The Space Economy: Is Italy Ready To Play Its Part?

Technological innovation is a crucial factor behind Italy’s space economy. But sluggish administration may yet hold the space program back.

There is a paradox at the heart of the conventional image of Italian cultural and economic activity. On the one hand, generations of demanding and well-informed customers have seen ‘Italian’ as a synonym for good quality and taste. On the other, a lack of administrative vision and energy — a laziness, let’s say — alongside a failure of adequate investment has hindered their production.

With this in mind, it’s fantastic, although a little strange, to see Italy helping to lead the world into an exciting new frontier. This is the big leap that we call the space economy. Europe is right up there behind the global leader, the USA, and Italy has the infrastructure in place to contribute to this great leap. In fact, thanks to 30 years of experience in developing and improving the necessary technological skills, Italy now ranks sixth in the global classification for space spending in relation to its GDP. Further direct investments are earmarked for this sector in the Italian National Recovery and Resilience Plan.

Italy’s leadership on space funding is something to be proud of in itself. As the director general of the European Space Agency, Josef Aschbacher, said in December 2021, “Italy’s decision [to increase investment], as well as similar decisions by other Member States, are a confirmation of the importance of space technologies in tackling the challenges linked to the green and digital transition and the recovery of our economies. This agreement is an important building block in accelerating the use of space for society, one of the key goals of Agenda 2025.”

But with leadership comes responsibility. The reality of being part of supranational realities like the EU and ESA has meant that Italy has had to adapt. Rather than following the somewhat individualist mentality that has limited Italy’s capacity to fully avail of funding opportunities in the past, the country needs to abide by the strict rules and regulations of the Community. This is crucial, as the scale of challenges facing the planet, from climate change, pandemic, environmental degradation, would be impossible to tackle were it not for satellite provided data — as Aschbacher points out. We can now rely on up to the minute pictures of so many planetary phenomena from drought expansion, to crop infestation and coastal erosion. Troop build-up and movement in areas of tension can be tracked in real-time.

Despite Italy’s previous hot-cold relationship with the EU, there’s now a realization that the country with its technical savoir-faire is part of the strength that the Union can offer. There is no longer time or place for a half-hearted ‘who cares?’ attitude to global challenges. Thankfully, the Italian commitment to these international projects shows that its attitude may be changing.

We hope it’s true. The European Green Deal vows to transform the EU into a modern, resource-efficient, and competitive economy, ensuring net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050 and economic growth that guarantees no person and no place is left behind. Space research is crucial to this project. Space research and the green economy are increasingly interconnected, as are planetary digital transition, nutrition, the ecological renewal of sustainable mobility and global health issues, infrastructure, and technological growth.

Because space technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Start-ups and SMEs, which develop innovative solutions based on space technologies, data, and services that advance and enhance entrepreneurship and create a domino effect in new funding opportunities, are already part of our present. At the same time, the Italian digital workforce has come on leaps and bounds since 2008, when there was little confidence in investing in an economic reality as fragile as Italy’s. For example, the Italian Ministers for Innovation and Labor, Vittorio Colao and Andrea Orlando have announced the birth of The Italian Tech Academy and outlined the new competences necessary for the workplace of the future. As a result, administrative workforces are undergoing a demographic turnover — and the so-called computer plodders will be gradually replaced by digital thoroughbreds whose skills and ambition will be on a par with the best.

If, as we noted above, Made in Italy has sometimes been held back by administrative weakness, perhaps Italy’s commitment to this giant leap for mankind suggests that the country has finally come to face to face with this weakness.

As the successive chapters of human kind’s narrative blend into each other, so too will the exciting and somewhat worrying future chapters that are already in the making. Italy has a mountain to climb to be able to avoid repeating past errors and to overcome administrative sluggishness. In fact, many observers are already declaring the investment and spending program untenable.

As someone in an earthquake prone area of Italy summed it up: “To spend money on technological innovation in a rural school, one must first ensure that the school is fit for purpose.” Unless Italy makes even greater efforts to make its economy and administration fit for purpose, all that money spent on space technology may go to waste. And that’s another wasted opportunity for progress on the environment and in the geopolitical arena too.