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Home > Workshop on the G. Bassetti Foundation

Workshop on the G. Bassetti Foundation

by Redazione FGB [1], 27 February 2009

After thanking the participants for having accepted his invitation, Bassetti briefly explains the reasons for the meeting: a) the analysis of the original idea, the nature and the first steps of the Giannino Bassetti Foundation. In this respect, he refers the audience to Section 2 of the Bylaws and the "Report on activities to be carried out" already sent to the participants; b) a contribution of ideas to the President and the Board of the Foundation on how to develop the "the study of innovation in entrepreneurial activity, with particular attention being devoted to the responsibility of innovation and the impact of new productive processes on economic and social conditions and on the ethics and politics of human society."

In particular Bassetti asks his guests to devote special attention to the activities to be carried out in the framework of an initial action plan.

Piero Bassetti

The Bassetti Foundation originates with an idea I have been reflecting upon for almost 20 years and is also connected to Giannino Bassetti's conviction that despite innovation's pervasive role, the responsibility for innovation is not clearly attributed in our society. The problem is not new and has been dealt with by some of those present here today (I have three contributions here, dating over ten years, one of which was written by Alberoni in 1986).

After years of reflection, I have finally succeeded in creating a Foundation whose scope is defined in the aforementioned Section 2 of the Bylaws.

(...) The Foundation is named after my uncle, Giannino Bassetti, an entrepreneur who died twenty years ago. He was very interested in this kind of problem, though from the point of view of a completely different entrepreneurial mindset.

I have invited you here today to help me think through the ways in which the organisation will contribute to developing this subject. More particularly, we should debate two issues, a discussion to which I hope you will contribute as freely and openly as possible: 1) a clearer definition of our scope of activity and 2) an initial action plan.

Before starting the discussion, I wish to draw your attention to the fact that my interest is not so much in the issue of innovation per se, but more specifically in how innovation relates to the "responsibility" of the people who develop it."

 

Francesco Alberoni

I have the feeling that your problem is, at least partially, the same as that which most modern philosophers (Heidegger, among others) have struggled with. The problem is the result of the impossibility of foreseeing the long-term results of technological development and has been the specific worry of contemporary philosophers.

Similarly, I see historical development as the result of various changes, the causes of which are unrelated. M does something, N does something else, and the results of their action become common property, something that anybody can tap for whatever end they wish. Such separate actions generate effects which, beyond a certain threshold, in turn produce cultural, political, religious or ethical reactions. Action and reaction are always separated by a time lag: the reaction (panic, a movement, reformation) never runs in parallel with the process and cannot be conceptually foreseen or controlled.

The problem, though, has already received enormous attention on the part of sociologists.

 

Claudio Carlone

I believe the terms of the problem have changed from Heidegger's time. Research has changed: it is no longer the product of individual effort but is produced by more and more complex systems, which are increasingly dependent on companies. The results that research is seeking to achieve are foreseen from the outset, and free research is virtually non-existent today, if you exclude fields like, maybe, astrophysics.

So far, in the footsteps of Heidegger, we have concerned ourselves with the responsibility of the scientist. Today we should instead start discussing the responsibility of the entrepreneur, and this could be a strong point in favour of the new foundation. The starting point of reflection can no longer be that research happens without any foresight about its results, but rather that the entrepreneur is the manager of research and its results. The time lag between action and reaction does not exist any more because new questions are thrown up faster than we can find answers (and biotechnology is a good case in point). Since we already know what we want from research and its applications, people have no time to consider the problem. There is no longer any social control over technology.

 

Renato Ugo

Bassetti's question seems sensible. The answer could be to distinguish separate levels. When mentioning responsibility, Bassetti refers to social and political responsibility. When you consider research results, though, a first level of responsibility is connected with the decision about whether such results can be used. It is a technical responsibility related to recognising that the discovery has some application and is therefore technically valid. This level does not lie within the scope of the Foundation, but should nevertheless be borne in mind.

The second level, the one we are concerned with, depends on the uncertainty surrounding the future development of each innovation. Yet, if we consider the results of the innovation process as a whole, society is growing in statistical terms. Instead of concentrating solely on the point of responsibility, we perhaps should concern ourselves with estimating whether this kind of innovation is statistically an asset or a liability for society, without forgetting that an asset can be the result of an asset minus a smaller liability. Thirty years ago, life expectancy in Asia and Africa was 40 years, today it is 65-70. In the West, it was 65 years, today it is 82. This implies progress both in the West, where the innovation originated, and in Asia and Africa. The balance is positive all round.

