Should we wait or take action and fashion a different productive and resilient future? Food for thought from some special observers
The Department of Economics of the University of Messina organised a webinar titled “Should we wait or take action and fashion a different productive and resilient future?”, which was held on Thursday, 29 October. Extremely interesting and stimulating contributions came from the numerous distinguished speakers with key roles at universities or in industries. They exchanged ideas about policies and opportunities for the future of production, which should be different and resilient in the post-pandemic times. The digital event was one of the activities of the cross-border project between Italy and Malta called IKNOW Interregional Key Networking for Open innovation empoWerment funded by the ERDF and organised in cooperation with the project partners, the Scientific and Technology Park of Sicily (PSTS), lead partner, Kore University of Enna, University of Messina, the company Arkimede, and with the support of the Consorzio Med Europe Export, Confederation of Artisans and of SMEs (CNA Sicilia).
“This event is expected to help build a network of actors which can contribute to strengthening the economic and social fabric at a local level,” said Andrea Cirà, Professor of Applied Economics at the University of Messina and organizer of the meeting, in his opening remarks. “It is central that industry stakeholders talk about resiliency, that is how to make the current change fruitful by working to reorganize economic activities and start again being different but stronger than before, especially in Sicily”.
“Universities and businesses are different worlds using different languages and having different goals, timetables and challenges, although all these elements merge at a given point,” commented Michele Limosani, the Director of the Economics Department of the University of Messina. “This is because businesses employ human capital coming from universities, so human resources and research are two points of contact between the two. Academia is not a vocational training institution, it does not train experts. Our goal is to provide students with general and not specialised knowledge, we need to shape critical minds in relation to the economic system to be ready to enter the job market. The connection between academia and the productive system in northern Italy is totally different than in Sicily”, he added. “Many of our students decide to leave our land not because our educational system is not decent but because the Sicilian productive system is more fragile and is based on casual, not structured relationships. So, this needs to be our aim: building shared goals between the world of businesses and university, and stable relationships.”
“To act or wait? It is a rhetorical question,” said Guido Signorino, Professor at the University of Messina, whose speech centred on the regional policies underlying the economic productive fabric. “When we think about re-establishing healthy balances, we all agree on the need for action and observation in order to decide interventions. Regional policies are devised exactly to redress regional imbalances, they are tools that politics can employ to fill local gaps since this issue impacts negatively on Italy’s economic development. The pandemic is deeply hitting the Sicilian economy and is generating a divide, which results in a different growth rate in southern Italy as opposed to the north, especially in some sectors. The large industrial centres located in the south have failed to generate the expected growth and led to implementing new economic policies to shift from the quantity of investments to the quality. Twenty years later the pitfalls of this approach have surfaced in many areas, such as human capital, education, and training, production, and timing. Now, the Covid crisis is amplifying some of these critical elements and Sicily is then being exposed to the wounds the virus is inflicting, which make it necessary to outline a especially attentive resilience strategy. How can we be resilient? Firstly, we should focus on the quality of public spending and investments in addition to quantity. Secondly, we should be careful when distributing resources in the Country, improving the functioning of public administration and reducing the time to implement public and private projects.”
Then Mario Filippello, a former manager of CNA Sicilia, talked about repurposing the regional economic system following the new healthcare emergency. “A momentous change is occurring, which is going to deeply impact on Sicilian entrepreneurial system and the rest of society alike. Unemployment is skyrocketing, thousands of businesses are going to shut down, GDP is going to plunge. On the other hand, a new phase is going to begin which can turn into an opportunity. We are all starting again in different conditions from the past, and roles and profits are going to be redistributed within the productive system. The trade crisis is followed by the emerging of new actors in supporting the distribution of Italian small and medium enterprises thus generating new consumer groups. How are we going to participate in the new competition? New technologies are becoming paramount to set in the new social and economic context over the next years and to boost economic recovery in our region. It should be based on processes aimed at rebuilding institutions, productive and educational systems, labour, development of small and medium enterprises and at opening up new opportunities for our local actors.”
