«The coronavirus is not a black swan». This is what Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of the bestseller “The Black Swan”, that EVOLVE covered in December 2017, said on the subject of antifragility in a newspaper interview. The Lebanese philosopher - who had foreseen an unexpected event capable of overwhelming everything and everyone, changing history - explains that we cannot compare the current Covid-19 pandemic to a black swan. «It lacks an essential aspect - says Taleb - the unpredictability. If we look at the disease itself, years ago the scientific community started giving warnings that sooner or later a global epidemic would break out. And it’s not a black swan because of the collapse of the markets, either: a noticeable correction was in the order of things, because prices were too inflated, both in the USA

and in Europe. A little ‘drainage’ will only do some good. There have been many such moments, even without epidemics».

With this in mind, we asked Pierroberto Folgiero, CEO of Maire Tecnimont and NextChem, some questions about resilience and post virus reconstruction. Even though Covid-19 has highlighted the fragility of our system, this crisis can become a historic opportunity to lead the world towards a sustainable direction.

«All of a sudden, the pandemic has confronted us with what can happen to the planet when a systemic risk becomes a reality. Apart from the deep sorrow for the victims of this virus and their families, we can draw a positive side from this event: the realization that we can live in a way unthinkably different from how we were used to. We must use the sense of surprise that millions of people have experienced in realizing that smart working actually works, if well organized, to consider the fact that many other things can be done very differently. We need to look ahead in the long term, because it will not be enough to just reduce emissions and energy consumption. We need to change social, economic and financial behaviors and values».

How do we plan a quick and lasting reconstruction?

«By preparing the industrial system for the reduction of risk and economic loss resulting from pollution and climate change and the impact they have and will have on many sectors. National economies will have to become more and more resilient and industrially autonomous, because the Covid-19 crisis is showing us that the oil & gas era has begun its transformation trajectory. Private investment in the fossil fuel sector is no longer as attractive as before, with financial analysts assigning a much higher rating to innovative green technology projects. Albeit with slowdowns and areas of resistance, we are moving towards the fourth industrial revolution: the one where the physical, digital and biological worlds will increasingly become a single entity».

How do you envision the general and Italian scenario in the short term? How should companies and institutions move?

«Maire Tecnimont is a leader in technologies for the transformation of natural resources into both energy and products that are innovative and sustainable: every day, for us, the energy transition means agility, flexibility and internationality. This is why I have the image of a large worksite in my mind, a globally oriented “worksite of transition”. Obviously, it would also be a great priority for Italy, which is the second largest manufacturing country in Europe, to devote its time and resources to defining simplified procedures for those who want to invest. In this context, it is necessary to guide companies on how to use the available resources in order to start long-term projects. The ingredients? On the one hand the ability of companies to create a system, pushing new supply chain agreements with joint platforms for research and concrete application. On the other hand, the ability of institutions to be able to support innovation in this sector when they are presented with workable innovative projects».

Politics and business do not always go hand in hand. How could governments intervene?

«Green platforms are needed so that demand for capital, goods and services can be met by businesses. Governments will have to facilitate more courageous investments in sustainability with rewarding tax incentives for processes that improve energy efficiency, the carbon footprint and recycling technologies. There is still a lack of regulatory infrastructure and incentives to support the production of goods made from organic and non-fossil-based raw materials, as well as chemical products made from recycled waste. By acting for innovation we make industries more competitive and less exposed to future systemic risks».

In terms of resilience, is green chemistry a viable solution to ensure self-sufficiency?

«With green chemistry we can create a basket of locally produced goods, available within the country and able to provide greater autonomy in terms of raw materials, products and energy. The energy transition is an opportunity: every company knows that where there are new paradigms to explore, innovation and business grow. The birth of NextChem is going in this direction: to position ourselves in a promising market, the one of technologies for the low-carbon and circular economy. Waste is the oil of the new millennium, although in Italy we are struggling to recognize it on both an institutional and societal level. Let’s recall the Nimby syndrome: it springs up spontaneously every time we think about how to transform waste into resources».

How do we find the right balance to intelligently manage resources?

«The energy transition cannot disregard the development of the circular economy to save natural resources, by recovering as much post-consumer material as possible, a real treasure of precious molecules. This way we will reduce our dependence on other countries for the supply of raw materials. We need to start thinking about the development of green technologies by carefully looking at the biomasses that will be used as a feedstock for industrial transformation processes».

There is still debate whether certain types of waste can be considered biomasses.

«The availability of biomasses is the real challenge for the sustainable economy of the future. To make the circular economy grow, we must make an effort to observe the system with a wide lens, able to detect the symbiotic relationship between different sectors, between agriculture and industry, between the agri-food supply chain and chemistry: what for one is waste, for the other can become raw material».

Technically, how does this translate into NextChem?