Even without precise political responsibility, innovation is so powerful that in spite of all our mistakes, society keeps developing. The problem is thus how to control such growth and how to accelerate it.

 

Umberto Colombo

My question is: do we really want to concentrate on these points? I believe there are several institutions that already deal with the evaluation of technologies and their long-term impact (...). I believe (...) that Gianni Bassetti's idea was to give an ethical dimension to the entrepreneur.

Yet, given the prevailing free-market approach, it seems to me that trying to inject an ethical dimension in the main motivation of the entrepreneur would be utopian, if not dangerous (since you would risk altering his "animal spirits"). An interesting niche for the Foundation would be in the advancement of a new ethics, based on a global and intergenerational view of society.

Since companies today tend to concentrate obsessively on short-term performance, the challenge could be to show them the compatibility between global and long-term goals and their interests.

Many Italian companies have learned from the USA how to practice core business concentration, and have cut off research that does not regard their present core activity, overlooking the fact that that research will probably be at the centre of their core activity twenty or thirty years hence. We should criticise them not for being unethical but for being stupid, since they have abandoned a very promising field of research that will be very important for their future.

Thus, the point is to create a new idea of entrepreneur which includes an ethical dimension without underscoring the ethical aspect too much, and focusing on the long-term future of the company in a global world. The 1994 UN Development Report shows that capitalism is increasing the gap between the rich and the poor of the world. In 1970, 20% of the population with the lowest per capita income earned 32 times less than the richest 20%. In 1980 the ratio had increased to 45, in 1990 to 60, and today it is 66. This will lead to mass migrations, death, the end of democracy as we know it. It is therefore important to draw the attention of companies to this kind of issue, without falling into the trap of the purely ethical approach, since it does not work.

 

Ignazio Masulli

The problem goes beyond the responsibility of the entrepreneur. The responsibility of innovation concerns the future of our society and we can view it in two ways:

  • the responsibility for the consequences of innovation;
  • the responsibility implied by the possibility of making free choices as to our future. For instance: since the gap between rich and poor countries is increasing, what kind of solutions can we find at a technological level? Which technologies are more easily exportable to less developed countries? In this sense innovation implies creating opportunities, making the improbable feasible, fostering economic, technological and social change.

I believe the problem has theoretical implications which require systematic research. We should study how innovation takes shape, under which conditions it asserts itself, which dynamics give rise to it.

From a historical point of view, the questions are: why is the innovation available in certain contexts not applied, or is applied only years after its discovery? Why is the innovation available in a given context not used in a similar context in the same country and time? How does innovation take shape?

Moreover, are we satisfied with the fact that the responsibility of innovation has shifted from political institutions to the market, which is by definition irresponsible? Or do we believe that this poses a problem? The Bassetti Foundation could work on this subject by developing a theoretical notion of the innovation process with the clear aim of changing things. The tools exist: the study on the self-organisation of complex systems deals with unpredictable change and could provide interesting insights.

 

Adriano De Maio

I do not know if my comments will focus the problem, I just hope they offer some considerations for reflection. The first comment is related to what Colombo said about myopic research policy. I believe that, given the short-termism of companies, research (and above all long-term research) will increasingly be left to public institutions (universities or other). The division of responsibility is thus changing. Since long-term research is run by public institutions, decisions on research and funding are increasingly taken by politicians.

On the other hand, researchers have their part of responsibility. Under the pressure of public opinion, they constantly announce new results - which often are neither new nor research - which mobilises public opinion, encouraging the government to allocate new funds for their field of research. This is the problem of ethical responsibility among researchers.

The mass-media also have an ethical responsibility in this respect, and so does government when it lets public opinion guide their decisions instead of fully analysing the problem of research. This is the paradox of democracy, since democracy should imply a deeper analysis of technical problems, but instead makes it impossible.

Second comment: up to a few decades ago the innovation process was slower and people had time to metabolise it. The advent of electricity, for instance, has revolutionised the behaviour of men, though in a very long-term perspective, which gave us the possibility of adjusting to it. Today, innovation comes faster and faster and we don't have time to adjust. I do not know who should be responsible for improving society to help it adjust to innovation, but I think this is a problem, which is related to my third and last comment.

