martedì 18 novembre 2008

Scientific Research and Firms: a Difficult Marriage in Italy

In Italy we are discussing about innovation for decades: everyone agrees that more innovation are necessary to increase firms' competitiveness and, for this reason, sound links between scientific research and firms are necessary as well. These are good ideas "on paper" but in the real world in Italy things are going quite differently. What I have seen (and I'm currently seeing every day) in my modest personal professional experience is: financial resources under or bad used, an irrational multiplication of agencies, task forces and offices, inefficient top-down techno trasfer processes (even when presented as bottom-up processes), attempts to create "by law" some nowhere Silicon Valleys, projects mainly focused on equipment and technologies and no real effort to influence and change mentality in individuals, to nourish a diffused innovative culture and to stimulate a spirit of initiative and creativity.

It is clear enough that cooperations between scientific reasearch and firms (above all small and medium enterprises - SMEs - which usually do not have research staff devoted to innovation and research) can provide positive contributions in promoting and divulgating innovation and consequently increasing firms' competitiveness. Yet in Italy these collaborations remain a very difficult issue: instead of being inspired by a collaborative spirit, these partnerships are likely to be inspired by a sense of confrontation between "rivals" who consider the other's needs as low profile issues.

Italian firms must finally understand that it is not possible to be competitive in the global context only trying to reduce costs: they must consider innovation as a central bias to turn competitive. Nonetheless, sometimes the entrepreneur's opposition to innovation does't result only from ignorance and lazyness. Let's make some self-criticism: researchers in universities and research centres sometimes seem not capable to activate positive links with firms due to scarce disposition "to make their hands dirty" with firms or for too academic approaches. Contacts with production world pushes scientific research to the risk of eventual criticism and observations by firms' owners and this is not always accepted by scientists.

Severe changes in mentality are thus necessary; it is essential also to learn from the frequently negative and discouraging experiences made in Italy on Scientific Parks. Too many times uncontrolled and bad managed know how and information flows have characterized technological transfer in Italy: these processes have confused and discouraged the agents involved. Without a real innovative culture, our Silicon Valleys will remain only some sand castles because the agglomeration phenomena are not supported by a real innovative environment. Similarily it is important to support any increase in innovation production made in research centres and universities with parallel actions directed to make these increases productive with stable networks between research and society, identifying the real innovative needs and creating new competencies.

We don't need congresses, meetings and brochures for this purpose. A multiplication of development agencies is no use as well: innovation diffusion requires semplification in interventions and an efficient coordination among the existing bodies to indentify the more appropriate agents and those research products which better meet the firms' needs, stimulating contagion processes towards others firms, real training and extension schemes and a more transperent, efficient and effective use of public spending.

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