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Alberto Sangiovanni-Vincentelli: Bringing hi-tech to Abruzzo

Professor Alberto Sangiovanni-Vincentelli has been based at the University of California at Berkeley's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences for over 30 years. Born in Milan, Italy, he is one of the world's leading researchers in the field of electrical en...

Interviews

Professor Alberto Sangiovanni-Vincentelli has been based at the University of California at Berkeley's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences for over 30 years. Born in Milan, Italy, he is one of the world's leading researchers in the field of electrical engineering and computer science; his expertise as both a researcher and educator have been recognised in the numerous awards and honours which have been bestowed upon him during his long career. He is also a canny businessman and has founded a number of highly successful companies, a fact that leads him to describe himself as being 'in between a professor and an entrepreneur'.

However, he has not forgotten his roots, and still maintains strong contacts with Italian universities and companies. Among other things, he is advising the region of Abruzzo on technology and innovation. While in Brussels to discuss his work in Abruzzo during the European Week of Regions and Cities, he spoke to CORDIS News about his vision for Abruzzo and how he aims to 'build bridges' between researchers in different countries.

The region of Abruzzo lies halfway down Italy, facing the Adriatic Sea. It is characterised by beautiful scenery, ancient villages and an attractive coastline. However, there are centres of industry in the largely rural region, and a number of foreign electronic and mechanical companies have bases there.

It is also a place that is close to the Professor's heart; his father was from there, he still has family there and his wife teaches at one of the region's universities. His love for the region shines through as he describes its landscapes and excellent wines and food. 'I can witness that it is especially good!' he says of the pasta.

It was at a Confindustria meeting that he met Valentina Bianchi, Abruzzo's Minister for Innovation and Competitiveness, who asked him if he would be willing to advise the region on these issues. He accepted, feeling that he owed something to the region. He has also started advising the Lombardi region, where his mother is from. 'I am giving back to my nation according to my parents' origins,' he explains.

When it comes to boosting innovation in Abruzzo, the Professor is clear that regions cannot import ready-made models from other parts of the world. 'You have to understand the peculiar characteristics of the region,' he says.

His vision for Abruzzo is to combine what it is known for, namely its natural beauty, with high technologies. He has high hopes for the application of wireless sensor networks, something he has worked on a lot in his research. Wireless networks are made up of tiny objects which can measure a range of things, including pollution, temperature and acceleration. They can also be kitted out with optical sensors and microphones, enabling them to see and hear. Data is communicated back to a base station with a wireless link.

'I hope to see how we could deploy these kinds of high-tech objects into making Abruzzo even more beautiful that what it is,' he says enthusiastically. He is brimming with ideas for their application, explaining how they could monitor national parks for fires, detect pollution events in rivers or alert drivers to adverse road conditions high up in the mountains.

In 2009 the coastal town of Pescara will host the Mediterranean Games, and these networks could be used to increase security. Another sector which could benefit is agriculture, as the devices can measure the flow of water and nutrients through vines, and tell farmers when to water their crop. The result is better wines and more efficient use of water.

If the region is to become truly competitive, the important thing, according to Professor Sangiovanni-Vincentelli, is to have the correct economic infrastructure which will generate innovation. 'You have to create an ecosystem,' he explains. 'An ecosystem is made up of big companies, small companies, medium companies, universities, but especially people.'

Investing in people means encouraging students to travel and study abroad. 'Universities should admit every person in the world,' he says emphatically, attributing the success of Harvard to the fact that it takes students and researchers from the whole world. 'We always get the best of the best of the best of the best, worldwide,' he says.

'Of course you cannot pretend that the University of L'Aquila is going to have the same appeal as Berkley worldwide, but the idea of opening up and being an attraction to other regions and other countries is very important,' he says. He is encouraging the region to exploit its location on the Adriatic Sea to attract students from the Balkan countries.

He also wants to encourage more Italian students to go abroad to study, a hard task given the reluctance of most Italians to move away from their home towns. He was like that once, he notes. Born and raised in Milan, he went to university there and on graduation began teaching there. He claims that he had no intention whatsoever of going to America. 'I thought Milan was the best place in the world, so why should I want to go to the United States?' he asks. However, encouraged by his university, he went to Berkeley for a brief spell. Berkeley loved him and wanted him to stay, but he was keen to return to Italy, which he missed keenly. However, intense lobbying from Berkeley meant that six months after his return to Italy, he was back in California.

This story inevitably raises the issue of the brain drain. However, he says that most Italians are in fact pleased that he is in Silicon Valley, seeing him as a 'door' to what is going on there. He is also keen to emphasise that much of his work brings together European and American researchers. He points out that you do not need people to be physically in a region for them to be connected to it and contribute to it. For him, the important thing is to maintain a 'bridge' between countries, enabling the free flow of information and ideas.

What does concern him is the European researchers he sees arriving in the US and 'slamming the door' on their old lives, often because they feel they have been badly treated by European universities. Here he was lucky. 'In Milan I was treated royally,' he says.

Although his principle job remains at Berkeley, Professor Sangiovanni-Vincentelli spends around half his time in Europe. His close involvement with Abruzzo and his collaboration with researchers on both sides of the Atlantic shows that there are clear advantages to sending European researchers to the US.

Countries

Italy, United States