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The Next Swiss Pioneer

- Wednesday, 6 December 2017 08:26 CET

Switzerland has the world-wide reputation of being an innovative, wealthy and value-creating country, leading the way with many inventions throughout the past centuries.

One man who has significantly contributed to this image is Alfred Escher, a Swiss politician and business leader. In the 19th century, he realized the country was not taking advantage of its geographical situation in the heart of Europe. Switzerland was a rural country, at the very start of the industrialization process with little interaction with its neighbors. While the railway infrastructure was developing in Europe and contributing to economic prosperity, Switzerland was on the risk of being left behind. In 1852, Escher supported a law allowing private railway companies to operate and soon after, the Swiss Northeastern Railway became active, connecting Zurich to Lake Constance. The railway boom nurtured a demand for engineers and technically skilled people. Escher urged to found the Federal Polytechnic Institute – now known as the ETH Zurich.

Another challenge was the funding of the railway constructions. Escher didn’t like the option of lending money abroad and creating dependencies. He fostered the creation of a new bank to fund projects within Switzerland – this was the birth of Schweizerische Kreditanstalt, today Credit Suisse, and the laid the foundation for Zurich as financial capital.

The societal change from a rural towards an industrial country created a need for a new security system – like in previous centuries, family could not back up the risk of sickness, injuries or even death of the industrial workers. He contributed to the creation of the Schweizerische Lebensversicherungs- und Rentenanstalt, a life and pension insurance, and a re-insurance organization to back their risk up. Both institutions are still world players today – known as Swiss Life and SwissRe.

This foundation allowed Escher to kick off the project of the century: the Gotthard railway tunnel, connecting Switzerland to the South through the Alps from Göschinnen to Airolo, was opened in 1882 after a decade of construction.

The value Alfred Escher created was not in the individual initiatives alone, but in the value chain. He literally set the train in motion, to a modern Switzerland. Escher united politics and economics and created an ecosystem for good for a sustainable prosperous future. His heritage is visible each and every day.

In which direction is the train running today?

Who will be Alfred Escher's heir?

© Sandra Cifo

Switzerland is still equaling economic success and political stability. It is the world’s most innovative and competitive country, and even highly ranked as one of the happiest countries in the world according to the United Nations.

Switzerland has all the ingredients for a prosperous future – but still there is a sense of missing out, being left behind – on the train of Digitization. Silicon Valley, China, the start up hubs of London and Berlin are far away.

The last years have shown how exposed the country can be, not only after the „Swiss Franc Shock“. Disruptors like Apple claim to be the most important watch manufacturer globally – a dishonour for the Swiss traditional industry. According to a recent study from KPMG, 88% of the surveyed companies have suffered a Security breach.

Digitization is a threat and an opportunity at the same time. Do we have the skills and the architecture to lead the digital train?

The first wagons are on the tracks. Coding will finally become mandatory in Swiss secondary schools. Swiss federal railway and many retailers seized the opportunity of the omni-channel and pursue a digital journey. Canton Zug is the worlds first municipality equipping its inhabitants with a blockchain identity.

End of October, I had the pleasure of accompanying a delegation of Swiss parliament members and delegates of Swiss federal organisations to an educational trip to Silicon Valley under the umbrella of ICT Switzerland. The excitement and enthousiasm I could witness was contagious. The delegation also stopped by at Cisco’s headquarter to hear our Chairman John Chambers’ thoughts on the importance of Country Digitization. The outcomes of a succesful country digitization strategy is – in the spirit of Alfred Escher – multifold:

  • GDP growth
  • New jobs creation
  • Fosters innovation and education
  • Creates new revenue streams for public and private sectors
  • Supports (cyber) security and stability

Recent blogs claim Elon Musk to be the next Alfred Escher. I truly believe: It’s the duty of each and everyone of us to lead Switzerland in the era of Digitization, to affirm our position on the world map.

The train is running now. Let’s get on board !

“More than a matter of Technology, Country Digitization is a matter of Culture and Leadership ”

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