I believe that in many instances innovation is radically changing the cognitive process of man. If you look at adolescents, for instance, they never read instructions on how to operate devices, they just try and make them work. Which implies that they never learn all of their functions; they just use them according to suggestions they receive from the outside. This implies that they do not learn to criticise innovation and new technologies.

This will have an impact on our children's generation and should become the object of close study. If it doesn't, our capacity for critical analysis will be lost. This is a fundamental ethical responsibility, the most serious problem of our times.

 

Tomaso Quattrin

We are discussing here very openly so I'll just add a couple of points. First of all I believe that in dealing with responsibility it is very important to ask ourselves: to whom are we responsible? It is easy if we have a statute, a set of laws, a very well defined code of ethics or beliefs. It's much more difficult if you don't.

It is not really very easy to create a connection between innovation and responsibility. Certainly, when research aims at foreseen results it could be easier to trace back who has done what and why, and who is responsible. But in many cases, things do not work that way. Even if I agree with what Carlone said about research in industry, many discoveries still happen virtually by mistake, like the Post-It pad or Internet, which developed into something very different from what had originally been thought.

The comments by Colombo and De Maio are very relevant: we have to contribute at a level that may not be ethical per se but which includes a certain element of intelligence, awareness, critical sense, even self-criticism. In our industry, the information technology industry, we sometimes favour a lack of memory, of breaks with the past. The contribution of somebody who does not know the past can often be very fruitful, because they are open and free. But of course being open, free or innovative does not completely compensate for a lack of experience, of history, of past. We should therefore focus on making a contribution which helps people and businesses to keep in mind all the factors or situations which may be relevant. A sort of appeal for conscience which is not ethics itself but which leads to ethical behaviour

And then from that general appeal to conscience, I think we could focus on research, showing how some firm has discarded interesting areas of research just because they were short-sighted, since innovation requires not only concentrating on one's core business but also cultivating something else. I am sure Colombo has real-life examples of this, just as I and the others do. The general dimension should be awareness, the development of a critical sense, the education of young people and making a connection with lessons from history on how innovation could have been cultivated if we had been less short-sighted, without being obsessed by quarterly results.

 

Peter Goldmark

In philanthropy, the physics are physics of relativity, they are not Newtonian. For this reason, when you look back three years from now at what we did in the early years of this foundation, you will discover that much more than you think has been determined by the ship, not the ideas, not the geography, not the destination, not the wind. So we have a ship, which is a specific kind of vehicle, and we should start considering some fundamental questions about it.

What is the purpose of a foundation? I will argue to you that its purpose is to defeat two laws. A foundation is a human construction which is designed to have an effect beyond the lifetime of the man that created it, the wealth that founded it, even beyond the lifetime of the first person who benefited from it. The purpose of a foundation is thus to defeat the laws of time. The second is very simple: one way or another when we are engaged in a philanthropic activity we are trying to affect a condition, a possibility, a pattern of behaviour, a system that either we consider unsatisfactory or we wish to see improved. But what we wish to affect is not likely to happen all by itself. Let's say somebody comes to the Carlone Foundation and says: "I have a proposal: if you give me a small amount of money I will make the sun rise in the East tomorrow." That is not interesting. Tomorrow another man comes to the Quattrin Foundation and says: "You give me a small amount of money and I will make the sun rise in the West tomorrow." This is something we can talk about. So the other law a Foundation is designed to defeat is the law of probability, i.e., it should seek to make the improbable happen.

Our ship is a very small ship and the characteristics we want to think of today are related to its size: speed and its decision loop, the processes or dynamics of making decisions. A short story will make my point clearer: during the Korean war, a young American colonel noticed that, although the Russian pilots had better aircraft (the Mig), American pilots won almost every engagement (95% of them). He made a study and discovered that the decision-making process of the American pilots was completely different from that of the Russians. Not only could the American pilots go through the phases of the process (called OODI: Orient yourself, Observe what is going on, Decide what you're going to do and then Initiate action) a lot faster, they could start it all over again as soon as it was over, while the Russians tended to stop. They had totally different decision loops.

Decision loops are very important in the life of foundations and, to survive, the Bassetti Foundation must learn to be faster and better self-correcting than many other larger, slower foundations.

The self-correcting part of this is very important. In a small, fast foundation there must be a brutal process of concentration, intelligent but brutal. Over and over again, you'll have to select only the activities you can do, choosing in an agile and never dogmatic way, taking the chances that the bigger slower ships do not take.

