For our Focus Interview related to the Materials Innovation Markets, BNN CEO Andreas Falk invited Lars Montelius to our office in Graz to discuss his role in AMI2030 and the future of nanoscience. Prof. Montelius is Co-Chair of AMI2030, former Director General of the International Iberian Nanotechnology Laboratory (INL) and former Professor of Nanoscience at NanoLund. This is an excerpt: the full interview can be found on YouTube.
The Advanced Materials Initiative is very much linked to your name. How did the idea come about to create the AMI2030?
Lars Montelius: There is a challenge with nanotechnology or advanced materials: both are suffering from the fact that people (like politicians) do not really understand what they are. If you speak about digital communication, artificial intelligence, etc. they may have some kind of feeling what it is, but when we speak about nanotechnology or advanced materials – they don’t really get it.
So I think there is a need to engage, of course, but there’s also a need to connect the different dots. Every society has relied on our ability to master materials. We had the Stone Age, we had the Bronze Age, we had the Silicon Age. Now we’re living in the age where we actually can tailor material properties more or less atom by atom or molecule by molecule. Not by chance, but by precision.
This has been a development over the last 50 years or so, which has been tremendous. But now in the next decade, we need to speed up a bit and then we need to make innovations that are unified. Because in the past, every kind of innovation was done in each sector, and that takes about 30-40 years. But now I think we need to work together.
And I have one interesting example for that. There has been a lot of discussion about interdisciplinary research. Most often there is a scientist in one subject that is maybe saying, I’m doing something that could be of, let’s say, medical interest. So I contact someone from the medical faculty and then you can hijack that person’s abilities to help you. And then what happens with this person over here?
Well, he or she gets more things to do because it’s peripheral to what they do by themselves. So it’s not really interdisciplinary – it is using other people’s disciplines, which is nice, but it’s not really moving forward together. And I think this is what we try to do with the AMI2030 initiative, is to bring people together, to do things together that will be beneficial for everyone, not only for hijacking one subject or someone else.
I see the point, and this is exactly what I would also relate with nanosafety, nanotoxicology, nanotechnology in general: on the one hand and characterization items, use of data, all these aspects. And of course they are addressed in AMI2030 in specific parts. So, in the end, nanoscience, nanotechnology will feed into AMI2030.
Lars Montelius: I think so. I mean, you can call nanotechnology being a sub-part if you like, but I think it’s more horizontal, in a way. I think it captures all kinds of different things.
In the end, it’s about our ability to tailor material with a certain specific function or intention. To design the material that will actually end up in a product or a service on the market. I think this ability to do that is the call of [AMI2030] and we need to speed up the development. In Europe, we are good when it comes to advanced materials manufacturing and we are good at some topics, but we’re not really good at other topics and we are moving away from having a leading position in the world.
So we need to speed up, and one way to speed up is to work together. There is this old saying that if you would like to get something done quickly, do it yourself. But if you would like to go far, do it together with others. And I think that’s why we need to work together here.
Which are the most-needed skills and people for the future?
Lars Montelius: The young generation of today, they’re looking for meaningfulness. And nothing could be more meaningful than putting your efforts into materials science because it will change society. You could pave the way away for a total green society, without any carbon footprint. A really resilient society. And here I think there is a chance to have a lot of re-skilling of all the people in the field, but also to skill the new people to actually understand how they can contribute.
It’s the connectivity between different things. So you need to be specialist somewhere, but then it’s the connectivity of, let’s say, the AI or the machine learning together with the deep sciences and the deep knowledge in different fields. And you need to be a connector.
So I like to see this like a world map with different competences in different boxes, and in between there are a lot of white spots. So the total known area is mapped and all the other 99% is unknown. And if you reach out and start to move in these white areas you will actually take the first steps instead of following in other people’s footsteps. You take the first steps and here you create the innovation. The innovation is in interfaces – and the interface may not be immediate. It could be a big area between, but it’s really to trying to find these white spots where there is a lot of invention power that may lead to innovation.
This brings me to the part that, at the end, a systemic change is needed to be able to implement it. Which means some governance structures need to be rethought. What groups of stakeholders do you think are the crucial ones along that road? Who has the responsibilities and who will bring some pressure to it?
Lars Montelius: If you read the AMI Manifesto that was done a year ago, then it was very clear that it’s for all stakeholders, so we need to connect. It’s not only about the deep science people, not only the people in industry, but also the people on the street.
You mentioned the word “meaningfulness”. I just want to come back to that. I think this is a crucial one, and it’s also in the core of the AMI2030, of course. Which skills, which disciplines can support to create meaningful things for the future, and in which way?
Lars Montelius: This is an excellent question. Meaningfulness is very important and I think the, the aspiration of AMI2030 is really about that – meaningfulness as the glue for connecting.
And I think this connecting glue means that we need to connect with people having different kinds of knowledge. I don’t think we can deselect something, and say, we don’t need that. Because we need everything. It’s a little like when you’re building a society, you need someone that is good at making something with tin, or you need someone that can repair your teeth…
So you build a society with different kind of [skills], and this is the same thing here. I think here Europe has a chance to actually build something together. Because we are united and we have a lot of shared values in Europe that we could use and then bring everything together. And then also to connect in new ways.
There is shareholders’ capitalism and stakeholders’ capitalism. This is much more stakeholders’ capitalism. It should be beneficial for everyone – but that doesn’t mean it’s not beneficial for the shareholders, because they are needed to put emphasis on expenditures, etc. etc., and to create new companies with new jobs. So it’s a need for having a really good trusted connection.