WHY FORESIGHT?

The Science and Technology Foresight Project has carried out initiatives of great relevance, in order to define research strategies able to address crucial social problems related to energy, food, health, water, as well as the cross-sectoral topic of breakthrough innovative materials.

Both, the holistic approach applied to the analysis of the topics, as well as the innovative format of the invitation only workshops, enticed the participation of internationally acknowledged experts. This framework guaranteed all participants the necessary conditions to carry out an open interactive debate, consolidating a collective intelligence, which assisted in achieving a consensus on research priorities, knowledge gaps, and funding needs.-

The organization of the workshops has four operational phases: the definition of the program, the preparation of the preliminary documents, the selection of experts interested in confronting problems in all their complexity, and the preparation of the reports following each workshop. The foresight workshops are highly inter-disciplinary, and the invited researchers, providing different expertise to the panels, are encouraged to address problems in a systemic, non-linear way, in order to identify innovative and disruptive, future developments. The format of the meetings stimulates new thinking and a cultural and scientific growth, aspects which have proven to be fundamental in addressing important future challenges. In particular, the CNR researchers involved have considerably profited from these aspects and the foresight project aims to further support the involvement of CNR members, also in view of the European FP9. So far, all participants expressed their enthusiasm for this approach.

 

OUTREACH OF THE PROJECT

The countries of provenance of the experts, who participated in the workshops, is reported in the map. The active participation not only of the CNR researchers directly involved in the project, but also of researchers of many CNR Institutes belonging to different departments (Chemical sciences and materials technologies, Physical sciences and technologies of matter, Engineering, ICT, energy, and transportation, Agricultural and food sciences, Biomedical sciences, Earth system science and environmental technologies), is of particular relevance. Among the external participants, many are researchers and experts from both, important international universities and research centers, as well as from international organizations such as FAO, European Commission, EFSA, FDA, NSF.

Collaboration agreements have been finalized with: the Italian Ministry of Health in the occasion of the G7, 2017; the Global Good Fund of Innovation Venture (Seattle, USA), for the co-organization of workshops related to the agri-food topics; Innogest, to stimulate fund raising, for innovative technologies related to the agri-food sector.

Members of the Foresight Project have been invited to present results at a number of national and international events and conferences and in various publications.

 

ACTIVITY

The Foresight Project has involved the international scientific community in the effort of identifying innovative, scientifically based, medium/long term solutions of problems within the four areas mentioned above. The current social needs have been identified as the drivers for change and the proposed solutions must address them. Each problem is a big challenge by itself, and it becomes even more substantial when considering that all issues are connected., Looking for a proper identification of both the relevant features of each problem, as well as the current knowledge gaps, which must be overcome, we adopted a systems approach. The goal is to move beyond a linear view of cause and effect, towards the development of a systemic and integrated view.

The results can be summarized as follows: -

  • AGRI-FOOD: production and distribution need to be connected to resources as well as to consumers’ needs (nutritional, social, economic, environmental); the food value chains need to be considered imbedded into a food system; the development of a smartgrid, connecting needs and production/distribution in a bidirectional, responsive and adaptable way, could lead to a more sustainable food system.
  • HEALTH: a better understanding of the impact of the environment (including exposome, nutrition, life-style etc.) on the individual health is needed in order to re-contextualize the transition between health and disease. This is indispensable in order to develop a P4 medicine (predictive, preventive, personal, participatory).
  • ENERGY: energy storage sector has been identified as a key priority to facilitate the progressive decarbonization of the energy system.  The transition will unlikely occur through development of new generation batteries. A large scale-use of versatile, clean and flexible energy vectors such as hydrogen and CO2-derived sustainable fuels can allow a large-scale integration of renewables.
  • WATER: an analysis, using novel and refined statistical and dynamical-systems-based methods, of the impact of extreme events on the socio-ecological systems, on the water cycle as well as water availability and distribution, is needed. Specific attention must be paid to densely populated regions such as (mega)cities and coastal Mediterranean regions. This analysis should be accompanied by the identification of new technologies and land-use strategies able to mitigate the effects of extreme events.
     

A very strong scientific and technological connection exists between these four areas: e.g.  a discussion on the future of agri-food must consider all water and energy related issues, as well as the links existing between food production, nutrition, and health.

A strong consensus among the workshops’ participants has been reached regarding the urgency of scientific and technological breakthroughs on the following subjects:

  1. Development of materials able to perform different functions according to external environmental conditions, in order to respond to different requirements.
  2. Interaction between AI, Data, Models, and Knowledge, in order to design learning machines able to: provide, or allow satisfactory explanations to humans for their decisions; continuously learn to respond to unknown conditions, and robustly handle adversarial examples.
  3. Systems considered in a systems approach can have all kinds of dimensions. They are always analyzed into parts with proper interfaces.  The study of the interactions between interfaces, the dynamics, and the ways of communication, are of primary importance for understanding the functioning of the systems themselves, even if the nature of the interactions can be very varied and may require multi-scaling competences.

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A couple of years ago a fifth working group on “Materials” has been established within the Foresight Project, in order to launch a debate on the possibility to mimic nature’s capability of generating complex systems, using a limited number of primary components and chemical bonds. The introduced “Stem Materials” paradigm consists in understanding whether one can use primitive blocks and assemble them in a lego-like way, in order to produce materials for any application, e.g. able to act both as sensors and activators. The identification of the primitive blocks, and the search for a paradigm/law of the functionality of their combinations, would lead to breaking innovations.

For details of results see the workshops’ reports.

Based on the past achievements, and thanks to the numerous national and international contacts established, the Foresight Project is planning a series of new workshops, in order to better define research lines and future technological developments, supported by the consensus of the scientific community. The process, started by the project, is already enabling international collaborations capable to produce funding proposals on subjects consistent with research lines identified thanks to the Foresight activity.