On February 12, Roberto Cingolani’s cell phone rang at nine in the morning. The tech board of aerospace and defense firm Leonardo is in Milan for a meeting on a new high-performance computing center. Mario Draghi answers on the other end. The appointed head of government occupies a key position in his cabinet: he researches the engine of the green revolution in Italy.
Cingolani is not happy. He prefers to continue his work. He does not like politics, replies the physicist to the former head of the ECB, who is sworn in as Prime Minister a day later. Draghi points out that the country is in dire straits. Italy must be served. Yes, in a way, Europe too. Cingolani says, “It was impossible to say no.
The 59-year-old Milanese has been grappling with politics for the past five months. He of all, the best researcher with more than 100 international patents. A ministerial job in Italy is a very special experience. But the challenge that the scientist has accepted is global. Cingolani must create the preconditions for the industrialized Mediterranean country to catch up on convergence with EU climate goals. So in Rome you can see how Draghi’s husband tackles a task that awaits the whole world. On July 22, the Italian must try to engage the environment ministers of the G-20 countries on a common line for the UN climate conference in November at the meeting in Naples.
It is a huge experience that Italy has embarked on. Draghi instructed Cingolani to set up a super ministry for ecological conversion. Responsibility for energy issues has been entrusted to the Environment Department. From the EU’s post-pandemic reconstruction fund, Italy will receive € 69 billion in green investments over six years.
At the Italian Institute of Technology, they called it the “Bulldozer”
Many politicians would have snatched the job. But Draghi got the “bulldozer”. That’s what they called Cingolani at the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT), which he co-founded in Genoa in 2003 and directed for 15 years.
There is no doubt that the ability of heavy tracked vehicles to move earth is of paramount importance in Cingolani’s new work. Because the bureaucratic revolution precedes the lasting transition in Italy, says the minister.
Without a radical change in environmental policy, Italy will capitulate to climate targets. Draghi was therefore looking for someone who works at the interface between technology, management, industrial policy and sustainability: Cingolani. His companion and successor at the head of the IIT, Giorgio Metta, characterized him as a sincere fighter.
The minister comes from a family of researchers. The father, sister, brother, wife and two adult sons are scientists. After studying physics in Bari, Cingolani carried out research at the University of Excellence Normale di Pisa, then for four years at the Max Planck Institute for Solid-State Physics in Stuttgart, with the Nobel laureate Klaus von Klitzing . Chairs in Italy, the United States and Japan followed. In Lecce, in southern Italy, Cingolani founded the Institute of Nanotechnology. In 2003, he started to build the IIT. When he moved from there to the Leonardo tech group in 2019, 1,700 scientists from 60 countries were working at 14 IIT sites. 42 percent of them are women, he proudly notes.
Physicist, manager, communicator – now the versatile Cingolani sits in Rome in the ministry of Via Cristoforo Colombo. It’s not his world, he said.
Now he also has to face the mountains of garbage in the streets
The minister already has a problem with the city. He has lived in Tokyo, Germany and the United States. Nomadic, it adapts everywhere. “But Rome is difficult for me,” says Cingolani. The new office also forces him to deal with mountains of garbage on the streets. He is to mediate the quarrel between the city, ruled by the five stars since 2016, and the Lazio region, ruled by social democrats. Without a deal, Rome faces a health emergency. The ongoing conflict will not be resolved because party interests prevail, Cingolani said. The logic of competition in politics shifts the interests of the country. It upset him.
Through the open windows you can hear traffic rushing down the six-lane arterial road. Italy’s first climate clock has been running on the facade of the yellow clinker building since June 5. The display shows how much time humanity has left to limit the rise in global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius and thus avoid intolerable climate change: 6 years, 191 days. “The clock tells us the time of the will,” says Cingolani. And where the will is, there is also a path for the scientist: technology.
At the top of the ministerial cabinet on the fifth floor, no incumbent has been in such a hurry to accomplish his mission. Cingolani’s predecessors clung to their chairs. They never did much.
Now it’s the physicist’s turn with the endurance of the avid cyclist and former boxer. In the hectic initial phase, Cingolani sat in front of the computer all night, writing the program for the Roman Green Deal. At the end of April, Draghi’s investment plan for corona development aid was on the table in Brussels on time. From a technical point of view, he has already performed much more complicated tasks, explains Cingolani.
