continents. It doesn’t just discuss the Italian Renaissance: it is divided into various chapters dedicated to a selection of cities. There is a chapter on Sydney, a modern city in the Pacific, which was and continues to be an area of great development; I look at Bangalore in India, which has been a world centre for digital technology for a while now; then there is Tel Aviv, one of the most extraordinary cradles for innovative business. I also wanted an Italian working at an international level to write about Milan as a potential protagonist; and then there is Stockholm.
TC: Who is writing from Milan?
PF: The journalist Francesco Guerrini. I didn’t only involve academics, I have brought in writers with a variety of backgrounds. Leif Advinnson, awarded the Brain of the Year prize in 1998, has written about Stockholm as one of the major cities of innovation in Europe and the world. I have also commissioned writing on Dublin in Ireland. Dublin is another great cradle for innovative start-ups. 20,000 young Italians live in Dublin. Clearly we couldn’t leave out San Francisco. For this book, I have involved and put my faith in people I have known for many years and whom I know have excellent knowledge of their cities. In the book we also talk about a tourist destination called Barmouth in Britain. I wanted to include a city that has built its renaissance on tourism. The book navigates between these things: technology, innovative start-ups, international cultural nomadism, building bridges between what has been and what is happening today or what might happen tomorrow.
TC: I would like to understand why, in a global world, we cannot get new modalities to take root. How come there is still this wide gap between Italy and the rest of the world, between Italy and the rest of Europe, how come we can’t create a Silicon Valley in Italy?
PF: Some leaders and politicians would respond by saying that you cannot copy what others have done, and I would say that this does make some sense. We cannot copy these things because the catalysts, those who have been a part of these realities, are singular and cannot be copied. San Francisco is the birthplace of Singularity University, a place for singular and individual ideas which cannot be copied. We need to generate new ideas, which bring new things, which are different from the past. Currently we live within several paradoxes; one of them is that of success. There are areas of Italy which are hugely successful. I refer to the mechanical engineering and automation being developed in Bologna, Padua and spreading north to reach Stuttgart and Munich. This is most important. The paradox is that these realities are shut up in their own success. They do innovate but it is incremental innovation. There is the Internet of things: we put devices in cars, any maintenance can be done from home, we no longer have to go to China for repairs. And then you have a digital device which tells us when the fridge is empty. All this is certainly very significant, but, while on the one hand it brings improvements, on the other it doesn’t help us open new doors. The start-ups that grow under the shadow of this reality are linked to the train of the locomotive that has already had its success. So this part of the country manages to do quite well like this. I always say it is like having a successful team in League 2 which aspires to the Premier League but will never win the Italian championships, never mind the Champions League. To be successful we need to leave the fields that have already been sown, and to leave these fields we need people, not institutions, who, having had good fortune in their life, would like to give something back to society. What you call the “Italian Silicon Valley” could grow if we had all the other factors present and used altruism to help it push off. Do you know what these entrepreneurs said to me many years ago, these entrepreneurs who invest in start-ups, in youth, in the ideas of young men and women? They explained that they do it for three reasons. The first is that since they had a lot of good fortune at Cambridge, they feel obliged to give something back to the city; the second reason is, by investing in different activities, the area becomes enriched and they also gain from this. The final reason is that by investing, they might also get a return in terms of profit. So we need to bring altruism into play. A few months ago I started new research into “Open Innovation”, a technical term but one quite easy to understand. I open my window at home, I let my ideas out and I let others’ ideas in. You create a circuit of air. I don’t keep everything shut inside my house: I open up to the outside world and the outside world opens up to me, this is “Open Innovation”. I wanted to concentrate my research on the culture of open innovation and on management techniques in business which allow the circulation of ideas. In addition, I believe in the art of conversation. This is another very important element in my reasoning. The art of conversation was nurtured during the Renaissance and had its moment of glory in the salons of Madame de Rambouillet. In those salons there were, amongst others, the Abbot Galiani, a Neapolitan economist who said that markets were conversations, so much so that we talk about the market place as a place in which transactions and conversations take place. While we build buildings, incubators, techno cities, science parks, spending a huge amount of money on concrete, bricks, engineers, surveyors, architects, lawyers, there are crucial activities which cost nothing, but require the great expense of a cultural leap. I refer to all the soft, light activities. Clearly I am not against new physical laboratories, made of reinforced concrete, which are beautiful to the eye and contain all the most futuristic technology. But the gap is enormous between the 50 million that Bologna sets aside for the physical construction of its techno city, and the amount of money and energy destined to back start-ups, which is almost nothing. Italy invests less that 3 Euro per capita on innovative ideas, whereas in Israel they spend 760 per capita, 180 in Sweden, 44 in France and 24 in Germany. If you only have successful businesses at the top of the chain, they tend to shut themselves inside their towers and continue to improve on what they already know; but this provincial system will never win the European championship, not even the national one. This is my answer to your question. We must insist on intangible values, soft ones, which, however, have a different cost, because they call into question the status quo ad what we already know how to do.
