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Karl Popper, ethics, technology and Politecnico’s international alliances

There is profound ethical and cultural significance in technology, in science that leads to new opportunity and in innovation that continues to transform the society in which we live, making it better, freeing it from uncertainty concerning healthcare, the environment and quality of life, as well as from the oppression and anxiety of “community service”. A lesson of critical, responsible optimism in this regard comes from one of the 20th century’s greatest philosophers of science and liberty, Karl Popper, the Italian translation of his German-language work “Technologie und Ethik” having recently been published by Rubbettino. Rereading this work in these times of crisis in the search for new dimensions of scientific knowledge and its impact on society and the environment can help astute politicians, business people, educators and scientists to understand how to construct better, more sustainable equilibrium.

Science and innovation are what is needed by a Europe seeking to break free from the ideological wastelands of political thought made by “bookkeepers” and protectors of small-minded national egotisms (thereby ignoring the fact that the much needed balance in public accounts and caution towards inflation are just tools for a virtuous path of growth and not absolute values in and of themselves) and to put into practice strategic decisions for development. Indeed, without creating jobs for the future generations or building structures for social inclusion, without renewing the roots of that social and political pact that characterised its rebirth immediately following the disaster of war, what sort of Europe would we have?

Giulio Giorello, another wise philosopher of science, was right when he wrote (in Corriere della Sera on 1 December) of the end of the “Europe of nation states” and called for a model inspired by CERN in Geneva, that hotbed of research for scientists from around the world (including a significant share of Italians) bringing together theoretical and experimental physics, freedom in research, and a proper use of financial and human resources in order to achieve results of the highest order, a place where Europe is not just another bureaucratic acronym and in which competitiveness with the rest of the world is based on the achievement of real results.

This is the Europe that Politecnico di Milano had in mind when reflecting on its 150-year history (the first academic year having begun on 29 November 1863, just two years after the unification of Italy in a vibrant, open and entrepreneurial Milan) and setting ambitious plans for the future, including the announcement of an agreement with Technische Universität in Berlin and Ecole Centrale in Paris to create a university of truly continental scope. One step beyond the partial agreements already in effect, the underlying idea is to create a place of culture, education, research, science and the dissemination of innovation that is able to enhance competitiveness in the international marketplace and to attract new talent (in line with the European challenge for a “knowledge economy”) – a synergy with the most dynamic enterprises looking to invest where the high-quality human capital is found.

Politecnico’s European alliances are also an important challenge for Milan, as a forward-looking metropolis and driver of Italian development. The stated goal of the school’s rector, Giovanni Azzone, is “to develop talent for the development of the territory”, with Politecnico serving as a pillar on which “to increase the competitiveness of an ecosystem centred around Milan and extending out to Turin, Trieste and Bologna, the only macro-area able to successfully compete with the other international networks”. Milan is already (according to recent studies) one of the world’s top 25 “university cities” thanks to the great results in research, education and ties with business that have been achieved by the area’s public and private universities, and Politecnico continues to invest (€10 million each year) “in attracting the best Italian and international students” and in promoting partnerships with professors and researchers from around the world. “We are acting with the optimism of one who creates innovation and development,” Azzone said, and with the responsibility – both historical and contemporary – of one aware of playing a key role in strengthening both Italy’s economy and its education system. This, too, is the “ethics of technology” if you will, coming back to Popper.