Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Italian Innovation Day Comes To Silicon Valley

I attended Mind The Bridge's Italian Innovation Day yesterday at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley.  I have never associated innovation with Italians before with the exception of Leonardo da Vinci.  The event highlighted the connection between Italy's design tradition and the modern maker movement.  I didn't let the blue and white balloons they inflated distract me in my search for hot Italian women.

I had to check out the claim one speaker made that Italian universities produce engineers at a lower cost than US universities.  That may depend on the type of engineering degree.  CollegeCalc has scored the annual costs of mechanical engineering degrees in the US.  They also have the costs for chemical engineering degrees.  The chemical engineering degree is slightly more expensive than the mechanical engineering degree.  I can't find any statistics on the costs of Italian degrees.  I did find this page from FEANI describing the European professional engineer designation.  The FEANI page specifically notes that the EUR ING designation is not applicable in Italy because that country maintains its own accreditation standard for engineers.  Such a duplicative body probably increases the cost of training an Italian engineer.  Viva la . . . something or other.

Innovative workforces command premium compensation and multiply the creation of other jobs, according to Enrico Moretti's The New Geography Of Jobs.  Italy's translation of design into innovation is still hampered by lack of a national English-language media that can help translate its innovations into the language of international business.

Let's run down Italy's ranking on some of my favorite international indexes.  Italy is . . .
. . . 69th out of 175 on Transparency International's corruption index . . .
. . . 86th out of 178 on the Heritage Foundation's Index of Economic Freedom . . .
. . . 29th out of 142 on the Global Innovation Index.

Note for the record that the US beats Italy in all of those rankings.  The most important claim to innovation is of course the Global Innovation Index rank, which puts Italy in the top quartile.  Italian innovators should be concerned about whether they can profit from their innovations given Italy's disappointing scores on the first two rankings.  Italy is a G-8 member because of its economy's size.  These rankings show that GDP size has little to do with transparency, freedom, or innovation.  The message to innovators should be painted in big red letters on a sign lit with spotlights saying "Escape to more hospitable economic climes," in Italian of course.

One panelist at this event mentioned that it is harder to start high-tech companies in the south of Italy than in the north.  The persistent cultural divide in that country is a legacy of Italy's inconsistent reforms and economic policies since unification in the 19th century.  The European Regional Development Fund has attempted to stimulate development under the EU regional policy's convergence objectives.  Italy's regional divide is still significant despite this EU policy.  Italian innovators need another clear message:  "Move north if you want a tech startup."

There are undoubtedly strong ethnic connections between some Americans and their distant Italian relatives.  Business leaders overestimate the importance of those connections.  Ethnicity matters in business if trade missions and business associations transform kinship into real economic ties.  The BAIA is one such network.  My own ancestors left Italy for a better life in the US but I felt no kinship with the Italians running this event.  They started it fifteen minutes late.  I get irritated whenever people are late or keep me waiting.  They excused it as "typical of Italy" but I call it typical of bad business.

Europe gets a lot of business strategies correct in spite of the unique situations of its constituent nations.  The European Investment Fund builds the European Investment Bank's SME strategy.  The Startup Europe Partnership is the EU's first try at building an ecosystem to match the one in Silicon Valley.  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  The Italians promoting this project at the event I attended made it clear that they want sponsorship from large European corporations willing to commit their deep pockets to deal flow.  It would help if the guiding structure for this platform wasn't scattered among different web portals.  Here's where the confusion starts.  This strategy for the EU Digital Agenda recognizes Startup America as inspiration.  It does not link to this more detailed action plan for Startup Europe.  Confusion will reign when strategic guidance contradicts itself.  Launching the Startup Europe Partnership at Davos this year must have made for great conversation over cocktails.  It's good that elites are on board with startup culture.  Now they should step aside and let Europe's entrepreneurs go to work.  Policy elites can work on their own innovations with the Lisbon Council.

Italian Innovation Day tipped its hat to the maker movement.  Rome hosts a Maker Faire.  MakeinItaly is the country's brand new foundation to push a local maker movement.  I am hooked on the Maker Fair Bay Area ever since I attended last year.  The crucial insight from makers addressing this Italian crowd was that multidisciplinary education develops intuition on how systems operate.  I get engineer envy whenever I think of how teams of designers from different technical backgrounds put a project together on a tight deadline.

I did not find any hot Italian women at this event.  They might have been there but I looked around quite thoroughly.  Attractive women usually seek me out so I hardly think they could have escaped my notice if they attended.  I can't subscribe to the notion that some parts of Europe have a higher proportion of attractive women.  Women who were searching for the legendary Italian male models at this function would have been just as disappointed.  One dude wore his waist-length hair in a knotted mass.  It was easy for me to be the most handsome man there with such lame competition.  Italians may be gradually exchanging their hot-blooded appeal for cool techno trappings.  That's fine if it leads to national prosperity and an escape from the PIIGS categorization.  Make it happen, Italian makers.