Paola Fusi interviews Flavio Deflorian
With the agreement signed on 30 September between the universities in the North East of Italy, in the presence of the minister for economic development, Carlo Calenda, the University of Trento officially became part of the Competence Center of the universities of the North East of Italy, one of the Competence Centers provided for in the National Plan for Industry 4.0, and tasked with encouraging innovation in Italy.
To discuss this we met Flavio Deflorian, Deputy Rector with a mandate to support the business sector.
Professor Deflorian, what are the Competence Centers and why is it so important for the University of Trento to be part of one?
In the Government’s wider industrial policy, known as Industry 4.0, Competence Centers (CC) have a key role in supporting innovation. They are a small number of specialized academic centers that support development and innovation in Italian businesses through specific collaboration projects. Each Competence Center will focus on a particular area of industry and be a point of reference for all Italian businesses on that topic. The areas of industry are those that characterize the new industrial revolution that experts see developing, especially thanks to the new technologies of additive manufacturing, such as 3D printers, and to the widespread use of the internet in technologies such as the IoT, the Internet of Things.
The University of Trento has for some time made supporting innovation in business one of its key activities. So it’s a topic we feel very involved in and we want to be part of what is happening. It is not only the University of Trento, but the whole Trentino region, including research, industry and politics, has always believed in this strategy, as demonstrated by the recent investment in the Mechatronics Hub in Rovereto.
What is the role of the Competence Center of the north-eastern universities in the national picture?
What the North East will offer, with the University of Padova as the head of the group, is a unique contribution to Industry 4.0, bringing together the experience and competences of all the universities in the Triveneto area. This is something special: the other Competence Centers will probably be developed by individual institutions (the 3 polytechnics, Sant’Anna in Pisa, and the Universities of Bologna and Naples). Here we are going a step further, coordinating 9 universities (in addition to Trento and Padova, there are the universities of Verona, Bolzano, Venice Ca’ Foscari, Iuav di Venezia, Udine, Trieste, and Sissa in Trieste) in a single centre. This Competence Center will offer something unique in Italy, through its quantity and quality of skills and institutions in a region with a strong industrial vocation. This aspect has been welcomed and appreciated by many, including the minister Carlo Calenda. But in addition to its method, this Competence Center will also be characterized by its content. This is something that we are still discussing.
What are the areas in which the University of Trento can best contribute to the Competence Center in the field of innovation?
The University of Trento is active in numerous areas of great interest for Industry 4.0. There are the more obvious areas such as industrial engineering in general, and information, materials and mechatronics technologies. But we can also exploit multidisciplinary skills not just in management but also sociology and law. If we add to this skills in the areas of physics and mathematics, I would say that this project is an opportunity for the whole University. Choices will certainly need to be made, along with our academic partners, to focus on some areas of excellence that complement the skills brought by others. But we have a lot of cards to play, although it is still too early to speculate on scenarios.
At what stage is the process of establishing the Competence Center of the universities of the North East?
At the moment we are waiting for the implementing decrees from the Ministry of Economic Development, expected in February, which will define the rules and the methods of operation of the Competence Center. In the meantime we are working to construct the basis of the future center, working out how to share activities and what organizational structure we should have. Along with colleagues from the other universities there is a lot of enthusiasm for this initiative, which I personally see as an extremely interesting laboratory of collaboration between universities, which could extend and also bear fruit in other contexts. In many areas we need to form a critical mass with the other universities of the North East, and so close links will be increasingly necessary to stay competitive in the globalized world of education and research. One way to do this is through Industry 4.0.
Looking at the international context, other European countries are also responding to Industry 4.0. In comparison with other countries what strengths does the Italian system have, and do you see any weaknesses?
Comparison with what is happening elsewhere in Europe is fundamental, and one of the features of the Competence Center of the North East will be the privileged viewpoint from Trento and Bolzano, from which to compare ourselves with Germany and northern Europe in general. We need to keep in mind though that the Italian context is very different, characterized more by small and medium-sized enterprises than by large industrial firms. This has often been described as a weakness, but it has proved to be, and could also be in the future, a positive element of flexibility. Certainly, small and medium-sized enterprises cannot undertake innovation on their own, and need research centers that support them in new technologies. This is the role of the Competence Centers in Italy, and even more so in the North East.