Interview with Paola Fantini, Politecnico of Milano

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Posted on January 18, 2016

Paola Fantini is currently Research Coordinator at Politecnico di Milano, Department of Economics, Management and Industrial Engineering. Her research and innovation area is sustainability, and more specifically social sustainable and human centered manufacturing, the seamless integration of humans in cyber physical production systems in the emerging Industry 4.0 paradigm. With the university foundation, Fondazione Politecnico di Milano, she has led  the development of a novel social sustainability concept for the Factories of the Future  within the SO SMART CSA project, funded by the EC under the FP7 FoF framework.  She is also involved in the MAN-MADE “MANufacturing through ergonoMic and safe Anthropocentric aDaptive workplacEs for contextaware factories in EUROPE” project and is responsible researching the seamless integration of humans cyber physical production systems in the PERFoRM “Production harmonizEd  Reconfiguration of Flexible Robots and Machinery” project within H2020.

By the expression “social innovation” we mean innovation process that meet social needs. In the light of the ongoing challenges, society has to respond with a different approach that produces social innovation through the synergy between different players (universities, social enterprises, industry). How is it possible to create shared values through this process? Nowadays, thanks to the help of technology, agriculture, industry and services require less use of people. There are resources becoming more and more available which can develop and support services aimed at helping people, families, organizations, if they will be properly supported by forward-looking policies and encouraged by a close multi-actors comparison between needs and abilities.

What role will women play in the construction of the new society in the light of the Fourth Industrial Revolution? Women will have a bigger and more equal role than men, even with different kind of contributions. The Fourth Industrial Revolution will help to remove many constraints and physical subjections and also many cultural deposits formed in industry and society’s history. Women are acquiring higher skills in different disciplines and they excel in many fields of study. They should penetrate more science and technology areas, not because these areas are more important, but because, if you are unfamiliar with these disciplines, you are likely to be frightened and do not succeed to capitalize other knowledge, in an increasingly interdependent and complex contexts.

Successful business need a healthy society and a healthy society needs successful business”. Starting from this statement, in the next future what kind of practices and companies policies must be implemented to improve economic and social conditions in order to create added value? There may be many recipes. Attention to customers, to employees, to all actors who can participate in value’s creation. A company culture open to the exchange of ideas, collaboration, respect for people and the environment. Partnerships extensive networks with institutions, schools, research institutions, non-profit and profit organizations, individual customers and citizens. A company culture projected towards new ideas and new balances and not to the preservation of privileges for managers and shareholders. Clear policies and effective control mechanisms. Support to their team in order to balance work and private life.

What are the foreseeable risks of Industry 4.0 and new technologies? What are the
possible solutions?
With Industry 4.0, industrial production will undergo a transfer phenomenon of activities control from the physical-material to the digital-abstract layer. The risk for workers is to lose autonomy and to be constantly monitored. Widespread sensors’ networks together with sophisticated algorithms could control and guide workers actions and behavior, both with reference to the workers on the shop floor than to other professionals. Decision-making will belong to those who will define the architecture and the logic of integrated systems that are the backbone of Industry 4.0. With proper precautions, Industry 4.0 will lead to positive scenarios: workers will be increasingly assisted by technology in activities that require physical or cognitive load, freeing up creative and critical resources in order to participate to the innovation of products and services, of processes and systems, benefiting from the network of collaboration and from sharing of ideas with customers, colleagues, suppliers, schools and other stake-holders. In my opinion culture and skills represent the pre-requisites: a participatory culture, about sharing and respect, that permeates the companies and society; the diffusion at all levels of the competences needed to understand the meaning of their own work and that of the others; the skills necessary to dominate rather than be subject to technologies and finally a systemic vision.

How it will evolve the “workforce” in the light of the adoption of new business models, new technologies and the recent migration, completely different than a few decades ago? The workforce will be more varied. Finally most of the barriers that prevented people who were not male, in full force, with high and medium skills, inserted in the local social context, to approach to industrial work will fall. Thanks to technology and digitization, there will be more opportunities for women, migrants, for the elderly and for people with disabilities. The professionalism will increase. Technical and cross skills, collaboration skills, problem solving and innovation skills will become necessary.

How do you see future’s society? We could have two possible scenarios. In the first, power, enhanced by technology, will be in the hands of a few: of those who hold property and use rights and of a few super-specialists able to rule the development, while the rest of the population will be always controlled and deprived of the opportunity and ability to determine the evolution of society and the course of their lives. In the second scenario, which I support, a horizontal society, with greater diversity, individuality and culture, wider and more intense participation and collaboration.

In our project, we decided not to speak directly of “gender equality” also because we strongly believe in the appreciation of differences. In this sense, what it is in your opinion the contribution that your “being a woman” offers to your work? And this is a problem or an enrichment? How does it is perceived by the team you work with? I think being a woman, or rather the female component of each of us, gives a broader awareness, embracing the overall objectives of the organization and the community as a whole. The female part also helps in the ability to read emotions and try to put at their ease the stakeholders and the members of a working group. On the other hand, sometimes this wealth of perspectives makes more difficult to focus on the goals and make decisions based on their role and responsibilities if they are not well accepted by the team members. In the field of research, it is important to maintain both high motivation and creativity of the team, which is a task for which the female nature gives us an advantage. At the same time it is important to bring the team to deliver excellent results within the deadlines, a task for which I have to exercise more control on myself to be effective. Finally, one of the aspects on which I’m still working on and that I think it’s useful for women is learning to communicate our ideas in a more clear and concise way.


About the Author

Valentina Zoccali was born in Reggio Calabria (IT) in 1986. After a Bachelor’s degree in Letters and Philosophy, Valentina Zoccali studied Social Media Marketing and in 2008 she started to work in the fields of communication, advertising and culture. In 2012 she was appointed as Secretary General of S-Com. Besides carrying out tasks related to the management of the association and liaison with EU institutions and EU stakeholders, she has been managing the communication and dissemination of several EU-funded research projects. In 2015 she designed and launched the WISE4ALL (Women for an Innovative Society in Europe ) initiative to promote collaborative and multidisciplinary approaches, aimed at establishing more inclusive social models starting from women participation.