Building a better future. Interview with Emilia Garito

Emilia Garito, a computer scientist and an enterpreneur, is the organizer of the TEDxRoma, the leading TEDx conference in Italy, as well as being one of the top-tier Italian experts in open innovation, artificial intelligence and complex systems modelling.

Which challenges do you face when organizing such a complex event as the TEDxRoma?

The challenges we face in organizing a TEDx event are manifold. Amongst the most relevant, the challenge of organizing a professional conference whilst having a limited availability of time and resources must certainly be considered. Many think that behind a great TEDx event there is a well-paid organization, but in point of fact the attention to detail, the careful quest for quality content, the creative ideas brought about to make the event interesting and compelling are the result of purely volunteer work. The time needed to carry out all these activities, from logistics to curation, is “snatched” from the professional and private life of each member of the Organizing Team. This condition, both for the Team and for the Organizer, is extremely challenging on a daily basis. We need to provide a permanent supply of stimuli and the ability to manage each phase of the organizational process at our best, exactly as if there were a company working on the event full time.

Of course, the bigger the event the tougher the challenges, but being able to overcome the difficulties in harmony with the colleagues of the team, the partners, and the speakers is every time a novel (hence formative) experience.

In conclusion, I think that the biggest challenge is managing to accomplish a “growth journey” through the complex experience of producing a TEDx event, together with the team and even as an individual. Being able to grow and learn in the process is always a sound evidence of having done well and represents the holy grail of success.

How crucial is the balance between soft skills and project management skills?

The challenge of balancing soft skills and hard skills is a fundamental one in all kinds of activities, not only in those related to the organization of an event as the TEDx event. To be sure, however, it is of the utmost importance one’s own ability to create a happy and friendly environment. Which is why the best blend of the team is one in which most of the members are very young, maybe not completely “ripe” as far as professional skills are concerned, but certainly eager and passionate. It is our outstanding commitment to “having things done” that ultimately makes us tick.

Of course, this implies that senior team members must spend (or better, invest) time in training their younger colleagues, but this should also be one of the TEDx goal, in my opinion. Certainly, it is one of the goals of TEDxRoma as it was conceived from the beginning in 2014. It always makes me smile when I recall the first team meetings, the kick off meetings, every year when we start to set up the organizational phases and the productive areas of the event. In fact, every year we start with a beautiful Gantt chart which every year becomes more and more comprehensive, and from an organization which is perfect on paper; then, step by step, the Gantt chart, although by now almost carved into the memory of the veterans, gives way to a more creative arrangement that depends on the fluctuations in time availability, on the unexpected (always lurking behind), on the evolution and development of ideas.

In the end, however, the team manages everything even without the Gantt chart, but only by drawing on the abilities of each of us to solve the unexpected thanks to their soft skills. Some team resources are invaluable for their ability to get results and find solutions, despite being resilient to update their To Do list. This is OK with me: I keep the Gantt chart in mind all the time and whenever I feel the need to “mark the time” I do so, trying not to stress the Team who should be working always with joy.

The result? After a year of work, the most operational members of the team (often the youngest ones) proceed by updating their portions of the Gantt chart and by producing better and better To Do lists, whilst not sacrificing their soft skills: they simply find the reason to use simple and useful planning tools which integrate smoothly with their way of approaching work. Over time they will use increasingly sophisticated tools, but without performance stress, in an organic way that is also conducive to their progressive growth. In the end, it is them who organize the TEDxRoma year after year.

Do you think human values are still significant in the digital age?

Human values should be the ultimate goal of progress, howsoever we define it, and regardless to the technological or innovation tools we adopt to bring it about. Taking advantage of human weaknesses as if they were milestones for digital (and non-digital) business models should be exposed and banned from common practice. Unfortunately, there is always a “dark side of the moon” and the game is won by those who have greater power and marketing and communication skills in imposing their vision.

The attitude of the “big players” is to tap into technological progress in order to create solutions “tailored to our needs”, and that for this reason we are all too happy to welcome into our everyday life; yet, more often than not they do not solve any real problem because there is indeed no problem to be solved for which that solution should be needed. But we are fooled into believing that such solutions are our progress, precisely because they get marketed as “designed for us and to our advantage”, and therefore we cannot get rid of them.

However, a kind of progress which robs us of our time and of our data cannot really be evolution, it is merely a transformation. A social one? A cultural one? Perhaps it is an anthropological one. The point is: are we aware of all that? Are we understanding the direction in which we are governing the transformation?

In my opinion, should a society of the future fail to be truly human-centric, then it will not have the right to declare itself an advanced society, or in any way a progression on the past. Today we have knowledge, culture, and tools to solve all sorts of human issues much more effectively than in the past; but doing so to the mere financial benefit of a tiny minority of privileged ones is the worst crime. A global population which in 2040 will reach 9 billion inhabitants cannot be governed through elitist dynamics, and technological progress should be creating an inclusive society by increasing the quality of life for everybody, as much as possible.