Now ships and captains have a checklist before they sail and I'll give you my sense of what some of the checklist questions should be. The first and most important is: will you have partners? And what kind of partners? It sounds that the logical answer is yes, and it probably is, but the question must be considered.

Second: what is the philosophy of the Foundation, its goals in terms of identity and uniqueness? The issue of uniqueness should not be underestimated: many foundations spend an enormous amount of human, psychological and intellectual energy on trying to be unique rather than effective. What is the aim of the Bassetti Foundation? How much do you want to be able to say you are doing something nobody else is doing? Or do you give priority to the results rather than the recognition that goes with them? It is a very personal choice.

Third point: instruments. Most modern philanthropic institutions use two instrument: the grant and the fellowship. But there are other instruments, such as the investment or the prize. Since we are in world of relativity, it makes a great difference whether you choose one instrument or another. If you wanted to do something about drug addiction with a small amount of money, you might not fund pharmaceutical laboratories or a brilliant scientist, but give a prize of $5 million to the first person who develops a non-addictive blocking agent for cocaine. So there are other tools than the traditional grant and fellowship.

Fourth point: sectors. What sectors are you going to be dealing in: is this a craft that can stay only on the surface or a submarine? Most of the sectors implicitly talked about have been the private sector and to some degree the educational sector, but I would argue that one of the most important sectors for innovation and responsibility in the coming years will be the non-profit sector. Among all the different sectors in human life, which in fact are six (private, public, non-profit, media, religious and criminal, which have their own economies) we must choose the ones we want to be active in.

Let me stop there, except to agree very strongly with what Colombo said. There is indeed an ethical dimension in Bassetti's project. To make it effective, though, make the ethical dimension a performance test. If it is a performance test it will have a different time horizon and then it will be built into the system.

 

Bassetti

I agree the our Foundation is a small ship, as Goldmark said, but the first point I wish you to deal with is what Quattrin called 'awareness'. I believe that before discussing the identity of the ship it is fundamental to find out whether the responsibility recognition loops are clear. They are not, I believe, and I am more and more convinced of that.

The initial work of the Foundation should thus be that of telling businesses: you are irresponsible with regards to a very important problem. Mine is a provocative approach since I believe that in a mass-communication society a small ship has to be provocative if it wants to be heard.

As De Maio said, the true risk for our society is that responsibility is moving from man to systems, and that is a change we are not prepared for. Maybe in the Middle Ages they knew how to manage responsibility in systems (they built cathedrals without designs nor architects), but we are not up to that. We therefore have to choose: do we want to keep considering responsibility as an individual problem or not? And if it is, whose problem is it?

I ask you to acknowledge that the idea of responsibility is very confused and to consider that we could find a niche in having in the courage to work on this assumption, rewarding someone who can theorise about the causes of irresponsibility.

I might be obsolete in my way of thinking, but I believe that the sequence is first the goal and then the designing of the instruments. Your contribution so far confirms this idea, since, as Goldmark said, the identity of a foundation is the priority. When you are small, you have to give priority to quality. And when your activity focuses on thought you have to give the priority to depth. We have almost twenty years of reflection on the subject. Today we are discussing with the ship in the water, for the first time. When the ship is launched, we will have the problem of how to move. I thank you for your analysis so far, which is better organised and more reliable than anything I could get from other sources. Our aim is not complex in its implementation, but in its very essence.


Bassetti

The problem I ask you to deal with now is: to whom is one responsible? For you cannot found any ethical system without having an end in mind. What I had in mind was a contribution to the improvement of society. My uncle was a Catholic and he would have probably been satisfied to know that his work had helped a larger number of people to go to Heaven. Today we have a different measure for productivity. For a long time, we thought that this measure might be wealth. Now we are not so sure anymore. The link between innovation and the improvement of living conditions is clear. But if the measure is not the GNP anymore, what will it be? Happiness? Too difficult to define. Harm reduction, as advocated by the Club of Rome? Thus the problem is not only to decide who is in charge of innovation, but also who is in charge of defining the lines along which innovation should be considered a factor for improvement.

 

Alberoni

(...)

Bassetti's main concern is responsibility, the responsibility of power. Who has the power? Who is responsible? These are his obsessions. Responsible not because one must answer to someone, but because one answers to one's self. In this sense Bassetti does not leave the sphere of morality. We could therefore think of a simpler project, made of useful, feasible activities in the field of the ethics of responsibility by gathering and disseminating highly valuable contributions. The Foundation could make an agreement with a publishing house and organise a series on the subject of, say, the ethics of responsibility, for the next fifty years. Every year we could publish a number of essays in several languages, see to their distribution, advertise them in the media, among intellectuals and so on.

