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Transition Engineering

The article by Proger CEO Umberto Sgambati for Il Sole 24 Ore

We are living a historic moment in which all technological references seem to have been overcome by environmental, social and health changes, which ask for a rapid transition towards what is New.
For some time now ambitious policies, programs and initiatives at various levels (from the UN to the EU) push towards objectives that seem incompatible with the times and ways with which, starting from the Industrial Revolution, technological innovations have occurred in every field. Now they invoke the urgency of a rapid, disruptive change, and it is not a coincidence that the adjective “disruptive” is the most used in the daily speeches about Transition”!

But the almost messianic expectation of the maturation of extraordinary innovation from now to 10, 20 or even 30 years paradoxically risks holding back the renewal of what is existing, physiological due to obsolescence or convenient on the basis of a technical / economic analysis, for fear of finding oneself with works, plants and infrastructures already outdated at the time of entering into operation or shortly thereafter (the “stranded assets”). On the other hand, the immediate deployment of technologies still far from full maturity would not be economically sustainable: obviously, it would not be sustainable for companies, nor even for the state, which would have to commit substantial funding resources (a film that has already been seen!)

The combination of these elements risks transforming the Ecological Transition into a sterile race spreading evocative messages that promise ambitious commitments for the distant future. With the real risk that these commitments remain such or reach the poor result of improving in the short term and cheaply the reputation of those who declare them from time to time. 

On the contrary, Transition is a stage race, where each stage is equally important because all together they draw an authentically sustainable trajectory towards the New, that will never be reached with a single leap, or with uncertain or too long steps.
Deciding the number, length and duration of each stage; identifying and deploying innovative technologies that are sufficiently mature, and above all suitable for the national context; developing new ones, experimenting to make them available for the following stages; using the best public-private partnership tools, perhaps modifying them to encourage widespread use, to maximize the benefits and reduce the time and risk of this long march. To my mind, this is the real challenge of the Transition.

“A crisis can be a real blessing to any person, to any nation. For all crises bring progress. Creativity is born from anguish, just like the day is born form the dark night. It’s in crisis that inventiveness is born, as well as discoveries made and big strategies.” 
Should we trust Albert Einstein (so often quoted in this period) we will live an extraordinary era, in which a development model has entered into crisis but a new model is still far away, and it is only possible to catch a glimpse of it : we are currently wading, and extraordinary opportunities are opening up.

To still all doubts, the analysis of the document that constitutes the National Recovery and Resilience Plan, presented on 30th April by the Italian Government to the European Commission should suffice: 6 missions, divided into 16 components, each in turn comprising serveal lines of intervention (43 in all), divided into different actions. This investment accounts for 235 billion euros, between European loans (non-repayable and on loan) and a national complementary fund.
Everything has to be planned, designed, authorised and launched in a very short time (no later than 2023) and completed respecting the time schedules, as well as times, costs and quality; and, in any case, by 2026.

A very ambitious plan, due to the variety and breadth of the planned projects: from energy efficiency and redevelopment of private and public buildings, with particular attentiont to schools and hospitals, to renewable sources; from public transport and sustainable mobility to major road, rail and port works; from the intelligent monitoring of our rich building and infrastructural heritage, to the engineering for its maintenance, safety and prevention; from the digitization of the public administration and the health system, to the new frontiers of telemedicine and personal care and well-being.
And many other projects, capable of triggering a virtuous innovation and economic growth process, as well as constituting an extraordinary competition for the best engineering skills in the country, which will have to produce an exceptional effort and do their best so that the numerous external constraints, as far as timing, technical and permitting issues concern, do not prevent the achievement of such ambitious and important objectives.
However, the scientific, technological and management challenge that awaits us – albeit of an epochal scale – is not the only one, especially if we look at PNRR as the first step of the Transition. At least two others must be added: on one hand, of economic nature, and on the other hand of social nature.

Let’s start with the first. In order to establish a new development model, it is necessary to invest as many resources in new technologies, but it must be done by adopting specific tools according to the level of technological maturity reached. To quote the European Green Deal, this allows “to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, in all sectors of the economy, from the generation of electricity to the whole industry, agriculture, cars, buses, airplanes, ships, while ensuring biodiversity and sustainable use of natural resources, without compromising economic growth, even increasing it, thus increasing ‘the well-being of European citizens. Interventions – and incentives – unrelated to the actual “maturation” would inevitably lead to the useless waste of public money, without approaching the common goal and supporting few beneficiaries.
We are therefore in the presence of an optimization problem: it is necessary to approach the project objective at the minimum cost – in any case very high – otherwise the effort would be useless, as well as unsustainable.
For the economic sustainability of the Transition it will be necessary to identify the most suitable regulatory and financial instruments, making use as much as possible of the Public-Private partnership: the best engineering, managerial, entrepreneurial and financial skills must be involved (as is known, private capital in the current accounts of Italians amount to a figure about 8 times higher than the entire amount of the PNRR!) that are able to ensure the ‘technical-economic sustainability of the Transition but also the perfect and pragmatic knowledge of the Territory, to guarantee projects tailored to real needs.
In this regard, the presence and work of leading companies, well rooted in the Territory but aiming at international markets, which know how to integrate and develop the capacity and creativity of local excellences, will prove to be fundamental – and globalization requires it. This will ensure the leap in quality necessary to connect local players and the rest of the world. As far as the social order within the Transition project concerns, it is clear that the permitting procedures are the heart of the matter. In fact, such an organic and widespread system of measures requires the construction of works and infrastructures of all kinds: from transport to telecommunications, from energy to water and waste management, from networks – physical and digital – to interventions on existing buildings (for recovery and efficiency, but also for demolition and reconstruction, for hundreds of thousands of buildings – if only one property out of 100 were carried out, the interesting buildings would be more than 700 thousand); from urban and infrastructural changes in cities – increasingly smart and eco-sustainable – to the recovery of villages and inland areas, destined to become “offshoots” of urban areas connected by digital infrastructures and able to guarantee a different quality of life; from the redevelopment and upgrading of production plants to adapt them to new energy sources, to the construction of new power plants and infrastructures for the production, storage and management of the new green energy.
But all these interventions – and the list would be very long – are today in fact hindered, if not even impeded, by a deep-rooted opposition to change; and this even in the presence of well thought-out projects, in compliance with the rules and the territory, as well as supported by complete and correct impact assessments. This opposition, often preconceived, must be faced and mitigated with a careful process of information and involvement that requires knowledge, transparency, credibility and intellectual honesty.
This too will be a fundamental piece of the Transition project.

The effective and efficient design of the Transition means integrating different skills:
Not only technical, but also socio-urban, economic-financial, managerial, communicative, etc. All together, they must define and enable an growth path towards the New and identify the different stages, according to those technologies available and with particular attention to the territorial context.

And then to be able to detect potential obstacles in time and to propose possible remedies, manage risks, analyze alternative hypotheses if need be and propose the necessary variants, quickly reschedule interventions to meet deadlines and budget. Last but not least, optimising investments, with the participation of private capital, as a futher guarantee of the ability of the business class, by naturally proposing fair measures for an appropriate remuneration.

It is therefore necessary to design interventions that are concretely and authentically sustainable, which implement the Transition process step by step, based on a close and loyal relationship with the Territory, through the involvement of projects and local resources guided by the best entrepreneurial realities, that work according to guidelines defined by the public watchdog.  It is high time to Engineer Transition.