by STIRworldApr 15, 2020
There is a way of saying here: “Milan l’è un gran Milan”. It means “Milan is big in any single way”. The pandemic has made us stronger.
- Ferruccio Resta
Rector of the Politecnico di Milano (Polimi) and President of the CRUI (Conference of Italian University Rectors)
At the helm of the oldest university in Milan and the largest technical institution in Italy that offers engineering, architecture, and design courses to over 200,000 students from the world over, Politecnico di Milano’s Rector Ferruccio Resta speaks with STIR about the changes COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the educational model of Polimi and sheds light on the key infrastructural and technological developments that the university is spearheading to contribute to Milan’s urban fabric.
Zohra Khan (ZK): How do universities contribute in actualising urban change and innovation? Considering Politecnico di Milano, what do you think has been its driving force all these years?Ferruccio Resta (FR): Universities play a decisive role in leading urban change. In Milan, they have contributed to the reconversion of entire neighbourhoods. Just think about the fact that they attract something like 200,000 young people from all over the world, asking for spaces and services that meet international standards. A university population comparable to Boston. Innovation and internationalisation are the driving forces as regards Politecnico di Milano. In the 1990s, we literally changed the Bovisa area, reconverting a post-industrial district into a place of knowledge with new laboratories and research workplaces. A few months ago, we inaugurated the new Campus of Architecture, designed by Renzo Piano, who by the way graduated at Polimi itself. A 9,000 square metre university ground funded by both private and public contributions. Symbolically, a “factory of ideas”, as Piano calls it, combining revitalised old buildings with new and efficient ones.
ZK: Could you describe your role as the Rector of Politecnico di Milano? In what areas do you contribute majorly?
FR: Leading a university, especially a big one, is quite demanding. My aim is to keep the whole community together: 47,000 students; 1,400 researchers; 1,200 employees. A big responsibility. To foster common values. To listen to everyone’s ideas and suggestions, making a synthesis of their concerns and ambitions. To motivate them. A challenging role, especially since February 2020 when COVID-19 hit the scene, shuffling the cards on the table, putting people’s safety at risk and limiting social interchange. That is why we need to put the individual at the centre of our policies and actions, a key pillar in our Strategic Plan well before the spreading of the virus. After all we have been through, now more than ever, I am sure that nurturing talent and well-being is the key to any successful attempt in research and education.
ZK: In what ways did the pandemic impact the university and how did the system react to it?
FR: The pandemic has been unexpected and devastating. Italy was the first country in Europe to be impacted by the coronavirus, with Milan specifically being the hardest-hit city. Italian universities stumbled but quickly found a way to get back on track and to do even better in terms of admissions nationwide. We reacted rapidly. Within just a couple of weeks, we were able to turn our teaching system into virtual classes. Exams took place regularly and students were able to graduate. Eventually, everything turned out fine. All things considered, we have become more digital and innovative in teaching. Our international liaisons have strengthened in the attempt of sharing best practice and insights with other universities abroad. Now students have come back on campus for a new academic year, slowly regaining their place in society. It is time to look ahead and turn this new season of reforms, opened by the NPRR, into an amazing possibility to reform the system.
ZK: Have there been any revisions made in the design and architectural curriculum in view of the global crisis?
FR: Of course, curricula have been revised. Digitalisation has become a central process, which nevertheless has to be governed. We need to find a balance between real and virtual classes. Presence is fundamental in a university path which, first of all, is a life experience based on mutual sharing, teamwork, empathy, interaction… all things that require people to be together in a real environment. Besides, education is more and more based on a multidisciplinary approach, where technology and humanities need to work together — engineering and medicine, architecture and sociology, design and biotechnology — to address the big changes introduced by sustainability and digital innovation, affecting every possible sector and context in our lives.
I am an optimist. There is no such thing as a difficulty. There are complexities. And I like being challenged so much!
ZK: As Politecnico di Milano campus is woven into Milan’s urban fabric, what have been some of the key consequences in the way the city has been impacted from the pandemic?
FR: Politecnico di Milano’s campus is well integrated within the city itself and interconnected with local institutions and companies. We know that a great part of our attractiveness, when it comes to foreign students, is due to the fascination and reputation of Milan. The only and truly European city in Italy. At the same time, we know that we need to contribute to it heavily, proving first class campus and services. With new opportunities in research through equipped labs and facilities; with new prospects in studying, social aids and inclusive policies; with spaces that are welcoming, which means not only more residences and dorms, but also sports facilities and social programs. The pandemic has shaken Milan to its foundations, but the city is strong, supportive and sympathetic. There is a way of saying here: “Milan l’è un gran Milan”. It means “Milan is big in any single way”. The pandemic has made us stronger.
ZK: Tell us about the idea behind OFF CAMPUS.
FR: OFF CAMPUS is promoted by Polisocial, our Social Responsibility Program. It aims at strengthening the presence of Politecnico di Milano inside the city, following the principle of a university that is more responsible, open, aware of social challenges and closer to the community. Teachers, researchers and students develop innovative projects and interventions with a positive impact on the community. Politecnico di Milano has been working for years in the San Siro neighbourhood, especially through the Mapping San Siro Research and Action Lab. A second Off Campus space is located in the Nolo district, thanks to the work carried out by the POLIMI DESIS Lab.
ZK: I believe you once said that Milan’s infrastructure is one of Italy’s weakest points. If so, what according to you are some of the key difficulties that this issue renders on the university?
FR: Well, I really do not recollect such a strong assertion. Milan’s infrastructure is actually one of the best in the country, a forerunner. Politecnico di Milano is working with the municipality and quite a number of businesses on a futuristic 5G network that is going to be one of the best in Europe. We have designed and are now implementing an autonomous driving circuit taking into account local traffic and public means of transport. We have been working on electric vehicles and car sharing systems. All things considered, university has no problem in developing joint research. But what is essential is that Milan is not interpreted as a unicum, an exception. We need to work on innovative infrastructures all over the country. Technology is ready. We can apply sensors and artificial intelligence to roads, tracks and cars. We can improve safety measures and logistics. It is not a question of what we can do, but if and when we can do it. What we need are strategic decisions and investments in mobility and infrastructure. I think the European funds are a good occasion to modernise Italian infrastructures and there is no question that universities are an enabling factor.
ZK: Could you tell us about the agreement that Politecnico di Milano has signed with the Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport? How does this proposal benefit the university and furthermore the city of Milan?
FR: The agreement was signed in 2020 and lasts three years. It is based on four pillars: urban regeneration with road infrastructures and monitoring systems; transmission and maintenance systems; smart roads, autonomous and connected vehicles, with pilot projects in various urban areas on the national territory; and analysis of strategic investment plans and programs for transport and logistic infrastructures in a European perspective. The agreement is not specifically meant for Milan, but it is intended to guarantee the country a modern infrastructure. To open a gateway to Europe and make the Italian system competitive.
ZK: What is the most difficult part about being in your shoes?
FR: I am an optimist. There is no such thing as a difficulty. There are complexities. And I like being challenged so much!
ZK: Where do you see your alma mater in the next 10 years?
FR: At Politecnico di Milano, we are architects, designers and engineers. We do not have dreams, we have plans! We are already working on long-term vision called “Polimi 2040” and thinking about the way university will change in the next 20 years or so. Polimi has clearly outlined its mission, that of a leading university in Europe, facing the challenges of innovation to address the major issues of tomorrow's society. Technology is an indispensable tool for relaunching and directing a socially balanced economic development. We will not miss this chance. A university that plays a decisive role within society: this is what Polimi should look for in the next 10 years.