An open discussion on digital


Institutional Communication Service

23 April 2018

What are the effects of digitisation on education, learning and the world of work today and how will they evolve in the near future? Speakers from the two universities of Italian-speaking Switzerland, USI and SUPSI, at the “#digitale21” conference organized by the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences at the SUPSI Trevano Campus from April 11 to 13, 2018. 

Everyone calls for it, everyone searches for it: digitisation is in fact taking over the role of ‘factotum’ of our reality increasingly pervaded by technology, altering products, services and processes, disrupting entire sectors, with new occupations emerging and many others retiring. Given the complexity of the ongoing process, it is difficult, however, to limit its current impact and, even more so, to anticipate its long-term consequences. Planning as of now the best strategies to exploit the opportunities that will be offered and to contain the negative repercussions is imperative for a country like Switzerland, which, not having any particular natural resources, requires it to combine with foresight the extraordinary know-how accrued in the various disciplinary fields of which it is a leader, with the capacity for innovation which is one of its undeniable strengths. With this in mind, the Swiss Confederation has already developed an action plan for a sector of the economy, that of training and research, identifying specific areas of involvement. Among these, education is a key tool for assisting the professional world in this transition and to prepare young people for the challenges of the future. This is the theme at the centre of the “#digitale21” conference, organized by the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences from April 11 to 13 at the SUPSI Trevano Campus. 

In view of this interesting event, one of national importance, Ticino Management met the Rector of Università della Svizzera italiana (USI) Boas Erez and the Deputy Director of research and innovation at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Southern Switzerland (SUPSI) Giambattista Ravano: both partners of the event, the two institutions are on the front line in addressing this epochal transformation. Beyond the common concern accompanying the change by updating the skills provided to their students, the courses offered, the teaching methods and research activities, the perspective from which both universities and universities of applied sciences look at the phenomenon in respect of its specific mandate is different, the first oriented to the development of new knowledge, the latter instead strongly anchored to the practical dimension and to the employment market. 

A trained algebraist but one open to the humanistic vision of those who are called to manage a university with many Faculties, ranging from economic to biomedical sciences, the Rector of USI, Boas Erez, immediately expands upon digitisation in a broader perspective: «My mathematical point of view allows me to qualify the innovation of technological progress: digitisation largely bases its foundations on theoretical acquisitions from the last century and not only on the latest innovations in information technology. On the other hand, as an academic, whose life today is made up of study, conferences and lectures - and teaching prior to this assignment - I have come to believe that more importantly than progress in individual sectors, what really matters for our society is, simply, being able to live together in harmony. The new knowledge acquired should allow us to solve more problems than we create. I would reduce the importance of digitisation: of course, we must take it into account, but much more revolutionary than technological development in itself seems to me the challenge of global interconnection. » 

Undeniably there are fields today more touched by the digital transformation: first of all, trade, education and scientific research with the total paradigm changes of “disruptive innovation”, «instead on the purely industrial level of production, although it is precisely in this context that we have started to talk about “4.0”, companies are transforming themselves in a much more gradual way, increasing step by step digitalization solutions related for now to certain phases of their activity,» observes Giambattista Ravano. 

And while in the face of automation and the move into the field of robotics and artificial intelligence spreads concerns for the fate of many professions, the Deputy Director of research and innovation at SUPSI warns us that it is essential to realise the crossroads at the what is now the development of digitisation: «On the one hand we have the possibility to completely replace the algorithms of free will: one of the most immediate examples is that of autonomous vehicle driving, but already more advanced applications are being tested, for example in the military sector, from which many innovations come and then are transferred to other fields, helmets with sensors able to influence the emotions of the soldiers are tested, stimulating certain neurons. The other direction is instead to preserve the decision-making capacity of mankind, using the new possibilities to increase the knowledge, analytical skills and evaluation tools at our disposal. »  

To the image of the crossroads, the Rector of USI prefers the concept of incremental progress: «Nothing seems ineluctable, we can always intervene and direct events, because each step is the consequence of a sequence of decisions taken previously. Focusing on the issue of jobs that will be lost creates only fear that, as we know, is a bad counsellor. » Rather, on a case-by-case basis, it is about determining what the technology offers us: «For example, when the electronic voting system is proposed, since no computer expert can rule out the risk of it being manipulated, we should ask ourselves whether, in order to benefit from the advantages of digital, we are willing to accept that democracy is endangered. Or, digitisation could allow us to move towards personalised medicine, hypothesised by Hippocrates, which would actually avoid abuses in prescribing drugs or identify the most suitable therapies for cohorts of even very small patients. However, there is a risk of exacerbating privacy control ... ,» questions Boas Erez.  

