The harsh lesson of the pandemic has made us understand how digital transformation and scientific research are now a necessary condition to cope with the difficulties presented on a global scale. Important is the focus on research and development in the Information & Communication Technologies sector and investments in digital R&D, sectors that are constantly increasing and able to attract resources from abroad. Although compared to 2017 there is a slight increase in ICT investments in our country, the results achieved are still much lower than our potential and weigh on GDP just over half of the EU average. So, what are the developments of ICT research in Italy to date?
ICT IN ITALY: THE 1ST REPORT ON RESEARCH AND INNOVATION
According to the 1st ICT Research and Innovation Report in Italy, presented by Anitec-Assinform, the Association for Information and Communication Technology (ICT) of Confindustria in collaboration with APRE – the Agency for the Promotion of European Research, ICT companies have invested about 2.6 billion euros in research and innovation (R&I). Certainly, a figure that is growing but still much lower than the European average. Although the 2019 figure confirms a positive trend, for the 2020 there is a risk of growth slowed by the effects of the health crisis.
The much-debated relaunch program, based on the multi-year recovery plan promoted by the European Union, assigns a fundamental role to digital and accentuates the need to promote the R&D sector and increase investments in ICT research in order to keep up with European technological leaders.
Surely the pandemic has accelerated the digital transition process and the focus on R&D. There was an increase in university subscriptions, an increase in investment by computer and equipment companies (+4.8%) and – although with almost derisory growth – telecommunications services (+0.3%). Although the improvements are visible and foresee continuous and positive growth, specific skills must be strengthened by encouraging more young people, especially women, to orient themselves towards the skills of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), in order to respond to the growing demand coming from sectors such as: robotics, artificial intelligence, biomedicine, and energy.
ICT IN ITALY: SOME NUMBERS
ICT companies’ R&D investments in Italy amount to only 12% of the total international funding envisaged by the sector and correspond to 0.15% of GDP; lower values and proportions than those achieved by Germany (0.21%) and the EU (0.22%). R&D staff and ICT researchers rose 13.1% and 20.6% respectively.
In addition, thanks to the new funds allocated by the EU for Horizon Europe (HEU), the next European Framework Programme for Research and Innovation for the period 2021-2027, which will succeed Horizon 2020 (2014-2020), our country is expected to have a budget share of 7.9%.
However, the total funds allocated in Italy remain undersized, with a ratio of public allocation for ICT R&D to GDP of 0.045%, while Germany is up to 0.054%. A percentage that, although clearly increasing, is still about 160 million euros far from the German European technological leader.
In Italy, companies have started to consider digitalisation as a ‘natural’ condition and to equip themselves to seize all the opportunities it offers. The request for a better structuring of IT systems – and their opening towards the cloud – is now ubiquitous, as well as the need to be able to analyse, through bBig dData, the digital heritage in order to obtain accurate insights on the performance of organisations and to be able to make forecasts on future phenomena.
The regional PAs, for their part, are undergoing a decisive process of modernisation: both the health sector and the local public administration sector are effectively engaged in digitalising their relationship with citizens and their internal management procedures.
The ICTct and digital technologies market in Italy is growing at two speeds, with a decline in the traditional ITt sector and a strong push towards more innovative digital technologies. Overall, the sector as a whole lost 0.1% in 2020 and will grow 4.2% in 2021, but ITIt alone fell -2.8% in 2020 and will fall back 0.5% this year. In contrast, the market for new digital technologies (such as cloud, collaboration, AI, machine learning, 5G, IoT, blockchain, …) grew by 2.5% in 2020 and will grow again by 6.8% this year.
TOWARDS A DIGITAL AND INNOVATIVE FUTURE
The development of ICT technologies is therefore a fundamental element to promote innovation and the competitiveness of the entire economy. A high positioning in the ICT sector and research and development is in fact synonymous with high social and economic indicators:
By 2021, the market is expected to recover, with growth of 3.5% and improving dynamics in all sectors. With the exception of network services, which are declining, but less so, the components associated with the increasing digitisation and automation of collaborative processes at various levels (from education to healthcare, citizen services and e-commerce) and solutions for the digitisation of supply chains, a process that had slowed down in 2020, will continue to grow. The fastest growing digital enablers include artificial intelligence, blockchain, cloud, big data, cybersecurity and web management platforms.
Despite the critical issues regarding the results achieved in Italy regarding the production and use of digital technologies in the context of ongoing digital transformation, data on R&D at companies in the ICT sector and on public appropriations for research and development show significant developments compared to previous years and point out a greater commitment on the part of our country in its quest towards the development of technological innovations and investments in ICT.
Among the main trends emerging and characterising the phase of positive transition of the digital market in our country, it should be noted that the health emergency has been a determining factor in the acceleration of digital transformation.
In recent years, the issue of change management has increasingly proved to be the key to the success of transformation processes: one company in two (more than 40% compared to last year) now indicates it as the main critical aspect to be taken into account if it wants to change. The pandemic has undoubtedly led to greater acceptance of new developments by people, but the fact remains that it is not enough to introduce a new technology, it must be accompanied by a review of processes and a change of mindset, i.e. a rethinking of activities, if you really want to encourage a change of pace.
The opportunities we face, partly proposed by the difficulties brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, urge ICT companies, research institutions, universities and Italian social and political actors to set themselves the goal of innovating and achieving the average standards of European technological leaders.
Research centres such as PMF Research, which has been involved in countless international R&D projects since 2003, can provide a considerable boost in this direction.