Grabbing a Virtual Coffee with Professor Francesco Lapenta 

Staff writer Giulia Leo interviews the Founding Director of the John Cabot University Institute of Future and Innovation Studies.

Community Spotlight

By Giulia Leo / Matthew staff

Courtesy of Professor Francesco Lapenta

Professor Francesco Lapenta is the Founding Director of the John Cabot University Institute of Future and Innovation Studies. His area of specialization is emerging technologies, technology governance, and future scenario analysis. A few days ago, I sat down for a virtual conversation with him to talk about the Institute of Future and Innovation Studies and discuss the main topics covered in the Future of Jobs lecture event, which happened on Sept. 24, 2021. The lecture focused on the evolution of the working field in the future and the importance of having a 10-year goal-oriented plan to navigate the world of jobs. 

How was the Institute of Future and Innovation Studies born? 

For about 13 years, I had been teaching courses on the topic of governance of emerging technologies. Therefore, over time, I naturally developed an appreciation for methodically looking into emerging dynamics and paradigms of the future. The more I developed that attitude, the more I realized that what was really needed in my job was to integrate different models that allow for both humanities and sciences to be in constant conversation. 

I fully understood the importance of the intersectional relation between humanities and sciences when I was working at the University of Denmark. There, I witnessed three apparently unrelated departments being brought together: the departments of Communications, Business, and IT. Through that experience, I perceived that there was a worldwide need to engage with emerging technologies by using a formula where humanities and sciences are put in the same realm. So, I started looking for institutions that could welcome my intersectional project. I was constantly interacting with professors in the United States and Europe, when a colleague from Germany told me about John Cabot, which, ironically, happened to be in my own country. 

At JCU I found this very vibrant environment, with a long-reaching global network. But, most importantly, at John Cabot I found a deeply rooted humanistic tradition, combined with a more scientific approach. As I started to explore the university, my project and the agenda of John Cabot collided in what became the Institute, whose mission is to be a bridge between different academic realities, not only at John Cabot, but globally. 

The Institute of Future and Innovation Studies has collaborated with many clubs, including The Matthew, on the Future of Jobs event, which happened on September 24, 2021. The lecture focused on the importance of having a 10-year plan for one’s career. What was your 10-year plan when you were in college? Looking back on it, do you think you’ve realized it? 

Even before I graduated, I knew I wanted to work in academia. Therefore, considering where I am now, I would say that plan was successfully realized.  

Generally, when one wants to make a career in academia, the steps are very clear, and allow for little planning or choosing. However, things got interesting when I had to start making plans for my PhD. I knew that I didn’t want to do my PhD in Italy, so I took a year off and traveled around the United States and Europe, looking for universities where I could develop the project I had in mind. In the end, I found London to be the ideal place. There, I competed for the most prestigious scholarship offered in the UK, and I won. Since then, I have been taking what may be considered a more traditional path for academics. I moved to Denmark and, later, to the States, balancing my personal life with my job and career aspirations. 

Do you think it is common for today’s university students to have a precise plan for their future? 

In the past twenty years, I have had a lot of experience with students. What I can tell you is that more than 90% of the students I have worked with didn’t have a clear idea of what they wanted to do after their degree. Like me, those students were choosing their path by selecting a university that they felt might resonate with their interests and skills. From there, the system pretty much regulated their choices.  

However, there was another 10% of the students that came to university with a very different ambition. It was very clear to them what they wanted to do. Some of them already had jobs or owned businesses and simply attended the classes to gain the tools necessary to realize their pre-existing plans. 

What do we do when a situation like COVID-19 gets in the way of our 10-year plan? 

One of the skills I think your generation will have to develop in the working field of the future is adaptability. For instance, differently from the past, the new model of the job industry will require you to constantly move from one job to the next. Adaptability is also the one skill a successful worker must master in a situation like the pandemic.  

What happened with COVID-19 was quite peculiar. It was a moment of global reflection, during which people had to revisit the formula of their lives and make significant changes accordingly. COVID-19 resulted in an incredible change in the way we use specific technological tools. I will give a banal example: online meetings. Before COVID-19, the tools for holding virtual conferences were used and perceived in very different ways, but they acquired new connotations and different uses in times of COVID-19. However, at the Institute, we weren’t new to the infinite possibilities that platforms for online conferences could offer. Therefore, to us, the pandemic became a powerful factor to accelerate the conversation about the problematization of where we stand in our relationship with technology as humanity.  

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the crisis should be underestimated. Like every crisis, this one constitutes a big challenge and an obstacle to the realization of people’s plans. However, the key to an effective 10-year plan is adaptability. 

If the pandemic constitutes an obstacle to the achieving of your goal, find different roads to get to the same objectives or, if needed, slow down and re-work your plan around the new scenario.  

What is your advice to all of those who feel like their future working plans have been irremediably disrupted by the pandemic? 

It is clear that the forthcoming era will be characterized by great instability and a change in working conditions. AI and robotics will profoundly change the world and the market of jobs. Therefore, it’s important that someone who is close to starting a career realizes the change-oriented aspect of the new working world.  

One way of developing yourself is to try to test your ambition. In order to do so, you have to think about how you can move from point A, where you are now, to point B, where you want to be. Of course, a career path rarely moves in a straight line that connects the two points. Most likely, it will be a road trip, consisting of many stops and fallbacks. In those situations, it is important to remember that the journey is a part of the pleasure. 

As our time came to an end and our virtual coffee cups emptied, I thanked Professor Lapenta for his time and hit the “end call” button on the screen. 

Find out more about Professor Lapenta and the John Cabot University Institute of Future and Innovation Studies here.