This may appear to be a purely theoretical discourse, but it is indeed a very practical one. Just think of the massive use we make of technology, or of when we put our two-year-old children in front of the electronic games so as to make them less troublesome, or even “doped” by a kind of legalized digital opium. We do this because “they” explained to us that if an operator offers us a product, then it cannot hurt, otherwise it would not reach the market. This was true at the time of the TV programming of the last century for which the contents had to be examined by sociologists and pedagogical experts, but this is no longer the case.

In order to use technology properly, today we need to develop a critical thinking suitable for sorting through the risks and advantages of using the myriad of applications that “besiege” us every day; but who is working to promote the birth of such critical thinking in our society? Where on earth are the software tools, the applications, the contents which we could avail ourselves of, in a view of developing awareness and “scale” our mastery of the new tools together with the digital transformation taking place, so as to quickly reach the degree of maturity needed to know how to decide what is right for us or for our children?

Without degenerating into an apocalyptic vision (I am indeed convinced that the ambition of progress is in human nature and should never be thwarted) all what I want to do is to stress the fact that defending human rights in the digital age cannot be a side issue, a corollary to be delegated to thinkers and philosophers; on the contrary, it must acquire momentum and urgency and become the heart of our way of planning the society of tomorrow, the lighthouse in creating the business models of the future.

The educational and evolutionary mission cannot be a mere collateral effect of the good use that each individual will be able to do independently but must be the project of our future. If this vision becomes a shared responsibility, then we will not have to fear artificial intelligence or “bleeding edge” technologies in general; along similar lines, we should not be afraid of the revolution that genomics is about to bring to our lives, since in both cases it is the use we will make of those tools that will determine whether they will be to our advantage or not, and in which degree. But this will only happen if this responsibility is felt by everybody at stake as a collective mission and an instrument of evolution and real progress.

Italy is lagging behind in the global digital market. Do you suggest any strategy to “catch up”?

Italy should try to be more and more connected to Europe, both in terms of policies and of investments. For a fragmented country like Italy, where it is difficult to create “real” ecosystems, Europe is an exceptional opportunity for growth. This is because in Europe the ideas on digital development strategies and the resources needed to implement them are clear. This opportunity has benefited all the strongest countries of the European Union, first and foremost Germany, which certainly has never disdained an assiduous presence in all European projects, whilst maintaining a constant compliancy with European policies.

Italy should do the same. We should incorporate the growth strategies suggested by Europe into a more concrete and effective way, by developing our own industrial plans in line with those at the EU level, and become one of the leading countries on the global markets by tapping into our own high-rank creative and entrepreneurial capabilities. Italy could become a sort of experimental factory on the European stage and help create, together with the other member Countries, the “tiebreaker” in the difficult balance between China and the USA.

A strong Europe, with an Italy well aware of its own value, will be the indispensable guide in political and technological choices with a global impact, but which today are only conveyed by the interests of China and the US. When Italy realizes this and starts to work in concert and to use the available funds (both the European and the national ones) correctly, then we will see a much faster business development, and above all a truly effective one as far as the productive sectors of our Country are concerned.

Can you talk a little about your human and professional journey?

My career has always been very influenced by my private life. I work every day even now with an approach and a way of feeling work and relationships never at sixes and sevens with my nature and my personal experiences. I have never separated the two things, respecting the neutrality of the professional career of course, but above everything I always put a lot of genuineness into every action. Therefore, my work ethic is not far removed from my personal values. Very often this may have represented a limit, at times even a naivety that has cost me business, but I firmly believe that the opportunity to be authentic even when we fail is one of those prodigious things that life offers us and that business should by no means rob us of.

Maybe that is why I didn’t give up having a family of my own, raising two daughters — albeit with a lot of help — and above allI have always advocated a women’s way of working, in which I strive to balance my job and my family without having to choose whether to be closer to the ideal of the career woman or that of the mother and wife. I always wanted to abide by both of these roles with their respective routes, “commuting” from business meetings to children’s birthday parties. This is what all women who work hard actually do, and it is also a skill which we could teach.

Sometimes we may seem to have more than one identity, it is true, and this confuses or leads to the risk of dispersion and the fear of revealing one’s weaknesses, but instead in my opinion it is precisely when we understand that we have such diverse identities that we are improving ourselves thanks to all the personal and professional journeys we live through. I think this is a good point of arrival on the path of self-growth and self-discovery, and at the same time an excellent starting point towards the most exciting journey of maturity.

In short, I believe that a rich, compelling, fulfilling professional path cannot and should not be unconnected either from our private sphere or from authenticity and loyalty to one’s own personal convictions and experiences.

First published on Eventual Consistency