In parallel to the Digital Summit Switzerland (Digital Gipfel Schweiz), the Websummit took place in Lisbon on the first week of November. Over 70,000 participants from around 160 nations came together at the largest tech conference in Europe: start-ups, investors, corporates, researchers, politicians, location promotion initiatives – all stakeholders from a lively and dynamic innovation and technology ecosystem were present. Based on my impressions from the Websummit, I will attempt to identify what Switzerland can do and what elements are missing to position the country as a leading digital innovation hub, worldwide!

Similarities between Websummit and Digital Summit Switzerland

What these two events have in common is that, in times of increased networking, they highlight the need and value of face-to-face meetings. At the Digital Summit Switzerland, Credit Suisse CEO Tidjane Thiam said: “The more digital and complex the world becomes, the more important it is for people to meet in person.” Alexander Karp, the co-founder of the software company Palantir, also confirmed the need for physical meeting places in an increasingly digitized world: “Even in the age of digitization, people still need people to build trust for business.” (Blick article in German)

The Web Summit’s Website lists success stories that emerge from physical Meet-ups: Jamal Hirani, COO from Snatch, a brand marketing startup, with a free to play, augmented reality treasure hunt app, recalls from his Websummit visit in 2016: “We met with Unilever Ventures during Office Hours at the end of Web Summit Day Two. That night, they contacted us to see if we could come and meet their board on Friday. We met Friday lunchtime, and by Monday we had an agreed term sheet.”

The difference between Web Summit and Digital Summit Switzerland

The Websummit brings together international participants. Lisbon can present itself as an established hub for innovation and technology and thus position itself internationally. This in turn strengthens Lisbon’s positioning as an international player, making it better known in the tech and innovation community than Switzerland.

If one compares Portugal with Switzerland, however, you can observe that in other elements that are required to create a thriving ecosystem, Switzerland is ahead: We have a larger research network with two leading polytechnic universities EPFL and ETHZ, a much greater density of internationally active companies, and one of the best talent pools in the world. In addition, Switzerland already has a number of established technology and industry clusters, such as the Arc Lémanique, Basel, and Zurich, as well as a number of smaller emerging clusters in the Grisons (tourism), Zug (Blockchain), Sion (energy and mobility), Ticino (fashion and e-commerce) and others. This raises the question as to why Switzerland cannot stand out from other hubs internationally?

What Switzerland lacks

Switzerland is poorly represented at international tech- and innovation gatherings. We seldom see Swiss speakers on stage at major conferences.

In 2017, Martin Vetterli, Rector of EPFL, was invited to the Websummit to participate in a panel on education in the digital age. This year there was no Swiss representative on stage. Such visibility would strengthen the image of Switzerland as an international hub.

Despite Switzerland’s ability to find compromise, the players in the Swiss ecosystem (i.e. foundations, accelerators, start-ups, innovation parks, corporates, national and cantonal location subsidies and the Röschtigraben) lack a common vision of how to position Switzerland internationally as a leading digital innovation hub. Switzerland has impressive clusters with top international networks. Unfortunately, these clusters operate separately from each other. An interdisciplinary integration could make it possible for the clusters to benefit more from each other and from each other’s international networks. The aim would be to learn from peers who have already faced similar challenges in different settings.

Another step would be to open up the entire ecosystem (taking all clusters into account) internationally. There are no events in Switzerland that attracts an international tech audience. The Swiss events that I have attended offer great content but don’t attract an international audience that could foster an exchange of experiences and best practices. Top international speakers are exciting, but the challenges many Swiss entrepreneurs face are dated for the very successful entrepreneur from Silicon Valley – it would be more beneficial for Swiss entrepreneurs to talk to peers. The goal should shift to problem-solving approaches instead of looking only for international inspiration.

This could mean creating more meeting opportunities to promote networking between cluster-specific ecosystems. This nationwide and interdisciplinary ecosystem needs to be opened internationally too.

With this objective in mind, digitalswitzerland is delighted to be a partner at the SWISS Pavilion at CES Las Vegas in January 2019. The SWISS Pavilion is organized by Presence Switzerland (PRS) in collaboration with Switzerland Global Enterprise (S-GE), with the support of strategic partners Innosuisse, swissnex, ProHelvetia and digitalswitzerland. It is an essential step towards the integration of different ecosystems across Switzerland.