Rome. ICT, Smart Data and Innovation in Italian Engineering Education & Practice. An Interview with Angelo Valsecchi, Secretary-General of CNI (National Council of Italian Engineers)

Rome, Italy

Angelo Valsecchi is the Secretary-General of CNI (National Council of Italian Engineers) from 2016 to the present day and Councilor of CNI from 2011 to 2016. Within CNI, he mainly deals with innovation in engineering, with a particular focus to biomedical engineering. He strongly follows all aspects related to technological innovation and digitalization.

 He graduated in Civil Engineering (Transport Section) at the Polytechnic of Milan in 1992. Since the early 90s, he has been involved in the design, supervision, maintenance, and management of bridges. In this period, he has constructed several bridges and viaducts, among which: – The Cesare Cantù cable-stayed bridge over the Adda River, situated between the towns of Calolziocorte and Olginate; – The steel arch bridge over the Pioverna stream; – The Rivabella viaduct in Lecco, built over the Lecco-Milan railway line; – The cantilever bridge over Lake Varenna made to allow the construction of a roundabout.

He has also carried out important maintenance work on older bridge structures and viaducts, in particular on the early 20th-century masonry arch bridges along the provincial road 62 between
Bellano and Taceno, as well as on the Brivio Bridge where he consolidated the foundations. He is also co-author of several publications concerning design and construction of bridges and
viaducts and their monitoring. Angelo was born in Lecco on 12/04/1966. 

VG: Angelo, what is, in your opinion, the biggest challenge that Italian engineers and the profession of engineering in general face today?

AV: We face today many challenges, generated both by the particular dynamics of the engineering services market and by the strong acceleration of technological and process innovation. The engineering services market, in which freelancers in particular operate, has undergone, in the end, marked deceleration phases alternated with very limited phases of growth. The economic situation was not favorable for us, especially in areas of engineering linked to the construction sector. The difficulties of the past push us to understand that we should continue to invest heavily in lifelong learning, in order to “maintain” appropriately the knowledge and skills we have available. In my opinion, only through adequate training that lasts the entire life cycle of our work can we remain able to understand the changes and adequately deal with a labor market, that has not only many critical aspects but is also rapidly changing.

Then there is a second challenge, closely related to the market conditions, which concerns the organizational innovation of the professional work. In an expanding market, as it has been for a long time in the past, the engineer placed in a small or very small professional studio worked. Today the supply of knowledge-intensive professional services, as in the case of engineers, requires a more articulated organization of work and greater “critical mass” to better penetrate the market.

The aggregation between professionals and the belonging of the single professional to one or more networks of interchange of competences today represent ways to take and on which the CNI itself is investing. Then there is the further aspect of the technological innovation, for which most of the time engineers are protagonists, but which also, imposes on freelancers a sort of “upgrading” of skills. This is the case when using BIM for the design and overall management of a project; when acquiring the knowledge of the new Technical Standards for the Construction; the use of new materials, the ability to be the first referents in a delicate and complex area like that one of managing emergencies and securing the territory. In this case, the challenge is twofold: not only it concerns the ability to constantly raise our skills, but also to accredit us more and more, in public institutions and in the public opinion, as a category capable of appropriately managing complex situations.

VG: How does the chamber of Engineers support its community towards its challenges? And what is your personal vision on this behalf?

AV: Precisely in the light of these transformations, CNI and the territorial chambers in recent years have not only intensified but also have tried to identify priority axes of progression in the field of professional engineering. This happens through the lines of intervention to support professionals who could favor the transition from what could be defined as “the old scenario” to the “new” one in which the market, as mentioned above, has become more complex, more turbulent, more restricted, with greater competition, with diminishing profit margins. 

