ICARUS, the journey begins

The challenge for clean, secure energy with lower emissions will be won through innovation.  But, contrary to popular belief, innovation is not the stroke of genius of a solitary inventor, and the best research is not necessarily carried out by brilliant minds segregated in a laboratory.  The idea of a thoughtful Thomas Edison who imagines a different future, lighting a lamp like in a comic book is beguiling, but that’s not what really happens.  The key to success, even for Edison, was the work of his incredible team, composed of specialists that knew how to gather and connect many ideas in that laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, and to work in a way that connected them with the needs of their growing country.

Innovation is often the fruit of a creative recombination of thoughts, persons and objects belonging to diverse contexts and disciplines. How important it is to connect persons who think of solutions with persons who have a clear idea of what the problems are is well understood by successful innovators as IT firms. Equally, DARPA, the US Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, knows this very well: they are one of the most successful cases of cooperation between government laboratories.  The novices of a discipline are often those who succeed in forging connections between diverse fields and apparently non-orthodox approaches.  As Einstein once said; “Everybody knows that something can’t be done and then somebody turns up and he doesn’t know it can’t be done and he does it.” But this ingenuity is difficult to maintain as time goes by and habits become ingrained, only a few giants resist this kind of aging.

The invention of the European Research Council scholarship, for start-ups of independent research careers, has endorsed this philosophy.  Instead of waiting for brilliant researchers to turn 50 or 60 before giving them the possibility of creating their autonomous research team, they finance young promising individuals immediately.  Personally, after I got my PhD, I decided to abandon the Italian University system to pursue a career in research focused on the socio-economic aspects of climate change, with particular attention to technological innovation in the energy sector.  I am convinced that the decision to award me one of the prestigious ERC grants depends not only on the research topic proposed, but also on the desire for independence that emerges from the choices made throughout my brief career and on my declared will to avoid an authoritarian and centralizing approach toward the researchers who work in my group.

ICARUS, the project financed by the ERC, allowed me to get together researchers from the most disparate backgrounds with the common intent to answer the question; “how can Europe stimulate the innovations necessary to radically transform the way we produce and consume energy?” We will focus on the history of innovation (the function of patents, the role of the public and private sectors). To avoid dangerous lock-ins into the present, which are the worst enemy of transformation, we will gather the ideas of those experts who create visions of the future.  We will explore ideas as disparate as the genetic application of organisms that convert sunlight into fuel, the production of painting with miniscule photovoltaic cells, the technological barriers to innovation and the role of policies. Together with a great research team I will make the results of our project available to policy makers and scientists and I will share the data with other research groups, because I am convinced that the main driver of change is the diffusion of ideas.