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Cautious optimism: the industry’s strength lies in the increase of patents, start-ups and exports

The new year has begun in the shadow of concern for the immediate future of the economy. Companies and consumers are feeling anxious about the steep rise in energy prices, which have an impact on the growth rate of inflation. People are disquieted by the new wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and the very high rate of infection of the Omicron variant: we thought it was finally over with restrictions affecting economic activities and personal relationships, yet here we are again, sensing danger and experiencing limitations on travel, gatherings, cultural and sports initiatives, business. The Italian government, which should be concentrating all its energy on investments funded by the EU’s Recovery Plan (much has been done and planned already, thanks goodness), is instead forced to deal, once more, with the unflagging burden of the health crisis, while among the political majority tensions, divergences and political conflicts grow.

And within a confused, quarrelsome political context, marked by wishful thinking and by personal and remarkable vanity, the upcoming presidential election is only making the situation worse. The spread of Italian and German bonds that’s been increasing in the past few weeks it’s an alarming gauge of the international financial markets’ worry about Italy’s potential political instability.

Yet, in spite of everything, and even in the full awareness of our political, economic and social fragility, it’s nonetheless worth paying great attention to other basic signs concerning the state of health of the Italian economy, take notice of the results achieved over a season marked by innovation and investments in enterprises, and emphasise the data that can be used as leverage to strengthen the current growth (that 6.3 rise in GDP observed in 2021 was largely due to the rebound following the 2020 crash but also boasted some structural integrity).

The first series of data to be considered concerns the increase in the number of patents, a sign of investment in innovation and forward-looking enterprise; the second pertains to start-ups; and the third relates to the excellent performance of the sectors most involved with export on the global markets.

Let’s start with the patents. The number of Italian patent applications received by the EPO (European Patent Office, 2020 data) amounted to 4,465, showing an increase of 5.3% as compared to the previous year. Basically, even in the thick of the pandemic, companies, research centres and individuals continued to work, create, innovate.

A better scrutiny of the data, as per the in-depth analysis carried out by the consortium for technological innovation Unioncamere-Dintec, one patent out of five relates to the six Key Enabling Technologies promoted by the EU as cutting-edge industries and general development drivers: biotechnology, photonics, advanced materials, micro/nanoelectronics, nanotechnology and advanced manufacturing, i.e. robotics and industrial automation. In the latter sector, the patents amounted to 670, 53 more than the previous year, an increase of about 9%, much higher than the 5.3% overall average mentioned above: a clear sign of the innovative strength of our mechatronics industry.

Some more data for us to ponder: the top region in terms of innovative abilities is Lombardy (1,506 patents), followed by Emilia Romagna (703), Veneto (596) and Piedmont (480). These are the areas with greater industrial presence, which have consolidated their national leadership and confirmed their strong manufacturing power at European level, but then again, this has been a long-term trend: looking at the data from 2008 to now, 80% of patents was from the northern regions, which abound in businesses, research centres, efficient public and private universities.

And here’s another factor to consider: last year, 4,200 start-ups were established in Italy, an increase of 25% as compared to 2020 (with a particularly significant presence of engineering and blockchain activities), and Milan is the most innovative city, with 818 new high tech companies (Il Sole24Ore, 7 January).

Italy’s industrial driving engine is still going, then, though it’s also becoming increasingly obvious that the rest of the country needs to develop in terms of innovation, corporate and market cultures, productivity and competitiveness.

The third series of data provides some reassurance about the future of the Italian economy, and relates to the strength of our export performance. Analysed by the Edison Foundation and illustrated by its director Marco Fortis on Il Sole24Ore (6 January), those figures show how our export levels are higher than before the pandemic, with a growth of 5.8% over January – September 2021, as compared to the same period in 2019. The drivers are the seven industries that, as per international rankings, we can term “3F” and “4M”: Food and wine, Fashion, Furniture and building materials, and then Metal products, Machinery, Motor yachts and other transport equipment, Medicaments and personal care products. The trade surplus of those “magnificent seven” products exported abroad reaches 138.4 billion dollars.

These series of data we’re talking about – patents, start-ups and export – are the result of basic choices made by the better side of Italy’s production system and research and technology transfer structures, which date back to the aftermath of the 2008 great financial crisis, and have been supported by a smart tax legislation implemented by governments ready to strengthen quality manufacture and to stimulate digital innovation through the Industry 4.0 process. Choices, that is, that have entailed a commitment towards the recovery of the real economy, investing in quality and – for a long time now – in the sustainability of products and production systems, in building links between industry and services, and in the gradual expansion of high-added-value niches on the global markets.

These are strengths engendered by a robust industrial economy with a European feel. An economy in which we must keep on investing, so that it can be used as leverage to support the whole country during periods of economic downturns, whenever they might occur.

