The innovation tribes

The innovation tribes

Enel created its Innovation Communities in order to foster open innovation at the very frontier of technology. Two meet-ups held recently in Rome centred around makers and drones. And here’s what happened…


According to Ernesto Ciorra, our Group’s Chief Innovability Officer, these are communities with many parallels with the Impressionist movement. We are talking, of course, about the 10 Enel Innovation Communities, each of which is dedicated to a theme pivotal to innovation, ranging from AI to robotics, from drone technology to blockchain. They share not just their revolutionary nature with the painters who changed the face of western art in the mid-19th century, but also their structure: an open group with no hierarchies or agendas and members are free to join or leave as they wish.  

Enel’s Open Power ethos involves opening up to innovative ideas from both inside and outside the Group, and the Innovation Communities are the most natural expression of this approach. But to share our experiences and perspectives even more closely, it is also useful to meet in person, look at each other in the eye and actually talk. In recent months, for instance, we have organised two events – two innovation meet-ups – at our Rome headquarters to open up the Innovation Communities to outside ecosystems: one for makers, which was held on 14 October, and another on drones on 20 November.

Leonardo and the techno freaks

The makers meeting took place at the Italian version of the sector’s leading event, the Maker Faire. But who are makers exactly? As far as Ernesto Ciorra is concerned, Leonardo da Vinci was a maker, just as Steve Wozniak, one of the fathers of the personal computer and thus today’s society, is now. Makers are individuals with the ability to imagine and then make actual innovative objects. Their aim, according to Alessandro Ranellucci of Slic3r, a company specialising in innovative 3D printing solutions, is to apply their artisanal spirit to making technology more democratic and accessible to all. 

The term “maker” did not even exist until a few years ago, and these individuals were looked upon as the stuff of legend: “techno freaks” is the term used by Stefano Capezzone of the Roma Makers association, while Andrea Cattabriga of SlowD (a makers’ platform that helps businesses innovative sustainably) describes himself as a “digital daredevil.” Today, makers are conquering the world with the hugely successful Fab Lab model (from the English term “Fabrication Laboratory,” although Capezzone likes to think it’s short for “Fabulous Laboratory”). One such lab is OpenDot, which was represented by Alessandro Masserdotti, who showcased some of its products, including a designer wheelchair so smart-looking and functional that the girl using it was considered the coolest kid at her school. 

Natural makers

As Masserdotti remarked, businesses need creativity and that is something makers have in spades. Companies of the likes of Rete Ferroviaria Italiana (the Italian Railways Network) have already realised this and invited Giacomo Falaschi to apply his experience with Bologna’s Fab Academy, a sort of makers’ university. Enel has also got the message and is now involving makers in an open community. Cattabriga maintains that the keyword here is sharing, rather than participation. It’s a bit like a dinner party where there are no guests as such, just everyone cooking together. 

In terms of Open Power, we chose to open ourselves up not just to outside contributions but also to actively enhancing the creative potential of our staff: many of our co-workers have realised that they have always been makers without actually being aware of that fact. For instance, Michele Scaramuzzi (O&M Enel Green Power) has fun pursuing his passion independently but also dreamed of doing so as part of an organised environment within the Group, and, most importantly of all, with his co-workers. They include Alessandro Benanti (also of O&M Enel Green Power), who devised a system to send sensor readings from hydroelectric dams by text message. This is the perfect solution for mountainous regions where internet connections are either slow or entirely unavailable. According to Benanti, hydroelectric power generation is a great fit for maker-style innovation because of its very physical dimension and the fact that most of the people working in the sector already have artisanal skills.

Aside from presenting our innovations, we can’t wait to hear what the other attendees have to say: this is basically what the Innovation Communities are all about. And so we listened with great enthusiasm to the round-up of solutions presented by Simona Maschi of the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design: these ranged from an interface that allows disabled individuals to play music simply by moving their faces, to a device that opens windows when it recognises that the air quality inside a room is worse than outside. She also illustrated future-forward solutions such as a smart solar lamp that self-adjusts on the basis of people’s positions in relation to it and, if connected to the web, can even buy and sell on the energy market.

Drones as flying sensors

The second meet-up dedicated to drones was more specific but similar in intent. Once again, Enel’s experiences were flanked by those of the sector’s key players, hailing from the R&D sector and industry alike. Naturally enough, there was a particular focus on drone applications in the areas of energy and environment, and thus on how they can be used to support the energy transition.

As Francesco Grimaccia (of Milan’s Politecnico University) explained, drones are essentially “flying sensors,” but if they are designed to process data and then transmit it to, for example, the cloud, they are then connected to the cutting edge of the Internet of Things. A drone then thus identifies the location of a fire and perhaps even puts it out, evolving it from a mere sensor to a flying robot. The cloud connection is also extremely important to the contribution drones can make to smart cities: they can monitor and streamline traffic, as Elisa Capello (of Turin’s Politecnico university) said in her address. 

When drones put on a show

The Enel Group has already adopted many drone-related solutions. The importance we attach to the sector is, as Enel project manager Miriam Di Blasi observed, demonstrated by the existence of a dedicated drone Innovation Community. Thanks to drones we can now, for instance, inspect a smokestack without having to send technicians up to dangerous heights. Photographs shot by drones are also far clearer than Google images and the damage caused by bad weather can be pinpointed both earlier and more precisely. The new frontier, however, is Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) drone flying, which is extremely useful in inspecting large manufacturing and power facilities, such as grid infrastructure. The D-Flight project was launched to devise a way of managing these critically important flights and was developed in-house by ENAV (the National Body for Flight Assistance), as Cristiano Baldoni explained. Riccardo Delise of ENAC (the National Civil Aviation Body), on the other hand, summarised the latest developments and regulatory differences at national and European levels.   

But we are also looking further afield. Why should autonomous vehicles be confined to the sky? Captain-less ships are already being developed and share the same need as drones for satellite telecommunications, as Piera Di Vito of the European Space Agency explained. New horizons are also opening up in space, according to Daniele Pagnozzi of Thales Alenia Space, which is designing Stratobus, an autonomous vehicle that looks vaguely like a huge dirigible, albeit one that can get into the stratosphere. It is a sort of cross between a drone and a satellite that takes the positives from both and brings them together in a single integrated system.

To wrap up, we have a couple of big business success stories. Achille Montanaro of Intel presented a way of using drones that is both spectacular and intriguing: a show featuring brightly-lit drones executing a spectacular dance in the night sky to music, and this is synchronised with water displays in large fountains. Amazon, for its part, is not only developing delivery drones but is also providing a cloud through Amazon Web Services for drone data-related AI, including monitoring tree health along electricity lines to prevent damage or disruptions to supply. Stefano Sandrini also quoted Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, in fully backing our Open Power approach: “Inventions come in many forms and on different scales. The most radical and revolutionary often allow others to free up their own creativity to follow their dreams.”