BAM! interviews Prof. Andrea Bonaccorsi about innovation, business and the hard life of humanities graduates, starting with the experience of Fondazione Golinelli’s Summer School in Entrepreneurship in Humanities
Does the business world need humanities graduates? Can they bring added value to the world of innovation? And if yes, what kind?
We met Andrea Bonaccorsi, full professor of Management Engineering at the Università di Pisa, to talk about innovation and business culture, and to try answering these questions.
Andrea Bonaccorsi is also the man behind the Summer School in Entrepreneurship in Humanities, a programme developed by the Fondazione Golinelli and targeted at young humanities graduates, exploring the subject of doing business on the basis of humanities-related knowledge.
He was interviewed by our own Alice Merenda Somma, who attended the first Summer School in 2018.
How did the Fondazione Golinelli’s Summer School in Entrepreneurship in Humanities come about?
The Summer School in Entrepreneurship in Humanities is something new for the Fondazione Golinelli because it covers a sector of activity, namely entrepreneurship among humanities graduates, that is under-represented in the world of startup acceleration. Indeed, in the Fondazione’s experience, this world is primarily targeted at scientific areas, particularly life sciences.
The Summer School is the result of the coming together of the vision of its founder Marino Golinelli, a scientist, entrepreneur and also contemporary art expert and collector, and an idea that I developed by creatively combining components of experiences from my working and academic life.
Let me explain myself better. Entrepreneurship is a necessary chapter of all research and teaching regarding innovation, which is my field. For years, I have been doing activities on entrepreneurial creation, especially as regards advanced technology, both in the classroom and with startup groups. Moreover, I have been mentoring the launch and growth of a number of high-tech spin-offs in Pisa for many years.
While at Anvur in Rome (national agency for university and research assessment, ed.), I got to know, worked and even fought with numerous humanities graduates, when working on the design of research assessment systems. As a result I began to admire them immensely. I found myself up against people with a huge intellect, an unlimited passion for research and also (and perhaps this is less obvious) a methodological stringency that was in no way inferior to that of the pure sciences.
I reached the conclusion that this world needed innovation, especially due to the dramatic mismatch that exists between a high-level academic and Phd education in the humanities, which has its origins in a longstanding and glorious Italian tradition, and the corresponding employment opportunities, which are often very modest.
Why should the world of humanities graduates and postgraduates be completely excluded from a reflection on innovative entrepreneurship? The Summer School was created to respond to this need, starting with a creative recombination of two worlds, entrepreneurship and humanities research, which I have inhabited in parallel.
Do humanities graduates need business or does business need humanities graduates?
This is an interesting question because businesses began employing humanities graduates many years ago, but only in very particular situations: either when things are going well, in digital activities that require a particular education and intellectual brilliance, or alternatively, in human resources management where, especially in recruitment, the HR component that looks at psychological analysis skills, introspective capacity and empathy in interviews has a good tradition of forming a connection with humanities-based education.
But that’s all. Otherwise humanities graduates are generally offered more modest roles. This is a waste of resources. I believe that companies still need to reflect extensively on this issue.
I suggest overturning the terms. We’ve only just begun to understand the economic potential arising from the combination of profound humanities-related knowledge and new technologies, and in all fields of cultural fruition (museums, education, publishing, concerts, but also tourism, entertainment, and even video games) there is enormous and unexplored potential.
Can you give us an example?
The world of video games, a market with a bigger worldwide turnover than the music industry. It has been seen that setting games in places full of history, culture and a humanities-based tradition (I’m thinking of Italian medieval villages, such as Monteriggioni, which is a famous example) has an enormous impact: millions of people become motivated to study the history of medieval villages in Italy, because this is necessary to continue the game.
This example may seem trivial, because we see video games as being far removed from humanities-related culture, but we should instead reflect on the entrepreneurial capacity to imagine different uses.
We should remember that in the coming years the degree of cultural integration between great cultures will be enormous – I’m thinking of the recent work of an Arab author who, reflecting on his own biographical story, reinterprets fourteenth-century Sienese art from the point of view of a non-Western culture (Hisham Matar, A Month in Siena, ed.).
An infinite number of worlds open up and there is room for an original definition that Italian humanities graduates are entitled to make, provided they are guided into the entrepreneurial venture with a minimum of encouragement.
This example of video games makes me think of the controversy regarding Mahmood’s video shot at the Museo Egizio in Turin.
I’m afraid I haven’t seen it!
Whenever something of this kind occurs, someone claims that cultural heritage has been sold out to a commercial operation.
Some time ago I wrote a post on LinkedIn, featuring a photo of Chiara Ferragni at the Uffizi rotated by 180 degrees, as if to say I’m not keen on the issue. In general I would say we’ve gone backwards. The Summer School in Entrepreneurship in Humanities has taught me that young people are far beyond this type of debate.
I’d initially conceived the Summer School with a long introduction entrusted entirely to humanities graduates, as if a gradual approach to the topic of cultural entrepreneurship were needed. Instead, I discovered a desire to go directly to the heart of the matter: to understand how the subject of value in its various components, including economic aspects, can be approached from a humanities-based starting point.
In order to do all this, we need to experiment. One of the innovator’s classic mottos is: “better to say sorry than ask for permission”. We have to be much more tolerant and experiment more.
I get the impression that humanities graduates also have a certain distrust of the business world, for cultural and/or political reasons.
This is a complex matter and there are various different dimensions to the answer.
Let’s get started: there’s certainly an Italian tradition that has radicalised the difference between public and private asset, assigning the dimension of public asset to the world of culture and the humanities, but also putting the subject of preservation and care in first place and instead assuming that the subject of fruition is secondary or even commercial.
