As a professor of applied mechanics, Ferruccio Resta can explain—and did explain, briefly, in a recent conversation with Brunswick—acceleration in way that invokes equations and the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
As the Rector of the Politecnico di Milano, a technical university renowned in Europe and ranked among the top performers by QS World Ranking by Subject (5th in design; 10th in architecture and 13th in engineering) and as President of the Conference of Rectors of Italian Universities, Resta has a unique view on a different sort of acceleration: the rapid pace of change taking place across higher education today, and how universities can help his country rebuild and recover from the economic fallout of COVID-19 and an ongoing war in Europe.
Italy was among the countries hit earliest by the pandemic—it was mid-March 2020 when footage of Italians singing from their balconies went viral—and also hit hardest: The country’s GDP contracted by 9% in 2020.
Under Resta’s leadership, the Politecnico was one the first universities in the country to move classes online and digitize curricula—no small feat for a large, public university with more than 5,000 employees and just under 50,000 students. It was also the first Italian university to receive funding from the NextGenerationEU stimulus package, a fund that will see the EU invest more than €800 billion ($870 billion) across 27 countries to help them recover from the pandemic.
“The NextGenEU is not a goal, but rather a tool to achieve certain objectives,” says Resta. “It is an accelerator. We are focusing on high performance computing, mobility, agritech, energy, artificial intelligence, space and communication technologies.”
As it focuses on these areas, the Politecnico is exploring how it can contribute to reforms that will help local companies and also bolster the public sector.
“It is clear that the success of this challenge will depend on how much a research institution and a university will be able to transfer their skills and put them into a system and how much the political decision maker or implementing body will have the courage to choose and not simply to distribute,” says Resta. “If we talk about reforming the justice and trial systems, for instance, we cannot think of introducing it without a management and project management approach. Healthcare reform cannot be thought of without data technologies and artificial intelligence. We cannot think of infrastructures without thinking about end-of-life monitoring and management technologies of the infrastructures themselves. You cannot think of innovations and startups without thinking in terms of technology transfer.”
Such technology transfer is not new for the Politecnico. The university is already working with the city of Milan on projects ranging from 5G wireless technology to automated driving routes. It has also long partnered with leading companies, though those partnerships have changed “dramatically” over the past decade, says Resta. “Ten years ago, large companies asked us to help solve very specific problems. Five years ago, they expanded the request to technological breakthrough reasoning and complex challenges, asking for much more interdisciplinary knowledge. Today, large companies, especially the most far-sighted ones, ask primarily for human capital—their proposal is to build together innovation and training programs and to integrate our graduates into their work. And this is fundamental as it drives innovation, research and their industrial plans.”
Imbuing that creativity in large companies is particularly vital in Italy, where small- and medium-sized businesses are often seen as far more innovative. “As far as the private company is concerned, we can no longer continue to think with slogans such as ‘small is beautiful,’” says Resta. “To overcome today’s great challenges, a bigger undertaking is needed. This does not imply that we only need large companies, but rather that we need increasingly brave companies, capable of reaching scale via new models and partnerships, and investing in highly educated and more forward-looking human capital.”
Internationalization has often been confused with the desire not to be Italian.
One of Resta’s focuses over his six-year tenure has been to help broaden that pool of human capital in Italy by pushing the Politecnico to become more of an international school. “Internationalization has often been confused with the desire not to be Italian,” says Resta. “Instead, we think that being international means being included in an international network that enhances our country’s many strengths.”
But what does it take, exactly, to compete with the likes of a Harvard, Oxford or MIT?
“I think it starts with, first of all, having greater self-esteem—a belief in what we can offer and our capabilities. Second, you need patience, knowing that results will take time. Third, you need to have the courage to analyze your strengths and promote them. You can never be competitive in all areas, and this can create problems. You have to play to your strengths, and in particular, recognize your limitations. Those universities you mentioned—we are not on their level yet, but we know that we can continue to grow and improve, and that education models and students’ preferences change.”
Resta believes those changes—particularly to the business models of higher education—could be swift and stark. In a recent interview he suggested that companies like Amazon and Netflix might decide to enter the space.
“Digital education is a large, international business that generates billions of dollars. I would not find it surprising if large digital operators decide to enter—and, by the way, where this produces more schooling globally, I think it is absolutely a positive thing.”
Resta believes professional training will continue to evolve and specialize, with companies—even medium-sized ones—setting up their own academies.
And what about universities themselves? “The role of the university is to allow graduates to be exposed to complexity, difficulty and diversity. What characterizes a university course is that it takes students out of the comfort zones we’re so familiar with. Central for universities is being clear about the value they offer: the experiences, the connections, the research and innovation. That has to continue. Universities can’t rest on their laurels—we all saw what happened to Kodak; their analog film was a great product, until it wasn’t.”
Also contributing to this article is Cesare Calabrese, an Associate based in Milan.