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Grand Designs: an Italian master class for collaborating with China


Italian Minister Renato Brunetta outlines how Italy is fostering innovation with China.

The Italian Minister for Administration and Innovation, Renato Brunetta, has become famous for his ‘Brunetta Reforms’, introducing systematic innovation into Italy’s public sector. The reforms were also the subject of a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operations and Development (OECD), and piqued the attention of China’s own Minister for Science and Technology, Wan Gang.

China and Italy are now working together to cultivate innovation in business. In April, Brunetta came to Shanghai and Beijing to launch the China-Italy Centre for Technological Transfer, with offices in Beijing and Milan, and to sign an agreement for the creation of a China-Italy Design and Innovation Centre, with offices to be based in Shanghai, Changsha and Rome.

SBR: The Centre for Technological Transfer is one of many Sino-Italian collaborations in the field of innovation. What other projects have found success inthe past year?

RB: Two recent initiatives were the November 2010 ‘China-Italy Innovation Forum’ in Rome and the ongoing ‘Italy of Innovators’ programme. The forum brought together companies from four sectors – design; life sciences; biotechnology; and e-government – while the Italy of Innovators scheme introduced China to innovative Italian companies with specific strengths in high-technology. They opened up opportunities for cooperation – investments, JVs and more. The first Italy of Innovators project, for example, included around 250 Italian enterprises with a variety of B2B activities; in the end, 20 or 30 contracts were signed across several sectors. It was such a success that we expect around 300 companies to take part in the next round, scheduled for autumn 2011 in Nanjing and Shanghai.

SBR: Why are China and Italy well-matched as partners in innovation?

RB: Italy and China’s similar economic structures and their characteristically inventive SMEs are what make these collaborations so worthwhile. Like China, Italy’s economy depends on SMEs with specific expertise and products and the capability for continuous innovation. The companies may be small, but their creative potential is huge. Italy and China also both have technology-focussed clusters that can work together to develop innovative products.

SBR: From your point of view, what have been the most significant achievements to date resulting from Sino-Italian collaborations in technology and innovation?

RB: Now, these smaller companies with special know-how are finding their niche in the China market. For instance, a producer of ‘anti-smog’ paint has found pertinent opportunities in Shanghai as infrastructure and industry make pollution in traffic tunnels an issue; and a company that developed mechanisms to de-stone fruits has attracted attention from food processors and liquor makers – these are simple ideas, but, when well-executed, they are invaluable discoveries for companies seeking specific solutions. Likewise, China has brought some innovations to Italy; a notable example is the telecommunications sector, in which China has developed ingenious systems.

SBR: Are Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) still a concern for these Italian innovators in China?

RB: We all have to protect the best natural resource we have: human intelligence. The Italian and Chinese authorities know that this has to be a priority, and we are working together to try to eliminate IPR-related problems. We believe that the forms of co-operation promoted under the new centres will facilitate the solution.

SBR: What will the collaborations mean for future business relations between China and Italy?

RB: The future of this business relationship is the development of what we are beginning now, with this co-operation. China is in a state of transformation; China wants more innovation, more technology, which will help Chinese products to gain prominence and a strong reputation in global markets. On the other hand, Italian enterprises look for opportunities in the China market for their products and investments. The Centre for Technological Transfer and the Centre for Design and Innovation provide a way to balance out this equation to find a win-win result. The benefits of this collaboration and the overall development of our relationship should come through in other ways, too. Last year, our two Premiers agreed on a target – to double Sino-Italian trade to USD100bn by 2015. That gives you an idea of what we are hoping to do here. Of course we’re not the only ones pursuing these ambitions in China. Many nations are interested in this kind of exchange. But the key point is that we must be aware of what each has to offer, what different parties can bring to the mix. With China and Italy’s similarities, and our complementary strengths, I think Italy has some special opportunities. But it’s still going to be very tough; it’s a race.

This article first appeared in the Shanghai Business Review.