I think this is the wrong way of looking at things, and it is also progressively contradicted by the facts. I’m thinking, for example, of the controversy that followed Minister Franceschini’s appointment of museum directors. If we take an empirical look at the results, the controversy was unfounded: in many of these experiments, from the Uffizi to Pompeii, Caserta and Turin, the results have been extraordinary.
So this cultural line is certainly there, but it doesn’t appear to be supported by the evidence of recent experience, nor can I find any trace of it in the mentality of the graduates we had in the classroom.
There’s another possible way: imagining that business can be an instrument for public ends too, and that it can, if correctly understood, be on the same level as public instruments.
There is no one-to-one relationship between the assets and the instruments that valorise them, such that public assets must only be promoted by public entities (or, to put it more simply: “art works must only be housed in public museums”). There are variable combinations, in which it is possible that a form of business may succeed in respecting the public nature of the cultural assets. A business that preserves the non-exclusive, non-appropriable, non-commercial nature of the assets in the strict sense of the term, but recombines it with elements that enable economic and financial sustainability.
This is a new path and will therefore take time to be tested and validated. However, some very interesting early signals are emerging.
Can you give us an example of the virtuous recombination of public asset and private enterprise?
Without doubt the birth of free software and the story of its evolution.
The founder of free software was a highly ingenious man, but also very ideological. He was called Richard Stallman and his objective was to punish Microsoft.
Stallman launched the Free Software Foundation to teach the world to write software and share it completely free of charge, thereby punishing the “evil” and “commercial” Bill Gates, who was beginning to dominate the markets at the time.
Within the space of a few years, it became clear that this ingenious idea was something that could be done in programmers’ free time, but it wouldn’t bring them any work. What’s more, it wasn’t even a product that met users’ needs. The free software was cheaper than Microsoft, but it wasn’t reliable, because the typical creative programmer wrote pieces of code and published them online without anyone to handle the adaptation, consultancy, customisation and maintenance work, which is fundamental for end users.
A second movement was therefore born, namely that of open software, a mixed movement involving creatives, who do not sleep at night and write code as if it were a work of art, and businesses that take free software, customise it and resell it for a profit, in order to maintain high-quality programmers’ ventures. In practice, the so-called hybrid models were invented.
I’ve also told this story in scientific publications because it is enlightening.
We were talking about public assets and private companies. Well, free software is a public asset in this case, because once it’s been written anyone can copy it. However, a movement has developed around it that has hybridised organisational forms, combining public, private and market.
(It is worth noting that there is still a strong anti-capitalist component in the world of free software, a culture that even in California and Silicon Valley has played an important role in generating innovations that rebel against obsolete big businesses. Perhaps the original anti-capitalist aspiration has become less radical and made some compromises with the market, but the movement undoubtedly had a huge impact).
Going back to us, why have I told this story? Because in my opinion, in the field of humanities-based knowledge and culture, this hybridisation has not yet been studied, explored and practised. A lot can be done and in Italy everything is in place to do it.
The Summer School in Entrepreneurship in Humanities had to adapt to social distancing too. How did the digital version go in 2020?
We were very concerned when we started out, because of course the Summer School is not just about the classroom, but also and above all about group work, which often continues informally beyond the scheduled time. Nevertheless, this edition exceeded all our expectations thanks to two factors.
On the one hand, the Fondazione Golinelli’s experience in managing the online platform, and on the other the highly detailed planning of all the various phases by our partner Gate SpA: organisation and precision are fundamental when organising online activities. Ultimately I can say that the quality of the final projects was in no way inferior to previous editions. If anything I noticed improvement.
We’re still in a period of great uncertainty, but we want to be hopeful. What can we expect from the Summer School in the future?
Lots of projects. Meanwhile, this year, in addition to the Bologna edition, a new edition will be held in Reggio Calabria, planned in partnership with Gate SpA, with the support of the Fondazione con il Sud and the involvement of local partners such as Entopan, Oasi and Arci Servizio Civile. The idea is to develop the proposal in southern Italy, where there is a particularly strong need for entrepreneurship.
Then we need to start exploring the interest of risk finance in entrepreneurial projects based on culture and humanities research. After the 2021 editions in Bologna and Reggio Calabria, we will be organising seminars with various parties who could potentially be involved. The Summer School prepares the ground for what is a long-term operation. We need to start seeing whether the business projects are sufficiently mature to attract the interest of financial backers. The construction site is open.
Andrea Bonaccorsi is a full professor of Management Engineering at the Università di Pisa.
He works in economics and innovation management and has been published in leading international journals, receiving almost 12,000 citations in Google Scholar and joining the list of the world’s 100,000 most active researchers (top 2%) in all scientific fields according to PlOS ONE. He was one of the members of the small group of experts who supported the last two European Commissioners for Research and Innovation (I4G, RISE) and he has worked with various ministries and regions.
He has founded two university spin-offs and for several years he has promoted and led a public seed capital fund that has enabled the launch of numerous startups. For over a year, he wrote a weekly column in Nova – Il Sole 24 Ore called ‘Il breviario dell’innovatore’ (‘The innovator’s breviary’), in which he used passages from world literature to comment on the obstacles faced by innovators in implementing projects for change.
He is the man behind the Summer School in Entrepreneurship in Humanities project promoted in 2018 and 2019 by the Fondazione Golinelli. The 2020–21 editions were organised by the Fondazione in collaboration with GATE.
In the field of humanities research, he has recently published The evaluation of research in Social Sciences and Humanities (Springer), and he also works with the European ENRESSH network. He is currently preparing a study on the economics of humanities research.