PEOPLE | Aug 5, 2019

Innovating to give new shape to the substance: an interview with Orazio Viele

Digital technology as a strategic lever for innovation aimed at improving everybody’s lives. We discuss this with the General Director of Engineering’s Technology, Innovation and Research Department.

Innovation, particularly in the IT sector, is seen as the ability to “shape matter”, as sculptors do with a piece of marble. The concept of change for Orazio Viele, General Director of Engineering’s Technology, Innovation and Research Department, comes from the need to create solutions which can improve life, that is to say “shape” the many raw materials available thanks to the continuous and unstoppable evolution of the technological scenario.

Innovation and Digital Transformation are sometimes used, wrongly, as synonyms. Where is the mistake?

“Innovation is a continuous process which occurs in all fields, both technical and scientific. Digital Transformation is a temporary phenomenon which, by using technological innovations, enables the evolution of processes and services. In other words, digital transformation can be considered as the application in reality of the fruits of IT innovation, a continuous process that never stops. Although the term digital transformation has recently been used to define this trend, the effects of the use of technological innovations in everyday life have been felt for a long time: one example is the spread of ATMs which has radically transformed the use of money, also affecting the improvement of the quality of life by no longer forcing us to plan cash withdrawals in the bank and by reducing the use of cash itself. The ATM was the result of several technological innovations, and even though when it was introduced there was no talk of digital transformation (a term which had not yet been coined), it can be considered to all intents and purposes a significant example of “digital transformation” of a process with considerable consequences on people’s lives”.

On which elements has Engineering been focusing its research and development activity?

“Over the last fifteen years, our research and development activities have focused on translating technological innovations into innovative solutions for various sectors, where we believe we have succeeded in having a positive impact: health, energy, public Administration and industry.

In particular, we have worked and are still working to exploit the technological innovations that favor the application of “user centered design” methodologies in the citizen-PA relationship: the cornerstone of these methodologies is to involve both service providers and users in designing the processes underlying the services themselves. Thanks to technological innovations, the co-creation of services together with users has become a reality and a solution, leading to overcoming one of the long-standing problems of IT: the semantic gap between the user formulating a requirement and its translation into IT solutions. The involvement of the user, which allows the emergence of hidden needs or of those which are not easily expressed, is favored by an apparent side effect of technological innovation: the spread of the use of technological devices, which has contributed to raising the average culture of citizens, now more capable, compared with the past, of describing how they would like to use a service.

 

We have done a lot of work on innovating industrial processes, where we have introduced Artificial Intelligence useful not only for carrying out predictive maintenance, but also to model the industrial process, changing it dynamically according to the product you want to produce. This is possible by resorting to Digital Twin, i.e. the digital reproduction of a real object, process or place, where it is possible to carry out all the operations which will then be carried out in a tangible reality. To the obvious advantage of being able to fully design what will then be implemented in reality, is associated the possibility of verifying the effects of any changes to be made to the object or process before these are implemented.

Another interesting line which we are working on is Cybersecurity, the true offspring of the current importance of digital technology and of considering the Net a critical infrastructure like water, energy and transport”.

Which are the most “disruptive”, technologies which will affect organizations?

“In my opinion, three technologies will produce the most significant effects: IoTBig Data, AI, and the evolution of one will stimulate the evolution of the others. IoT is the technology that, viewed in perspective, will grow enormously and will influence the development of organizations, making life easier for everyone. To provide intelligence, through sensors, to most of the objects we use and even to parts of the human body will allow us to collect a great quantity of data, will give us the ability to perform remote control actions and to prevent possible critical events. The so-called Big Data phenomenon, although born in the wake of the spread of the Web, will become even more disruptive with the spread of the IoT. Finally, IoT and Big Data are stimulating the increasingly pervasive use of Artificial Intelligence techniques”.

Do Italian companies, particularly SMEs, perceive the need for innovation?

“Personally, I think that small businesses do a lot of product innovation, but unfortunately with little use of technology. At a cultural level, we cannot understand that IT is actually a fundamental lever of innovation, and also an enabling factor for creativity. It must be said that even at a political level, technology is not perceived as a driving force for the economy, something taken for granted in Countries which invest in technological innovation in order to play a leading role in world markets”.

What is the role of research in innovation and how is it organized within Engineering?

“In recent years, our seven development and research laboratories have adopted a strategy which has allowed a rapprochement between research and the market, historically distant because the former looks far ahead, while the latter tends to provide answers for more immediate needs. The group invests around €40 million per year in research and employs 420 researchers and Data Scientists. We work on research projects with a longer-term vision and on vertical products, which become prototypes to be tested on the market with shorter timescales. Through our products we are able to drive innovation. An interesting experiment is that of having activated a transversal network of innovators, i.e. people able to govern the innovation process and to exchange ideas and experiences. Because innovation also comes from contamination”.

 

Sonia Montegiove