At the Venice Innovation Days last July, Mario Calderini of the Polytechnic of Milan explained how the green economy should evolve to be truly sustainable, not only from an environmental point of view

We have talked a lot about sustainability in recent years. We can say that we have done nothing else, rightly so.

Because it was necessary to systematize a mindset, integrate it into design practice. The danger now is that the word sustainability loses integrity. Until now we have been evangelical, from here on we must preserve the meaning of the word and add meaning to be able to face the challenges of the present in a profound way.

The participants of theVenice Innovation Daysin July 2023 worked and discussed this theme. Among startups and companies already rooted in innovation, among very young entrepreneurs like Egoundesign and mature engineers who put themselves at the service of simplifying new devices for regulating environmental and body temperature such as Rosso24, a paradigm aimed at a change of pace has emerged.

The controversy between profit and sustainable choices

The big news, as Mario Calderini from the Polytechnic of Milan explained it well in his speech, is the need to do a bit of self-analysis.

Professor of Management for Sustainability and Impact of the School of Management of the Polytechnic of Milan and director of Tiresia, the Research Center on finance and social innovation in the same university, Calderini claims that in recent years we have practiced: "A green and simple sustainability", defines it as the professor of Social Innovation of the School of Management of the Milanese university.

"We rightly thought about the planet, and not about the integration of the word sustainability in all instances, environmental, geopolitical, social". An 'easy' path, because it avoided putting profit and sustainable choices in conflict.

Green economy and social transition are the same thing

We must start from here to apply more radical forms of sustainability, which put those who move large capital resources before the elephant in the room. Profit and ecological development are market competitors.

When addressing issues of social impact, strong orthogonalities in impact and profit objectives are highlighted. Green transition and social transition are two connected cogwheels and it is clear that one does not proceed without the other.

Looking at the first twenty years of sustainable policies

According to Calderini: “Now we can think of coupling the two problems, social and ecological, to proceed in an organic and rooted way. We can ask ourselves what went well and what went wrong in recent years."

Let's start from the promises kept: better solutions, scalability of impact, use of technology in projects with a microeconomic and social impact, such as systems that help farmers in fragile areas to make rational choices, for example. What went wrong instead? “We generated a lot of senseless innovation.

Let's take the Floating Gardens in Myanmar, which prevent crop fields from flooding. Extremely important innovation on a social level, but with no impact on profit.

We have moved forward on lacerating trajectories of innovation: we are full of solutions that solve micro problems, or we are full of food delivery apps.

If we want to start thinking about a topic of purpose, we must facilitate and guide an innovation that is produced within the market”.

Innovation does not automatically create development

One wonders what happened to the myth of the knowledge economy. Once again we spent years talking about it, convinced that it would save the world and create enormous prosperity in the illusion that it would have a cascading impact on even the most fragile social parts.

We said to ourselves that research and innovation automatically and magically create local development. “It can happen, but there must be conditions,” explains Calderini.

“We have thrown away thousands of euros imitating the Silicon Valley model. An example is the Verbano Ossola science park, a structure costing 90 million euros, an exercise of great architectural satisfaction. In recent years this project has produced a startup, only one, which currently takes care of the greenery of the park. This condition has been repeated a thousand times."

The immediate consequence is the decay of trust in technology and development on the part of the most critical social areas. The idea that nothing can really change, despite technology, has spread among those who populate the vicinity of large technological structures.

We need adequate superstructures for the green economy

Calderini continues: "The advent of the knowledge economy has enormously increased the rate of social inequality. Just one example: sharing scooters in cities is from many points of view a social failure, despite the service being one of the best examples of the sharing economy."

Because scooters have invaded the city without an ethical and cultural superstructure. They cause accidents and are experienced almost exclusively by men between 20 and 45 years old. The rest of the city? The disabled? Seniors? “They are invisible stakeholders, but they highlight how innovation is in many ways a bit sociopathic”.

A business accelerated by technology in the context of a narrative that Calderini ironically defines as 'evangelical and hipster'.

No one stopped to imagine the negative parts, to foresee the real repercussions on the social fabric. Non-inclusive sustainability, although it may seem like a detail, is actually non-efficient sustainability.

Beware of the consequences of efficiencyism

Thinking about innovation in a world of scarce resources, of social differences and substantially poor from an economic point of view is, according to many, the solution.

“We gave efficiency positive values,” explains Mario Calderini. “But here's the flip side of the coin: a few months ago a large company distributing meals to hospitals in Milan asked the Polytechnic to develop an AI algorithm to predict for the unit the number of meals to be provided day by day to internalize efficiency and to avoid waste.

It seems like the perfect story. The Polytechnic solves the problem very well and predicts, more or less to the unit, the number of meals to prepare. At the end of the presentation a gentleman shyly pats me on the shoulder and tells me: I'm the one who brought the overabundantly produced meals to the homeless at Milan Central Station. Now what do we do?”

Social innovation for macro problems

It must be recognized that the transition from inefficiency to efficiency has costs and repercussions which paradoxically influence pockets of indispensable positivity.

“Social innovation has solved micro problems without ever finding a structural dimension. It remained small, and when it grew with technology, it ended in disaster. Let's take the idea of sharing: the purest idea of social innovation.

Then we think about riders, Uber, Airbnb: we immediately understand that there is a problem of ethical governance."

Sustainability for profit

The new paradigm must be: innovation and sustainability for profit. It is the only way to create deep-rooted, deep-rooted sustainability.

Calderini continues: “Let's take an example: we ask a manager of an insurance company if his brand is sustainable. You will look at us with satisfaction: we no longer print policies on paper, we have hired many young women to enhance talents.

My financial resources are allocated in benevolent speculations. Let's then ask him if his company offers life insurance to chronically ill people...". This is where purpose and profit come into conflict.

The transition to offering a life insurance policy to chronically ill people is the transition to profound sustainability which involves intentionality and the acceptance of a calculated risk, because in reality medical technology itself contains practicable solutions. With the new devices and new medical screenings, chronically ill patients are insurable like any other customer.

Innovation cocooning: technology in the company that creates change

In short, we need to change our mindset. We talk about innovation cocooning, the cocooning of technology into brands with strong ethical content. Individuals who respond to a social need with solid business models and a finance that exercises a firm trust in their business.

In Italy there are 25 thousand companies that present these characteristics. If we transferred technology into these businesses to make them grow, even just one in 100, that's 250 businesses a year.

The probability of success is enormous, as is the acceleration of innovation. Calderini concludes: “It takes a university 100 years to incubate the same number. Let's learn to think, to study the south of the world and its frugal solutions and to scale them in the countries that produce the most environmental problems: ours".