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Politecnico: what 150 years of history means today

“Polytechnic culture”: the ability to unite science and the humanities while constantly seeking new forms of harmony that can lead to both economic and social growth. It is also an attitude that is still best expressed, in Italy, in Milan and in the Lombardy region generally, first and foremost in the “culture of Politecnico”, the Milan university that is a synthesis of education and research, of academic and entrepreneurial innovation, so much so that it is among the world’s top 50 universities in the field of technology and engineering (source: the Times Higher Education ranking of top universities). Milestones represent decisions that have been made, and celebrating milestones keeps those decisions fresh in our minds and keeps us aware of our commitment to create our future. Celebrating the 150th anniversary of Politecnico di Milano, with all of the celebratory conferences, seminars, exhibits (such as the one currently under way at the Museum of Science and Technology), publications and other events, serves to tell the people of Milan, of Italy and of the rest of Europe both how and why, right here in Milan, such an excellent university came about and is still, after a century and a half, among the leading sources of knowledge and innovation in Europe.

History. From when it was founded with the crucial contribution of Giuseppe Colombo, a man of both science and industry (as one of the founding fathers of Edison with the construction of the first city power plant in Europe in 1883) to the studies of Enrico Forlanini and the first prototype of a helicopter (1877); from Europe’s first electronic calculator, which Luigi Dadda took to the U.S. in 1954, to the chemistry studies that helped Giulio Natta receive the Nobel Prize in 1963 (with the creation of Moplen, a revolutionary plastic that changed Italian habits and customs during the economic boom). Today, Politecnico is made up of a dense network of relationships with leading international centres of research and innovation, and out of the university’s labs come some of the best Italian high-tech start-ups.

When you think of Politecnico, you think of industry, such as the companies of the Schiapparellis and the Ucellis, or Edison, or even Pirelli, which was created in 1872 by Giovan Battista Pirelli, a Politecnico alumnus who studied throughout Europe with the help of the university. You also think of the architecture of Gio Ponti and Aldo Rossi, of Renzo Piano and Gae Aulenti, or the design work of Marco Zanuso and Vico Magistretti. You think of that special propensity to unite science, literature and the arts as seen in the work of Carlo Emilio Gadda and Fausto Melotti. It is a century and a half of history marked by countless names of engineers, entrepreneurs, scientists and other visionaries, all highly skilled at managing processes in which innovation is not only the discovery of new technologies, but is also, and above all, that typically Italian form of “incremental innovation” – an ingenious adaptation or modification of a machine that radically changes a production process, the addition of a chemical compound that makes a material stronger or lighter, or a new relationship between technology and the organisation of labour. The concept of “civiltà delle macchine” (machine civilization/civility) is no oxymoron. It is a poetic metaphor for the synthesis of man’s intelligence and the transformation of machinery, such that the machine can better obey our commands and be safer and more productive – more “civil”.

A culture of design and a culture of production, as is often said among business people, engineers, designers and other technological – or rather, “polytechnic” – circles. In an Italy that was approaching modernity, Politecnico di Milano was, 150 years ago, an incubator for robust industry. Today, as “post-modernism” has demonstrated its fragility and rushed imbalances (too much finance, too much distortion in the ephemeral culture – or, better, “sub-culture” – of superficiality), a place of education and research such as that of Politecnico can reiterate its relevance and its role in creating the future as we rediscover, “polytechnically”, the central role played by industry. It is an international role that is so typical of Milan and of Italy as a whole.