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“Extended” laboratories for research, innovation, and training

Technology clusters play a central role in the process of supporting innovation and development at local, national and European level.

by Luigia Ierace
06 February 2020
7 min read
byLuigia Ierace
06 February 2020
7 min read

Technology clusters, digital innovation hubs and competence centers, in line with the European open innovation model, have established themselves as integrated tools that can improve the competitiveness and innovation of local areas through growing interaction between companies, research centers, and universities. During the current period of energy transition toward a circular economy and environmental sustainability, clusters are important drivers of production sectors for energy and the environment, assuming a central role in the processes of supporting innovation and development at local, national and European level. We discussed this with Luca Donelli, Chairman of the Lombardy Energy Cleantech Cluster (LE2C), which has just celebrated its 10th birthday.

 

What are the most significant objectives achieved over the past decade?

Many concrete projects have been launched by the entities involved in the areas of competence of the various clusters and their associates, such as the one relating to micro-pollutants in water, others in close collaboration with other Lombard technology clusters, like the one on biomethane for transport. The greatest satisfaction comes when these projects develop into real research projects with substantial investments and access to subsidized finance through regional and European funding. This has allowed us to act as catalysts for ideas and then facilitators in accessing skills and resources to be able to develop them.

How important has it been to involve universities and research centers?

LE2C is based on collaboration between the worlds of business and research. Within each area of expertise there is in fact a twin track approach to setting up the technological platform needed to overcome the technology transfer. Furthermore, our association is based on the “multiple helix” model, an “extended laboratory” in which to develop research, innovation and training projects thanks to the presence, together with companies, of business associations, universities, knowledge and research centers, specialized entities, public administration, finance, and the media.

How does the Lombard cluster fit into the national and international scene? Do you have any reference models?

Discussion with other clusters is important and it is an encouragement to adopt different and more effective ways of working. Thanks to the Lombardy Region, we have access to various international networks such as Quattro Motori per l’Europa and Vanguard (a European network of regions that aims to contribute to revitalizing European industry based on the “Smart Specialization Strategy” - S3). In addition to participating in various European projects at national level, we work with different technology clusters and other similar associations in a bilateral and multilateral manner within the Local Entities Committee of the National Energy Technology Cluster.

Coming back to Europe. What collaborations do you have in place?

Access to international networks has allowed us to establish collaborations with other clusters and universities. These collaborations have led to the establishment of consortia which have taken part in research tenders funded by the European Commission. Two existing projects: NeSSIE - North Sea Solution for Innovation in Corrosion for Energy and VIDA - Value-added Innovation in fooD chAins. NeSSIE deals with the corrosion of structures in offshore plants producing energy from renewable sources. This project has allowed existing technological solutions – currently applied to other markets such as the Oil & Gas market – to be identified. In fact, at the Offshore Mediterranean Conference 2019 in Ravenna, the main energy industry showcase for the Mediterranean area, a meeting was held between the renewable and oil & gas supply chains. Many points of contact emerged between the two areas: the role that some Oil & Gas players want to play in renewables, such as in the production of energy from waves, the importance for small and medium enterprises to create this link between two worlds which have such similar needs but are often so distant in terms of supply chains and actors. Furthermore, wind, waves and tides have significantly different characteristics in the Mediterranean compared to the North Sea and therefore, in order to make the solutions sustainable in the Mediterranean as well, a major effort is needed to ensure reliability and efficiency. NeSSIE held its final meeting in Brussels, where I talked about the experience of the innovative SME process, often linked to frugal innovation paths, i.e. the identification of solutions already adopted in other sectors and potentially valid in areas where they are not yet used. VIDA, which is funded under the Horizon 2020 program, makes specific contributions to SMEs in the food supply chain that are interested in improving the use and efficiency of water and energy resources.

The Lombard technology cluster includes Green Building among its missions. An important challenge, but how many steps have been taken in a field that still sees Italy moving in the opposite direction to the average of other European countries, with rising energy consumption in the residential sector?

The Green Building Area of the LE2C Cluster deals with the theme of sustainable buildings, where energy consumption is brought down to almost zero, greenhouse gas emissions are reduced to a minimum, and sustainable and recyclable materials are used with an integrated view across the whole building life cycle. This area has worked with the Water Energy Nexus Area on a project linked to green roofs and the positive effects in terms of energy efficiency and hydraulic invariance.

Is the objective still the home 4.0 integrating the different supply chains?

Undoubtedly. Our cluster only includes some of the necessary competences, i.e. those related to the construction and maintenance of the outer structure and the systems, i.e. heating/air conditioning and electricity generation. Other clusters, like Smart Cities & Communities, Fabbrica Intelligente [Smart Factory] and Tecnologie per gli Ambienti di Vita [Technology for Living Environments] come into play in their respective fields.

Will energy, construction and technical professions therefore play an increasingly important role in the energy transition and circular economy phases?

If they are built in a sustainable manner (Green Building), buildings present considerable potential to mitigate the human impact on the climate, due to the energy they consume and the related emissions (respectively around 40% and 30% in Europe) . In the framework of the objectives for 2020, the European Union is asking the construction sector to make an extraordinary effort to contribute to these objectives, with the imposition of the (almost) zero energy standard from 2019 (public buildings) and 2021 (private buildings) and the push towards a significant improvement in the energy performance of existing buildings by 2050. In Lombardy, the requirement for NZEBs (Nearly Zero-Energy Buildings) was brought forward (for the public and private sectors) to 2016. The reduction of energy consumption and the related environmental impacts has significant economic repercussions, which must be analyzed in an integrated way across the entire life cycle of the building. The energy efficiency of the built environment is based above all on perfecting the complex environment-building-plant interrelations, in order to create an essential systemic view of the building, which must necessarily be treated as a complex organism.