[interview] Innovation with Massimo Russo

21 May 2015

Massimo Russo, Editor in Chief Wired Italia, meets the BBS Community to talk about innovation at the dawn of a new machine generation and new forms of artificial intelligence.

“We’re already right in the middle of the second machine age. The change is ongoing, already, way beyond our perception”. Massimo Russo was the protagonist of the last MBA Lecture entitled “Innovating in the second machine age”. We talked about innovation with him, at the dawn of a new generation of digital technologies.

In their book “The second machine age” Brynjolfsson and Mc Afee draw a scenario in which the global economy is on the brink of an enormous growth, driven by “smart machines”. Do you share the argument of the book?

Evidence is there to demonstrate there are macro-forces that have, and will have, a relevance equal to the one of the first steam machine, during the first industrial revolution. Let’s think of artificial intelligence, the growth of computer processing power with Moore’s law, permanent (oblique) connection, the increasingly easier possibility of transforming goods and objects into files, the digitalization of things, also partly due to 3D printing and additive manufacturing. Of course, this change doesn’t come at no cost and it brings about, at least over the short term, a series of unbalanced situations. Nonetheless, over the medium and long period, the available richness will increase, and not just quantitatively, but most of all, in terms of options, choices, freedom. Therefore, the key point is how to deal with this passage. There has never been a better period for those who have skills and are open to changes, and thus the capacity to ride this wave. On the other hand, it may turn out to be a disruptive and wrenching stage for all the others. According to a much cited research, conducted two years ago by the University of Oxford, over the next 20 years about 47% of jobs that we know now will disappear. And it’ll involve mostly white collar jobs. We’re talking brokers, lawyers, even doctors, all professions that, at least in part, will most likely be replaced by computers. Therefore, the real issue is how to manage this shift, how to equip economies so that this unbalance is reabsorbed in the least painful way. In this scenario, the key element is training. We don’t know how the world will be in five years, still we claim we can teach and educate, in our schools and universities, those who’ll be active in the labour market for the next 30-40 years. It’s clear the current mechanism doesn’t work anymore. Instead, it’s becoming more and more relevant to be able to access life-long training, the only way that allows constantly updating one’s own skills and thus get oneself back into play.

How do you think companies should act, in order to face this technology acceleration?

If I were an entrepreneur I’d ask myself how each one of the forces I mentioned, that are already giving shape to reality, might affect what I am doing. For instance, a few weeks ago I was talking to a shipping agent that hauls goods, using containers, from Asia to the US. As we talked, I asked who was his most important competitor. He simply answered “It’s 3D printing”. Suddenly something not so evident is becoming true, that is, 3D printing is having a powerful impact on an apparently consolidated business such as freight transport. I’m convinced, and the evidence is there to prove it, that many of the traditional industries might be disrupted. But a number of opportunities is there too. Some time ago, the Economist devoted their cover story, among others, to a company based in Civitanova Marche (central Italy), made up of four people, that has become a great exporter of craftmade lace-up ankle boots. It’s a family business that, twenty years ago, had great difficulties exporting worldwide. Today though, thanks to digital leverages, they have been able to establish themselves internationally. One must be able to immediately grasp the opportunities of innovation, understanding what might become disruptive and not be afraid, as startuppers always say, to self-cannibalize. Because not doing it doesn’t mean you’re avoiding it, but simply that someone else will do it.

What type of managers will the second machine age companies need?

I believe companies increasingly need people with a very precise training. This though won’t make the difference anymore, it’ll only be a pre-requisite. It’ll be more and more important to have characteristics that have a lot to do with flexibility, with the capacity of looking at industries that are not our direct competitors and identify across-the-board solutions. A significant part of exponential innovation today has got to do with the capacity of those who not only have great expertise in the industry they’re active in, but are able to connect the dots and imagine the use of technologies and possibilities derived from other fields to be applied in sectors which weren’t previously using it. These talents, together with adaptability and flexibility, will be increasingly relevant.

And your suggestion to a student would be…?

Always have, no matter what, the willingness and openness to be surprised. A scientist told me: “We couldn’t solve a problem, and we became convinced perhaps someone else could do it on our behalf. So we took 10 PhD students, we put them in a room and they found the solution. Why? Because they didn’t know it was so difficult”.



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