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Innovation is resilience: the lesson from 2020


At the StartupItalia Open Summit (SIOS) held a year ago nobody could have imagined what was to happen in 2020 nor how much we would come to rely on the digital realm for our work, studies and social interactions. For this reason, the StartupItalia Open Summit 2020 Winter edition held on Dec. 14 was dedicated to precisely that revolution that we have been experiencing in recent months. Naturally, this edition was held remotely and attracted more than a million visualizations on the website.

During this last year we have journeyed into the future, explained Francesco Starace, CEO and General Manager of the Enel Group, in his speech at SIOS 2020. We have seen what the country’s energy system will be like when we reduce production from fossil fuels and demand can be absorbed by renewables, exceeding all of the levels that experts had indicated as being risky for the stability of the grid. The future is possible, we have just been there, and when we return to normality we will no longer be able to pretend that all of this cannot be achieved. The latest report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) has confirmed the pace of progress in the electrification of consumption, which is accelerating the energy transition. This process is being driven by two factors: one is represented by the constant advances being made in materials science, making products more resistant, less expensive and more recyclable; the other is the spread of digitalization.

Digital innovation is also the factor that meant our Group was not caught unprepared for the pandemic. Ernesto Ciorra, Head of Innovability® at the Enel Group, underlined this at SIOS 2020, explaining how Enel took advantage of previously developed innovations in order to be more resilient. In 2016 we introduced automatic analysis of network problems and the technologies to resolve these automatically. In 2017, robots and drones began to carry out checks and inspections of construction sites and power plants, while the move onto the cloud began in 2018. Covid-19 only speeded up these processes. While remote working was previously something that maybe occurred one day a week, from early March it became the predominant way of working for everyone, with no end date in sight, with the goal of protecting our staff for as long as necessary.

What did not stop, however, was our work with startups. Actually, thanks to digital boot camps, response times were cut and the number of scale-ups increased. The figures confirm as much, with the only exception being our laboratory tests, where we had to limit in-person activities. We analyzed more than 9,000 projects, implemented 700 and scaled up more than 70 at a global level. What’s more, in order to reinforce the ecosystem, we have helped the startups with which we collaborate to connect not only with our suppliers but also with institutions in the countries in which we are present.

In 2014 we embarked on a journey of innovation that was quite unusual, ceasing to carry out internal Research & Development and combining sustainability and innovation, boosting the latter in order to stimulate the way our people think, said Ciorra. One example of this is our effort to change the culture concerning fear of making mistakes, encouraging people to share problems that they cannot solve and to ask for external help. “We are generators of problems and instigators of ideas,” through the ten Innovation Hubs created all over the world as well as the openinnovability.com crowdsourcing platform, thanks to which we have harnessed substantial creativity that otherwise we would not have been able to intercept. “Enel has a workforce of around 67,000 people but the Group’s innovation community numbers a further 400,000 people present on the platform to which we can also add the startups,” added Ciorra.

We want this innovation to be available to everyone, and for this reason we never demand exclusive relationships with the startups. As Starace explained, in our vision the competition is not with other electricity companies, but between energy sources – whatever makes electricity simpler, cheaper and more decarbonized should be made available to everybody, in order to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels and make the planet sustainable.

Our statistics paint a clear picture: embracing the energy transition is not only the right thing to do from a moral point of view, but it also makes sense from an economic perspective. Our Group has become more sustainable, resilient and flexible when it comes to change, including those sudden changes that nobody can predict.