For some time we have been questioning the specific skills that the market is asking engineers for. CNI is aware of the fact that engineers who graduate from Italian universities have very high levels of knowledge; yet we are aware that, despite everything, there is still a strong mismatch between the competencies acquired when entering the market, and those that the market itself is searching from the individual graduate.  For this reason, the challenge becomes to guarantee to each of our members within our system, lifelong learning of an increasingly higher level. Moreover, the CNI continues to work in collaboration with the Universities and with the Ministry for the University and Research in order to direct the degree courses in the most appropriate way possible. The horizon of the intervention of our order system is now very wide and obviously, we do not want to stop here.

We are present in all institutional and working tables that deal with issues or that produce rules that have a direct impact on the exercise of the engineering profession: from round tables about the university education to the one of industry 4.0 and digital innovation, by governmental agencies that deal with territorial security and risk prevention, up to parliamentary committees that deal with matters such as administrative simplification, infrastructure safety, emergency management, professional work and subsidiary. These ate seemingly far from engineering but instead involve, especially the freelancers, in a decisive way. Simply, I would like to say that today the system of the Chamber of Engineers tries to have a clear understanding of the complexity of the context in which we move and to give active support to the members precisely by acting on several fronts.

VG: There is a lot of discussion about the use of new technologies in many layers of our profession. For example, the use of data receives a great deal of focus in engineering schools and the real estate market right now. Why is that in your opinion? 

AV: We engineers, have a sort of competitive advantage over most of the professionals working in the market: many of the innovations, even those in the digital field and the so-called data science, originate either from engineering schools or from engineers. This is an aspect that we should not forget when interpreting our present and, above all, our future. For us, it is clear that data and their management capacity is an instrument of growth and, probably, they are the frontier of innovation. We are technicians, so I believe that none of us hasn’t understood that data, their management, and their safety are now of significant importance and will generate areas of specialization in the engineering field, guaranteeing job opportunities especially for young generations. Without going very far, in the fields of data science, it is sufficient to think that BIM is nothing but the product of the digital revolution of recent years. It involves new and old generations of engineers and largely revolutionizes the ways of designing and managing works, from the simplest to the most complex. This is a rather consistent paradigm shift, which requires training and preparation for the “cultural transition”. For these reasons, the CNI intends to promote specific training activities for members; because paradigm shifts must be accompanied.

VG: How digital technologies and smart data will change the way we live in cities? 

AV: As already demonstrated by consolidated experiences in different urban realities around the world, digital technologies are in fact the precondition and the tool to create smart cities. The availability of a large amount of data on phenomena and flows that are generated in a specific urban context, allow us to understand or identify critical issues, plan interventions, identifying possible risks already in the planning phase. In some cases, they also allow us to foresee, possible events or threats, or even to gather information and opinions of those who live in a specific urban context in order to better finalize any investments, capable of responding to the actual needs of end users. From a theoretical and practical point of view, digital technologies and connected tools can improve the quality of life; of course, it is also necessary to understand how administrators and local ruling classes actually use these tools. Technology makes no sense if it is used invasively and if the general good is not the goal.

VG: Which do you think are the next steps in the engineering agenda in order to remain relevant in the technological reality that is arriving?

I would like to answer that engineering is already at the forefront as most technological innovations originate from engineering itself. This does not exempt us from defining an agenda of future innovations, but from having a “cultural” vision of what we want from technological innovation. It is anyway clear that there are areas that will have a direct impact on all engineers, even those working in the profession: not only digital technologies but also new materials, safety management in all its different forms and in different contexts, energy saving and new design techniques through new tools and methods. The more we pay attention to these areas, dialoguing with the scientific community and among us professionals, the more we will be able to maintain our competitive ability high.

VG: What advice would you give to prospective students thinking about an education and career in engineering?

AV: To those students who intend to study in the field of engineering, I would simply advise them to tackle this path with commitment, curiosity, and passion. Studying engineering means, not only acquiring a method to deal with complex situations but also to observe the world in an open, reflective and critical way.

Valina Geropanta and Angelo Valsecchi—

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