He is impressed by the complexity of another aspect of his mission: the bureaucracy. He used to be responsible to be responsible. “Here, I sometimes have the feeling that we are responsible, but the levers are elsewhere,” said the Minister. It is unacceptable today. For the first time in modern history, politics depended on technological skills. Inevitable consequence: the state must accept the rules of science. Humanity faces a unique challenge that requires it to reorganize. “The great processes of technological change cannot be controlled with purely legal-bureaucratic mechanisms,” he says. Power must be redistributed.
“Either we do without bureaucracy, or Brussels money”
Cingolani presents his country with the alternative: “Either we do without the bureaucracy, or the money from Brussels. In order to reach the 2030 climate target, Italy will need to connect new systems to the grid for the production of 70 gigawatts of electricity from renewable energies over the next nine years. It would therefore be necessary to install eight gigawatts each year by 2030. In 2020, it was a tenth. This is due to the approval procedures which take 1500 days. Operating companies prefer to invest in solar systems and wind turbines abroad. “If we sign a contract with the EU to finance the energy transition, our country must be credible,” said the minister.
In May, the Roman government passed a bureaucratic reform that also aims to accelerate ecological restructuring. Is it sufficient? “We’ve simplified the five things that hold us back the most,” Cingolani explains. In a year you need to readjust if necessary. In the meantime, he expands the ministry in haste. In the coming months, Cingolani will hire 450 people with contemporary skills. It sets up new departments – to manage the EU expansion program, digitization, for innovation and for planning and control. The annual budget of his house will drop from 1.2 billion euros to 15 billion euros. “We are restructuring as a small trading company,” he says casually.
In reality, Cingolani expects the country to break with tradition. In retrograde Italy, the equation of environmental protection and the inviolability of nature has dominated for decades. The Greens were kicked out of Parliament 13 years ago. But local citizens’ groups often succeed in blocking new projects. Also at the cost of a slowdown in sustainable change, as shown by the slow expansion of green energies. You can’t afford it anymore, said Cingolani. He has become the target of attacks by the environmental movement. Lounges of greenery, as he calls the snobbish activists. His pragmatic plan for the Green Deal failed them. “I also know that is not enough,” he said. But if you fly a 400-meter-long aircraft carrier, you can’t take the turns like a scooter. Then everyone goes too far and you can’t turn the page, he says.
Cingolani’s biggest enemy is ideology. It blinds and causes humanity to lose sight of the overall goal. “Acting ideologically is the worst thing we can do to our children,” the minister said.
“I’m an alien here, I know that,” he said
Does he feel misunderstood? Cingolani laughs. “I’m an alien here, I know that,” he said. But you need him now. He says repeatedly and openly that he only sits in government on loan and can’t wait to get back to work. “I’m very German on some things,” he jokes and says he grew up professionally in Stuttgart, at the Max Planck Institute. Germany remained his second homeland. Most of the close friends also lived there. In Italy, they are called his “German mafia”. His Greek wife, however, was not at all impressed by his weakness, especially during the time of the debt crisis and the visit of Hellas by the Troika.
Germany and Italy – for Cingolani it is not just a “question of feeling”. He attributes a special role to the two countries in the fight for climate neutrality. You are the largest European manufacturer of industrial goods and face the same problems: high energy needs, high greenhouse gas emissions, a long tradition in the automotive industry. Moreover, they have behind them a history of technical and scientific inventions, which were the engine of progress in the world after the industrial revolution. “We have made possible all of the technologies we face today,” says Cingolani.
It is now a matter of quickly converting this model of growth, which has worked at the expense of the planet, into a model in favor of the planet. “Both countries have to be very honest in their risk analysis,” he said. With eight billion inhabitants in the world, drastic corrections to our economic model are necessary. “If Germany and Italy, Europe’s biggest manufacturers of industrial goods, don’t get started, who should? He asks himself. The Netherlands?
For Cingolani, surprisingly, the key lies in the hearts of the people. You must learn to love your own children more than your own past. And the habits that are dear to us.