Building a silicon valley in the Italian Alps

Working outside the paralysed national system, Trento university is pointing the way forward for Italian third level

Modern faculty buliding in Trento university

Modern faculty buliding in Trento university


If you know Italy at all, you will know that the Italian university system does not always enjoy a good press. At best, the average Italian student’s third-level experience tends to make Ulysses’ wanderings and occasional encounters with one-eyed monsters look like a relative dawdle.

Huge student numbers (there are approximately 130,000 students enrolled at Rome’s La Sapienza, for example), chronic underfunding and an archaic exam system that is often more oral than written tend to make an odyssey of the process of graduation, more for logistical and infrastructural reasons than for the academic standards.

However, think again. Welcome to the Università Degli Studi di Trento, a university that is not only lean, mean and relatively young (founded in 1962) but which has also become the hub of a Trento regional research renaissance that aims to make this region the “Silicon Valley Of The Alps”.

The city of Trento has the good fortune to find itself in the semi-autonomous Italian region of Trentino-Alto Adige/Sud-Tirol, in the foothills of the Alps, where a level of fiscal autonomy applies to health, welfare, transport and, above all, education.

This means that the Provinicia di Trentino effectively finances and runs the university of Trento, outside the constraints of a cash-strapped national system which has seen public spending in education drop from 5.4 per cent of GDP to 4.5 per cent in the last 20 years. One advantage, for example, is that Trento university makes its own teaching appointments, without being involved in the often non-meritocratic, crony-infested national system.

Trento university certainly feels different. For a start, the university buildings have a bright, modern functional feel, in contrast to the average Italian university non-campus, made up of converted old buildings stuck all around the city. For a second, 7 per cent of the 16,000 undergraduate students are foreigners, while 70 per cent of the PhD students come from abroad – and not just because much of the teaching is in English.

The first person I encountered was 26-year-old Davide Castelletti, an undergraduate ICT student who is working on something called Remote Sensing Analysis. Essentially, he is a small part in the creation of instruments that will fly on the European Space Agency’s Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (Juice) mission.

Nasa and the Italian Space Agency (ASI) are just two important players that have invested in a seven-year, million dollar plus project led by Prof Lorenzo Buzzone. Castelletti’s part of the programme concerns working on Rime (Radar For Icy Moon Exploration), a tool that can investigate to a depth of 9kms in search of past and present “evidence of life forms”.

Computer science
Further on down the corridor, we come across Prof Gian Pietro Picco, head of the department of information engineering and computer science. Like his colleague, Prof Buzzone, he looks disarmingly young but he says that, at 46, he is old around here, which seems true enough, even if Buzzone would pass for an undergraduate at many Italian universities.

Were they stuck in the mainstream Italian academic system, both these guys would be grey-haired, half-crippled with arthritis and already on their pensions before they would be promoted to similar posts.

Among the many projects that Prof Picco and his team are working on is an intriguing, relatively cheap system for saving up to half the electricity costs on tunnel lights. This involves light sensors which activate when a car is coming but which otherwise are off. Not so much rocket science as good environmental politics.

Obviously, a “Silicon Valley in The Alps” requires more than a good university: it needs to provide a cutting-edge platform where research meets the ICT industry. Trentino does this via Trento Rise, a sort of “Entreprise Trento” that has attracted IBM, Nasa, the European Institute of Technology as well as dozens of start-ups.

International researchers
Inevitably, Trento has begun to attract international researchers too, inclduing some Irish. Kieran Tuohy (42) is originally from Claremorris, Co Mayo. A graduate in industrial microbiology from UCD, he has studied and taught at the universities of Surrey, Aberdeen and Reading. He is now the group leader of nutrition and nutrigenomics research at Trent’s Fondazione Edmund Mach (FEM) agricultural research institute.

He works on “gut microbiology”, trying to understand just why certain foodstuffs in the intestine, say fruit and cheese, can help protect against serious illness such as cancer and heart attacks. Recently, Dr Catherine Stanton of Teagasc, the Irish food authority, was in Trento comparing notes on dairy research and probiotics, an area where Ireland, and University College Cork in particular, has a strong record.

The bottom line seems to be that “an apple a day” is good for you, after all.

Married to an Italian and father of two small children, Tuogy has been based in Trento for three years. He says it provides “state of the art” research facilities and personnel and, not surprisingly, he tends to see his future in the Alpine foothills.

Before we leave Trento, there is time to meet up with yet another youthful professor. 39-year-old Greek, Themis Palpanas, head of computer science, who has studied and taught at the universities of Athens and Toronto. He has also spent time at Microsoft and IBM research centres in the Umited States as well as at the University of Calfornia. His areas of research include data management, data mining, and streaming (ie continuous) data analytics.

It may sound boring but, in effect, it has to do with research into how huge entities – banks, airlines, news organisations etc – deal with the large bodies of data that they process by the second. On the day we spoke to him, he was preparing to host a weeklong conference on VLDBs (Very Large Data Bases), attended by more than 730 participants including representatives of organisations such as Google, Facebook, IBM, Oracle, Microsoft, Hewlett Packard and Twitter.

To some extent, at least, Silicon Valley has indeed already landed in the Alps.

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