 

Ugo

I think Bassetti conceives the problem of responsibility in social terms, without limiting it to businesses. This view, though, does not allow for the concept of innovation.

To this end we should perhaps introduce a second classification. At any rate, our discussion is highlighting one point: the entrepreneur is in fact not responsible for innovation, not because he does not want to, but because he cannot follow the loop to the end. This is the issue we have to debate: can the entrepreneur manage the whole loop, after initiating it? Or, if he cannot, how can he make sure the loop is responsible? This is the basis for our discussion.

 

Masulli

The social construction theory of innovation is important in this respect, but it has mainly been used to study the impact of new technologies on third world countries or other contexts, in order to facilitate their exportation and optimise their impact. Most studies in this field were carried out with this object in mind.

Being a historian, I have another pessimistic consideration to make: the ethics of responsibility cannot be taught. You cannot teach anybody to think in the interest of future generations. Apart from the fact that there are several major foundations already working in this field, history tells us that man cannot be taught to be more responsible. Many innovations take shape in a totally contingent way, the industrial revolution being the most famous example. My point is: can we conceive a type of innovation with different scientific and social foundations than in the past? An innovation conceived and shaped in such a way that it only acts as a tool for change and nothing else? This is the theoretical challenge, the reason why I was mentioning all the studies dealing with how to prepare for the unpredictable.

(...) I suggest we should promote a theoretical study to design a new way to conceive innovation, to socially construct technology.

 

Colombo

First of all, I must say that in listening to Bassetti's words I detect an ideological prejudice, especially when he says that certain categories are not responsible. From my point of view, the media, entrepreneurs etc. cannot be said to be irresponsible: they are responsible but in a different way, with another scale of values. We must be open and refrain from accusing others of irresponsibility, since that would be counterproductive.

I mentioned the relation between short and long term. I did not mean to deny the role of the short term: we live in a world of sharks and if we think too much to the long term, we will be eaten alive while we try and change the world. Thus we have to balance our interest for the short and long term.

As to size, the world goes through fashions, each contradicting the preceding one. In the '50s and '60s, the emphasis was on economies of scale. Then we discovered big scale diseconomies and the emphasis shifted to downsizing. Finally, in the information age, the prevailing philosophy has become that of outsourcing, streamlining, just-in-time production etc. We are now witnessing a new phase of mergers aimed at enhancing the core business of companies, and I believe this is not the end of the story. I am fairly reluctant to accept the dogma of big size and I wonder whether the Foundation should not be more relevant to the Italian reality.

SMEs are the true backbone of Italian economy. The prevailing approach is to make them grow, with the help of industrial districts and incremental innovation that spreads very easily in the system. But, what will be the next phase? The fashionable idea with the government is to let SMEs grow without paying much attention to the role of science, technology, innovation. The Italian government thinks the innovation we have is sufficient, since in the past we have in fact been innovating without research. But is that true? And is the situation going to be the same in the future?

If you take average data for industrialised countries and see the need for engineers in other industrialised countries with similar GNP, you find the number is 25-30,000 engineers per year. Italy barely reaches half that number, and yet only the engineers graduating from the very best universities find a job right after leaving school. This is due to the fact that Italy does not make use of science and technologies and has an opportunistic approach to innovation. This is related to the issue of responsibility. I wanted to add this local dimension because I am sure Giovanni Bassetti would have wanted to be relevant to the problems of his country.

 

Carlone

In order to define the scope of action of the Foundation I think we need to distinguish between two fundamental concepts: the effect of innovation and its impact. The impact of innovation is connected to the role of public opinion, which is basically guided by the mass media, exerting a major influence on the allocation of funds for research. The effect, on the other hand, concerns real society, the ways in which innovation can influence people's lives, by tackling problems like poverty, the North-South gap etc.

Given this distinction, we have to decide whether we want to act on the whole society, sending out a message related to ethics and responsibility of innovation, or if we want to restrict our action to the companies that produce innovation. I believe we should opt for the second path.

(...) The Foundation should try and convince those who work in the most advanced fields of technology and innovation that they have to design their communication projects carefully, while recognising the fundamental role of communication. Until the expressions "public understanding of science" and "public awareness" remain without a precise equivalent in the Italian language, we will have a problem. And something should be done about that.

(...)

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