How is it possible to cooperate and improve export and the creation of networks especially in the fashion industry? This is the question Grazia Clementi of the Consorzio Med-europe-export addressed to highlight the importance of trade fairs and cooperation among businesses, as establishing associations seems to be the only way out of these uncertain times. “Although it seemed an endeavour, Sicilian businesses have also started to understand it and to support each other with sustainability as a perspective. We should have a wider vision and look at the rest of the world to create a type of global economy.”
Then, Maurizio Lanfranchi, professor at the University of Messina, underlined that many opportunities exist and can be seized in the fields of food chain, climate and green technologies, and sustainable practices in agriculture and they cannot be missed. “The market requires higher productivity and to reach this goal it is necessary to embrace the digital revolution to draw young people closer to this sector and reduce the generation gap.”
At UniMe teaches also Professor Nicola Cicero who deals with environmental sustainability. “For the past ten years we have worked on promoting the by-products of Sicilian businesses, which are fundamental when speaking about sustainability in the round. Many by-products can be extracted from citrus pulp and whey. We have focused on sustainable bio-packaging to replace conventional packaging for food products.”
Engineer Giancarlo Visalli, the owner of the company Arkimede of Messina, focussed his considerations on businesses and incubation. “Innovation is at the root of any type of business and the Covid outbreak has provided us with the opportunity to contact different types of productive entities so we could sell quality products across the world. This is an opportunity to take the most advantage of, alongside the opportunity to establish networks among businesses and overcome the difficult moment we are experiencing. Therefore, we have founded a business incubator with the purpose of scouting the best projects in the research world and turn them into business opportunities. Under the IKNOW project, we have selected five start-up businesses by supporting ideas of businesses which are then going to position themselves in the market autonomously. Our goal is also to find private capital to make our businesses grow rapidly. At the same time, we aim at finding the best energies within universities, combining them with our experience, and at markets which are thriving much more than ours.”
With the contribution by the Project Manager of the IKNOW project, Sebastiano Di Stefano of the Scientific and Technology Park of Sicily, the discussion came full circle. He underlined that cooperation between private and public sectors plays a crucial role in boosting industrial competitiveness at a regional level. “In a political and social organization like ours, businesses take on a crucial public and social value. Although academia has a different way of proceeding from businesses, it does not exempt this prestigious institution from playing a crucial social role, which can impact also on the industrial and productive development of the area in addition to fostering the professional figures who are going to enter the world of labour. The Scientific and Technology Park of Sicily has always been committed to technological transfer, and the most important and long-lasting one concerns people who have the know-how. Placing them in the businesses is the true and stable technological transfer we can promote in favour of the productive world. Cooperation between the private and public sectors, if aimed at industrial development, is one of the key factors for the growth of local areas. In Sicily, and in southern Italy in general, we should strengthen the spirit of cooperation to provide an innovative ecosystem and boost the local economic growth. It is possible to have an impact on this through instruments such as network systems between public and private entities at local and vertical level, which are made possible by new technologies, and through the open innovation philosophy, which we are implementing with the cross-border project IKNOW. It allows all the actors to innovate and provide a suitable ecosystem for innovation.”
These contributions explain the importance of ‘networking’ when goals are clear, shared, and collective. Creating and participating in a locally operating business network brings considerable advantages. So, businesses should repeatedly meet among them as a starting point to share knowledge and provide tools to create new networks, establishing an innovative ecosystem, also through the technological resources they employ.
The Open Innovation Service Lab Platform can be used to create a community and allow many businesses to participate by sharing resources, experiences, and ideas. It is a helpful tool to cooperate and a promising beginning to promote exchange opportunities and relationships towards a common goal, namely to strengthen the local economic fabric with an eye to future opportunities and internationalization.