Sergio Ulgiati

Sergio Ulgiati is Associate Professor of Environmental Chemistry and Life Cycle Assessment at Parthenope Universityof Naples, Department of Science and Technology. His research focuses on energyconversion systems, energy and emergy analysis, life cycle assessment and sustainability indicators. He advocates for a new sustainability discourse: a newmodeloforganizing knowledge, ideas, experiences and language around shared values basedon qualitative and not quantitative growth. He is one of the Coordinatorsof the project “Analysis of the metabolism of urban conglomerates and cooperative strategy of the circular economy”, supported by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the China National Natural Science Foundation, a joint research between the Parthenope University of Naples and the Beijing Normal University, project that also involves the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and other Chinese universities. He is the founder of the Matteo Ricci Network, a connective network for Italian and Chinese universities, laying the foundations for an increasingly fruitful international collaboration with the chinese academic world.

Professor, you are one of the founders of the project ”Analysis of the metabolism of urban conglomerates and cooperative strategy of the circular economy”, what is the main reasoning behind the project and what are the expected results?
The project on urban circular economy stems from a long term collaboration between the Parthenope University of Naples and the Beijing Normal University, focused on urban development patterns and the appropriate use of material and energy resources. We aim to enhance and communicate costs and benefits of new production and consumption models, respectful of environmental limits and able to find radically different solutions to the needs of the society: a circular economy seen as imitation of Nature and respectful of its rhythms, far from the consumerism and waste, a qualitative growth more than a quantitative one.

As environmental expert, what do you think about the application of the results in the current context of the new green deal, even more evident after the covid-19 pandemiccalledinto questionour economic system?
We can no longer afford surface solutions, with the illusion of a unlimited growth on a planet that, on the contrary, onlyhas a limited amount of resources (energy, materials, clean water and air, fertile land). The new pandemic has clearly shown that “the king is naked”, that our model of development weakens us as well asthe defenses that Nature has made available. Weakened by pollution and the misuse of resources, we are exposed to any kind of health, climate and social disasters. Our research aims at understanding how it would be possible to implement models of welfare capable to respect our planet, ourselves and all other species.

You have a long term experience as High End Foreign Expert at the Beijing Normal University. What are the main differences between the chinese academic system and ours?
Obviously there are pros and cons in both systems. China has implemented a huge educational and cultural effort with the goal of getting the country out of the poverty that affected a large fraction of its population. It made huge investments in the academic field, rapidly building new universities and research centres. I personally found myself giving lectures in classrooms that were still being painted. Students are aware of the efforts as well as of the potential benefits of it, whichis the reason behind their motivation and their commitment. The quickness of this growth also leads to averagely young teachers and researchers, who expand their look to the future ahead,althoughcertainly have less experience than more aged faculty. In China you can be associate professor at 35 with responsibility on projects, financing, didactics and activities. In Italy the period of growth ended long time ago for obvious demographic and development reasons, and we are now facing a phase of conservation of previous achievements, with less investments, lower employability for the new generations and not much mobility from one university to the other. That’s why several Italian young researchers go abroad attracted by better opportunities for their career. Who stays in Italy, most often can only wait on the bench untilhis “boss” retires.

International cooperation and internationalization are now fundamental aspects for universities in the quality of their offer, hence the idea of creating the Matteo Ricci Network, a network of connections between Italian and Chinese universities. What are the cornerstones of the Network and the main expectations?
The Network, inspired by the noble figure of the scientist Matteo Ricci (Macerata 1552-Beijing 1610; jesuit, theologian, geographer, mathematician, 100% Italian, 100% Chinese) aims to develop collaborations and friendships between researchers, teachers and students of the two countries. The goal is to share scientific projects and results, research funds, exchange opportunities, events organization, in a deeply interdisciplinary perspective. The Network is set up as an agreement between universities (currently 25), with the possibility of involving departments of all disciplines. We do not just expect young researchers to publish one more article together, but we expect that they become friends, fully understand each other’s cultures of origin and implement every form of sharing. There is a centuries-old tradition of contacts between Italy and China, of which Matteo Ricci – highly regarded in China – is perhaps the most representative figure. Both countries are rich in ancient artistic and cultural traditions. The similarities that unite are more numerous than the differences that separate.

How has cooperation with China continued in this period of health emergency?
In the uncertainty, we obviously had to cancel some commitments for activities to be carried out in person (for example, my course at the Beijing Normal University to be held in July) and addressed to interested students throughout the Matteo Ricci Network. However, we continued to work together on various aspects. In many cases the ongoing collaborations involved students or young researchers, for whom it was of fundamental importance to continue the activity and obtain results.
For example, some Phd students from three different Chinese universities were already in Naples at the time of the outbreak of the pandemic and decided to stay in Italy to continue the work plan, albeit in online mode. This enabled two new scientific articles to be published and two more to be sent.
In other cases, the collaboration was triangular (China-Italy-Cameroon and China-Italy-Belgium) and also this continued online, after the return to their countries of the researchers involved, with the sending of the results obtained to international scientific journals. Together with the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and Beijing Normal University we have renewed for the third year the Bilateral Project of High Relevance Italy-China, supported by our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Natural Science Foundation of China, so that the current research on the urban circular economy can continue, even without being able to meet in person. Our hope is to resume as soon as possible full cooperation also based on the mutual exchange of scientific visits.
I would like to highlight the fact that sometimes international relations between countries and macro-areas (Asia, Europe, Americas) face contingent difficulties related to political, economic and commercial aspects (and recently also to the health emergency) that cause a temporary escalation of relationships. This is not the case for science, which has no boundaries and must have no boundaries, but offers itself as a means of connection, collaboration and friendship with a view to overcoming problems. For us it has always been very encouraging to see young people from both countries (and other backgrounds) engaged together in scientific research and then in a cheerful evening in the pizzeria. We hope that this will also be the case this time.