Stefano Brusoni is a Professor of Technology and Innovation Management at ETH Zürich, one of the world’s leading universities in science and technology (eighth best university in the world according to the 2022 edition of the QS World University Rankings). After graduating from Bocconi, he obtained his PhD in Science and Technology Policy studies from the University of Sussex (UK) at SPRU (Science Policy Research Unit), and his current works focuses on the analysis of obstacles to innovation and change.
Could you briefly introduce yourself? Why did you choose a career in research? What is your main research interest?
“I graduated in Discipline Economiche e Sociali (DES) back in 1995 or so. After my military service (yes! it was that long ago), I continued my studies with a DPhil in Science and Technology Policy Studies at SPRU, U. of Sussex. It seemed in many ways a natural extension of my curiosities, which hardly ever fit neatly defined disciplinary boundaries. My core interests are about innovation and technical change. I study obstacles to change basically, at both the individual and the organizational level. While we know that change is important, in terms of adopting new technologies and becoming more socially oriented in our decisions, we also know that in most cases we do not like to change, and hence fail. Why is it so? What can we do about that? I approach these questions with both experimental methods and field work, ranging from neuro-scientific techniques to qualitative studies in the field. I study both individual and organizations, with a focus on how both develop skills and capabilities that support continuous change.”
What hard skills and soft skills should someone who would like to go into research or academia have? How could a student acquire them? Would you have any advice or specific books to recommend?
“Well… soft and hard skills are not a label I would use. Both are measurable, both are observable, both impact performance. This said, if by soft we mean something about people, well, persistence is important. This is a profession which provides feedback only infrequently, and when it does, it is usually negative. We all get rejected by journals. Then we start again. If by hard we mean something about technical skills, then methods. Methods to collect data, methods to analyze data, methods to think of new data sources and new methods. That is core, in my view, and these skills change continuously. So, back to persistence.”
What did Bocconi teach you? If you could go back to your first year at Bocconi, would there be anything you would do differently?
“Persistence, which I have mentioned already (!), requires training. You try an exam, does not work, you try again. Bocconi was great for that. And I mean it without any irony. With the benefit of hindsight, it was a great, safe place where to fail on a small scale. And then try again. And succeed. In the process, I learnt what I liked and what I was good at. The two things are, ideally, related but they are not the same. Understanding that difference was massively important later in my career. And it taught me when to ask for help to my peers and seniors. Science is not for the lone thinker. It is team work. It is also competition, but that comes later.”
What is your best memory from your time at Bocconi?
“As a student: playing football at the park nearby, after the library closed down in the evenings. And also: the odd combinations of different courses enabled by a very broad, diverse program like DES, which pushed me to shift from pretty serious econometrics to business history through epistemology and political science.”
How did you decide to work in Zurich? What are the major differences compared to the cities you studied in? Did studying in different countries help you with your career?
“Moving to ETH Zurich was a great opportunity to work in a top engineering school, where I can interact with scientists and engineers in different fields, as they develop new technologies. Interdisciplinary work, at scale, is the norm. Access to research facilities is unparalleled. Zurich is very international, very open, very task oriented, very enabling. And very safe. If you have kids, that is a big plus.”