TC: But perhaps it also the fear of what we cannot forecast?
PF: Forecast is a very interesting term. John Keynes is the great theoretician of uncertainty. The future is uncertain, the future cannot be forecast, but it can be deliberately constructed. Forecasts are a guide for a politics of economics. I began my career as an economist at the OECD making economic forecasts about the GDP, so I really do understand the meaning of the term forecast. The future is above all a desire to build, to dream, to sculpt one’s own future and therefore it is an uncertain world. We have to travel with the suitcase of uncertainty. This is where I got the expression “Creative Ignorance” from. I wrote a book about this which came out in the United States. It is about plunging into the ocean of ignorance: after knowledge comes ignorance, not before. Ignorance follows knowledge, it does not precede it. We must climb out of our own wells and talk to a variety of people. The extraordinary thing about the French salon is that Madame du Châtelet was a great mathematician, physicist, had a wide knowledge of literature, translated from Greek and Latin, all at the same time, and I have only given you one example among many. Those salons gathered scientists, writers, poets … This context nurtured the great art of conversation, one of the fires which fed what was subsequently called the Enlightenment. And today we do not do this. The RAI is called a public service. This makes me laugh because I cannot understand how the public benefit from the RAI. The RAI, instead of transmitting those obscene political scenarios, stuffed with mutual insults, should open full blown salons of conversation.
TC: I agree with you. But it might be dangerous for a State, risky, to invest without a forecast. How can the State invest in new ideas, centrally and locally, if there is no forecast or at least some certainty that this investment will benefit the country’s development? I believe this is why we are stuck in the status quo.
PF: I would say that our individual culture needs to be tackled before that of the state. It might occur naturally to a sixty or seventy year old Irishman to donate to an altruistic cause. So the construction of our future starts with individuals and not the state. Would the state have invested in Jeff Bezos or in Brin and Page from Google? The state would not have invested, but it could definitely give people a tax break which would enable them to invest in altruistic causes. This is what the state must do. This also involves pruning a large amount of dead wood from our public expenditure, cutting taxes, and putting in place a fiscal system to enable people and families to have some wiggle room and therefore also to invest in altruistic causes. This is what the state must do. In addition, it is not sufficient to count the ratio of public employees to inhabitants; we must also know what they do. 50% of Italians, statistics taken from “Il Sole 24 ore“, do not feel at home with information communication technology. The state must put measures in place to improve this. And I can see other measures that are needed, at least two of which are crucial. One is to redefine and not reform primary school; the other is to promote a mentality of “It’s never too late”, as was the case in the 50s, because such a large chunk of the population is digitally illiterate. Politics of industry can then be an accompaniment: they don’t forecast, they follow. No one, I repeat, neither the state nor others, would invest in things that appear, at first glance, totally abstruse. Individuals can, whether they are few or many, what matters is that they have passion for building the future. The state creates the context. There are many things that we could do inexpensively, but they must be actions that clash with the established power structures. And when the public structures dedicated to innovation live in a mono-oligopolistic world, trapped between trades unions and political parties, we cannot do any of this because we have to break through the solid walls of the status quo.