«Our patented Upcycling technology makes it possible to obtain perfect circularity: it enables the transformation of post-consumer plastic waste into high performance polymers able to replace virgin plastic. Our bio-based technologies for green chemistry can be integrated into existing plants to produce intermediates and biofuels from residual oils and fats. At NextChem, we have developed chemical recycling technologies that enable the production of circular gas, circular hydrogen, methanol and other valuable molecules from non-recyclable plastic or dry wastes. With the double benefit of circularity and CO2 reduction, without neglecting economic sustainability. In collaboration with ENI, we have a project for the refinery in Venice underway, aimed at producing Circular Hydrogen, extracted from the synthesis gas generated by the chemical conversion of waste such as Plasmix (the miscellaneous remnants of the separated recycling, that is difficult to recycle mechanically) and RDF (Refuse Derived Fuel). Again, with ENI, we are also carrying out the project for the Livorno refinery, where we will produce methanol using the same process. I believe that our Circular Hydrogen is an intermediate step towards a sustainable production of green hydrogen generated through electrolysis powered by renewable energy sources».

In a separate article in this issue of EVOLVE we will talk with Chairman Fabrizio Di Amato about the Circular District model developed by NextChem and presented to Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte at the States-General of the Economy. What do you think about this project?

«It was an important testimony that the Chairman and Majority Shareholder of Maire Tecnimont, Di Amato, brought to the government table. Our idea of the Circular District includes patented and licensed technologies in an integrated framework, with significant operational synergies and environmental benefits. It is an effective solution for brownfield industrial sites that need to be decarbonized or upgraded with a more environmentally sustainable footprint. But, also for energy-intensive and traditionally fossil industries, such as steel, glass, waste management and petrochemicals. We are very motivated by the fact that these technologies will provide innovative solutions to the waste problem, which is one of the most complex issues of this century».

Digitalization and smart working. How was the challenge experienced by managers, technicians and employees? Just another step towards organizational resilience?

«The entire company has responded with a great sense of responsibility towards itself and the stakeholders who are watching us carefully. I have repeatedly affirmed my pride in seeing that the Maire Tecnimont Group had already started to go upstream some time ago, training itself in spreading digital culture at all levels and operating in true smart working motivated by agile thinking. Our Group courageously thought about the solution before the problem became evident. Managing the digital development of a leading multinational company in hydrocarbon and green chemistry plant engineering is a complex and motivating endeavor. With more than nine thousand professionals located in over forty-five countries within fifty different companies, designing the future of tomorrow - with all its variables, sometimes even a “black swan” - is for us a task that would... make Taleb and many other geopolitical experts jealous».

Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, specifically urges that clean energy be at the heart of support plans to combat the coronavirus crisis. With the aim of creating a participatory approach, the research world must also be integrated into the drive towards the transition. How can collaboration with companies be strengthened?

«The position of the IEA’s top management is shared by a growing number of economists, experts and business representatives. This is also the goal of the recently formed European Alliance for a Green Recovery, connecting tens of opinion leaders, Institutions and CEOs from overall Europe, as it is the meaning of the recent Manifesto of the Italian Foundation for Sustainable Development (where we are among the Founders), and the message of the Symbola Foundation within its Climate Manifesto, that we also signed. On the innovation side, Maire Tecnimont has been working for a long time with universities and research centers to put technologies that allow for a sustainable transition into practice. Participating in European and national projects, also through open innovation platforms, allows us to intercept ideas and positive energy, of which we then test the applicability at pilot level and on an industrial scale. I believe that the time has come to share with the main decision makers - both institutional and corporate - an important plan for an industrial reconstruction that has a positive impact on the economy, society and the environment».

The headquarters of the Group is in Italy, although Maire Tecnimont is present in forty-five countries. What elements of national resilience can bring inspiration to offices scattered across five continents?

«As Italians we are showing all our propensity to find effective solutions when problems are articulated. We always try to draw new motivation from adverse circumstances. Other countries are very good at coming out of crises through more standard and routine, long-term paths. Over the years, working all over the world, we too have learned that it is not enough to be disciplined: Italian engineers represent an increasingly global excellence because they are disciplined and creative, they are “humanistic engineers”. Probably the extra “something” comes from the ability to draw on problem solving and our basic transversal culture: by trusting our intuition, perhaps more than others, we find alternative solutions that open the way, bringing flexibility and resilience to the system. The women and men of Maire Tecnimont, even before the Covid-19 crisis, have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to make the most of this professional cultural heritage. Now is the time not to be afraid to overcome the existing paradigm, creating the right mix between rational ideas and creative strokes of genius. I am thinking of Taleb, who used to say that resilience is built alongside anti-fragility: uncertainty is not only a source of danger from which to defend oneself, but an opportunity to seek benefits from volatility and disorder, and even from mistakes. I am sure that the bad experience of the pandemic will lead us to look at the future, of our businesses and of people in general, with different eyes. With the view of explorers who already imagine what’s on the other side of the sea they are navigating».