G20 Innovation League must put ‘people at the centre of digitalisation’

José Gurría Treviño, former Secretary of Foreign Affairs of Mexico

 SORRENTO - The pearl of the Tyrrhenian Sea hosted the very first G20 Innovation League - a competition for innovative startups from across the world preceding the G20 Summit in Rome Oct 30-31. Italian Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio was present throughout, and in his speech lauded Italy’s role as a “global driver of innovation”, while José Ángel Gurría Treviño - former Secretary of Foreign Affairs of Mexico - pressed that technological innovation must “put people back at the centre of digitalisation.” 

 The 100 startups, 56 of whom attended in person, were split into five categories - Artificial Intelligence (AI), Smart Cities & Mobility, CleanTech, the Internet of Things (IoT) & Wearables, and Healthcare. The main event took place on Sunday, Oct. 31, beginning with opening speeches in the Tasso Communal Theatre.

 The Italian Foreign Minister delivered the first talk and highlighted the need for a “fairer, greener, more digitalised and inclusive society.” He stated that economic diplomacy is a priority for Italy and that in the digital revolution there must be “special attention to Italian SMEs.” This is because in Italy they make up a greater proportion of the economy. According to the OECD, Italian SMEs generate 66.9 per cent of the overall value added in the national “non-financial business economy”, exceeding the EU average of 56.4 per cent. The share of employment generated by SMEs is also greater, at 78.1 per cent compared to the EU average of 66.6 per cent. Di Maio also mentioned the new Global Startup Programme – a project to help Italians increase business abroad.

  Vittorio Colao, the Minister of Innovation, then took the podium to share his three requirements for a “thriving ecosystem of innovation.” Firstly, constant cooperation between the public and private sector (a motif throughout the day), second, enhanced cooperation across governments, and third, more focus on innovators. “Creativity is a crucial means for modernising our governments and political systems,” he commented.

Carlo Ferro, the President of Italian Trade Agency quoted Einstein – “creativity is contagious” and called the G20 “an arena to follow this advice.”

 CEO of the National Fund for Innovation, Enrico Resmini, spoke over livestream from Rome. “Innovation is dotted all over the world,” he said, “and venture capital needs to connect between them.” He quoted that 75 per cent of top companies had a venture capital lead to demonstrate “funding is instrumental to innovation.”

 Through all the excited talk about new technologies and ideas about how we as humans will shape the future, there was an awareness of the dangers of this increasingly digitalised era.

 Treviño gave a motivational speech, affirming the inspirational tone of the morning for the day. “Technological progress is the most critical responsibility that we have today. The way we answer how we do this will define the future of our society.”

As part of this, he emphasised that as we move into the future, new technology should be “all about creating wellbeing. If it’s not about wellbeing, it’s not worth the paper it is written on.”

 Vittorio Bonori, Expert Partner of Bain & Company and host of the Artificial Intelligence category, expressed similar sentiments in his speech. Underlying the obvious anticipation and excitement for the day’s discoveries were tones of caution. “AI will bring amazing success and innovation in our lives," he said. “I want conclude by posing the following question to everyone present, not to be answered today but just to think about. Should data scientists embrace the Hippocratic Oath like doctors?”

“We have to challenge everything, challenge the status quo, reinvent business models, not look backwards,” enthused Brian Collie, Global Leader for Automotive & Mobility, Boston Consulting Group and the event's Smart Cities & Mobility presenter. “Every year we lose a city the size of Milan in terms of people lost to traffic accidents - 1.3million.” He expressed confidence that “we can do things now in the year ahead that we weren’t able to do 5-10 years ago,” citing AI, tech maturity, the increase in ride sharing and the commitment towards NetZero were all driving companies to “finally change.” Towards the end of his presentation, he noted that we “can’t underestimate the threat of unintended consequences,” echoing the note of carefulness tapping quietly under the buzz.

 Tim Good, Managing Director at Accenture, illustrated how work culture is changing. His company's research has found that little over half of employees feel that their companies leave them better off.

 "Workers and consumers alike are demanding a new type of leadership," affirms Good, “sustainable and equitable for the workers.” People are not only wanting better working conditions for themselves, but also for the environment – and the mounting pressure means companies increasingly don’t have the option not to care.

 Instead of exploitation, companies must advance technologically to be more efficient and productive, says Good. “To thrive in constant change, organisations need to transform digitally to unlock human ingenuity.”

 The Accenture director noted how the pandemic has “fast-tracked” the need for hybrid work. “The future of work requires people to be productive anywhere.”

 Yet, the research shows only 30 per cent of people are confident that they have the right tech and tools to do their jobs remotely. The need for digital fluency requires tools, training, leadership and cultural support and Good emphasises, “a move from reactive to proactive management.”

 With change, especially advances in tech, often comes fear. "Trust and a sense of safety are critical for a thriving organisation. Every leader, when digitally transforming their organisation, should ask – are they putting people at the centre?" Good said companies will need to "transform from economic institutions to a tone that is human-centred.”

 Each category had a dedicated venue in the small seaside town, where the relevant startups and interested investors gathered for the day. Each hopeful startup was allotted precisely five minutes to present their company to the room. At the end of the day the venture capitalists voted for their favourite - via an app, naturally.

 After the presentations, all participants gathered back in the Tasso Theatre to hear the winners - a first and second prize for each category. As well as a plaque, each winner also received a hand-thrown Sorrento plate decorated with painted lemons.

 In CleanTech, Russian startup Biomicrogels Group won first prize for their breakthrough technology for cleaning water. After having narrowly missed out on an award at Horizon 2020, the company’s director Alexander Khomik was elated, commenting “it is very hard to attract foreign investment as a startup in Russia” - something he hopes will change in the future.

 It was also a Russian startup that took home first prize in the AI category - Ntechlab. This new company has developed facial and vehicular recognition algorithms that are record-breaking in terms of both speed and accuracy.

 An Italian startup, Zerynth, won second most votes in the IoT and Wearables category. Their IoT platform is an 'ecosystem' of hardware-software tools which optimizes industrial processes, energy consumption, predictive maintenance, and the retrofit of industrial machines. The winner in this category was Poka, from Canada, which they describe as "Facebook for factories" - a communication system for use, literally, on an industrial scale.

 Indonesian company Nalagenetics came top in the Healthcare section, having created a customized prescription platform to offer tailor-made solutions according to the different needs of doctors, patients, and laboratories.

 In the Smart Cities and Mobility category, French startup Virtuo Technology took home the gold with their eco-friendly “car streaming” rental service. In the words of co-founder Karim Kaddoura, “streaming – you want it, you click it, you have it. Why wouldn’t you stream cars too? Car ownership will be the exception, this will be the norm.”

 “We owe it to ourselves, to the cities and to the planet,” he summarised.

 After the prize-giving and speeches, we heard from the official representative of the G20 incoming Indonesian Presidency, Semuel Pengerapan. He spoke via livestream from Bali, where next year’s summit will take place, with the intention to “uphold the high standard that the Italian Presidency has set on this event.” Pengerapan spoke of "a new partnership" between the two countries and said if we "recover together, we recover stronger."

 To offer final remarks about the event, the Italian Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Manlio Di Stefano gave a cheerful speech. "In last couple of days, a lively and exciting atmosphere has characterised Sorrento,” he said. "This flow of ideas will contribute to the search for innovate solutions to global challenges.”