But, coming back to topical events, what is the current climate in our Canton? A reality such as SUPSI, thanks to the intense collaboration with about 500 companies in the region, provides a privileged observatory, allowing to monitor how the business world is reacting to pressures: «In general, we find a ‘healthy’ critical interest in the situation. We note a certain concern, not prevalent but understandable, by the smaller companies, confronted with the need to invest to change the business model, to update the processes and skills of their employees», notes Ravano, «I can therefore say that Ticino it is not behind the rest of Switzerland. » 

The rapidly evolving scenario has pushed SUPSI to further enhance its traditional role of interface between the professional universe - whatever the economic or productive activity in question, including in a broad sense urban services - and the new ideas to be implemented. «On this front, thanks to our pragmatic approach, we are in the field: all our research institutes are reflecting on how to change their guidelines to meet the needs raised by digital transformation. Our delicate task is also to understand what it is the right moment to develop and what should have to wait, finding the balance that allows us to be proactive without imposing on the companies that turn to us for strategic decisions that belong to them», notes the SUPSI representative head of research and innovation; «However we still have a long way to go at the speed with which we can adapt our training proposals to changes that no longer occur at the pace of generations but every two years.» A recently launched project like DigiLaF confirms SUPSI’s renewed effort in this direction, aiming to define a model for monitoring and analysing the effects of digitisation on work, processes, skills and, consequently, on training in three very demanding sectors such as industry, health and construction. «Since we are going through a phase in which the various professions are redefining and it is still uncertain what skills will be needed in the future and what tools we will have available, the dialogue between the world of work and that of training must be even closer and involve the whole educational system to teach the critical use of the new means and understand what added value we can bring with respect to the digital world, » observes Giambattista Ravano. For its part, small, flexible and still young, Università della Svizzera italiana has the flexibility and quality to intercept the newly developed sectors by enriching its degree programs: it did so at the beginning of this academic year, in particular with the Master in Software & Data Engineering and, a first in Switzerland, the Master in Financial Technology and Computing and one in Artificial Intelligence, created thanks to the collaboration between institutes and professors of excellence at the university. «Moreover, our Faculty of Communication Sciences, founded more than twenty years ago, when the web was also born, wants to respond to the challenge of global interconnection, taking an interest in social change and, in particular, in all aspects related to evolution of media and marketing, » underlines Boas Erez. «Since no profession will no more be acquired ‘for life’ and it will be necessary for everyone to continue updating their skills and retrain, rather than a notional teaching we will have to focus on ‘discipline’ in the sense of learning to do things in a certain way, for example working autonomously, as required by those who taking a Master’s degree,» the Rector continues. 

USI is also preparing to introduce an interdisciplinary course across the different Faculties, in order to make all its students aware of the problems of algorithmic thinking, to enable them to understand the different value in the mechanical approach, from which it is required to start from a mass of unstructured data to extract information or correlations, compared to an expert who bases his conclusions on a physical theory or an economic model. At an educational level, the eLab platform is active, which aims to enable communication between teachers and students through the integration of digital technologies, for example by allowing the sharing of documentation of individual courses. «We have also created a few MOOCs, Massive Online Open Courses, but only in very specific areas, while what could be more systematically developed are the so-called “flipped classroom”, a didactic approach that turns learning upside down, demanding individual study, supported by technology, the acquisition of basic knowledge, to then enhancing the subsequent personal interaction between teacher and students, giving a central dimension to dialogue. This is in line with the fact that our university favours direct exchange, preferring a campus life to distance teaching, in the belief that one of the most appreciated aspects by those attending our university is the opportunity to meet professors capable of conveying their passion for their field of research», concludes Rector Boas Erez. 

It will therefore be necessary for the interactions between businesses, universities and universities of applied sciences to intensify because, as Giambattista Ravano observes, «if previously we did not sufficiently discuss between ourselves it was a venial sin, in the face of current changes it becomes a cardinal sin»: an indispensable premise to grasp the opportunities that scientific and technological progress can offer, integrating them in today’s economy and society.  


(by Susanna Cattaneo, by kind permission of Ticino Management. Original Italian version in the April issue, pages 68-71).