The new year has begun in the shadow of concern for the immediate future of the economy. Companies and consumers are feeling anxious about the steep rise in energy prices, which have an impact on the growth rate of inflation. People are disquieted by the new wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and the very high rate of infection of the Omicron variant: we thought it was finally over with restrictions affecting economic activities and personal relationships, yet here we are again, sensing danger and experiencing limitations on travel, gatherings, cultural and sports initiatives, business. The Italian government, which should be concentrating all its energy on investments funded by the EU’s Recovery Plan (much has been done and planned already, thanks goodness), is instead forced to deal, once more, with the unflagging burden of the health crisis, while among the political majority tensions, divergences and political conflicts grow.

And within a confused, quarrelsome political context, marked by wishful thinking and by personal and remarkable vanity, the upcoming presidential election is only making the situation worse. The spread of Italian and German bonds that’s been increasing in the past few weeks it’s an alarming gauge of the international financial markets’ worry about Italy’s potential political instability.

Yet, in spite of everything, and even in the full awareness of our political, economic and social fragility, it’s nonetheless worth paying great attention to other basic signs concerning the state of health of the Italian economy, take notice of the results achieved over a season marked by innovation and investments in enterprises, and emphasise the data that can be used as leverage to strengthen the current growth (that 6.3 rise in GDP observed in 2021 was largely due to the rebound following the 2020 crash but also boasted some structural integrity).

The first series of data to be considered concerns the increase in the number of patents, a sign of investment in innovation and forward-looking enterprise; the second pertains to start-ups; and the third relates to the excellent performance of the sectors most involved with export on the global markets.

Let’s start with the patents. The number of Italian patent applications received by the EPO (European Patent Office, 2020 data) amounted to 4,465, showing an increase of 5.3% as compared to the previous year. Basically, even in the thick of the pandemic, companies, research centres and individuals continued to work, create, innovate.

A better scrutiny of the data, as per the in-depth analysis carried out by the consortium for technological innovation Unioncamere-Dintec, one patent out of five relates to the six Key Enabling Technologies promoted by the EU as cutting-edge industries and general development drivers: biotechnology, photonics, advanced materials, micro/nanoelectronics, nanotechnology and advanced manufacturing, i.e. robotics and industrial automation. In the latter sector, the patents amounted to 670, 53 more than the previous year, an increase of about 9%, much higher than the 5.3% overall average mentioned above: a clear sign of the innovative strength of our mechatronics industry.

Some more data for us to ponder: the top region in terms of innovative abilities is Lombardy (1,506 patents), followed by Emilia Romagna (703), Veneto (596) and Piedmont (480). These are the areas with greater industrial presence, which have consolidated their national leadership and confirmed their strong manufacturing power at European level, but then again, this has been a long-term trend: looking at the data from 2008 to now, 80% of patents was from the northern regions, which abound in businesses, research centres, efficient public and private universities.

And here’s another factor to consider: last year, 4,200 start-ups were established in Italy, an increase of 25% as compared to 2020 (with a particularly significant presence of engineering and blockchain activities), and Milan is the most innovative city, with 818 new high tech companies (Il Sole24Ore, 7 January).

Italy’s industrial driving engine is still going, then, though it’s also becoming increasingly obvious that the rest of the country needs to develop in terms of innovation, corporate and market cultures, productivity and competitiveness.

The third series of data provides some reassurance about the future of the Italian economy, and relates to the strength of our export performance. Analysed by the Edison Foundation and illustrated by its director Marco Fortis on Il Sole24Ore (6 January), those figures show how our export levels are higher than before the pandemic, with a growth of 5.8% over January – September 2021, as compared to the same period in 2019. The drivers are the seven industries that, as per international rankings, we can term “3F” and “4M”: Food and wine, Fashion, Furniture and building materials, and then Metal products, Machinery, Motor yachts and other transport equipment, Medicaments and personal care products. The trade surplus of those “magnificent seven” products exported abroad reaches 138.4 billion dollars.

These series of data we’re talking about – patents, start-ups and export – are the result of basic choices made by the better side of Italy’s production system and research and technology transfer structures, which date back to the aftermath of the 2008 great financial crisis, and have been supported by a smart tax legislation implemented by governments ready to strengthen quality manufacture and to stimulate digital innovation through the Industry 4.0 process. Choices, that is, that have entailed a commitment towards the recovery of the real economy, investing in quality and – for a long time now – in the sustainability of products and production systems, in building links between industry and services, and in the gradual expansion of high-added-value niches on the global markets.

These are strengths engendered by a robust industrial economy with a European feel. An economy in which we must keep on investing, so that it can be used as leverage to support the whole country during periods of economic downturns, whenever they might occur.