Leaders from government, some of the top schools in French-speaking Switzerland, and bright minds from academia gathered to discuss how to boost Switzerland’s digital readiness following its ranking as 5th in the recently-released World Digital Competitiveness Ranking.

At the event co-organized by IMD and digitalswitzerland, leaders agreed that investment in education, R&D, and openness to business creation and entrepreneurship were key to preparing Switzerland for its increasingly digital future. 

Jean-François Manzoni, IMD President and Nestlé-chaired Professor, opened the event emphasizing its aim to accelerate the digital transformation of Switzerland and the Canton of Vaud. He also highlighted the school’s fruitful partnership with digitalswitzerland.

Martina Fuchs, business journalist and moderator, framed IMD and Lausanne as leaders in the area of digital and innovation. “32 of the top 100 Swiss startups in 2019 have worked with IMD and 13 are from the Canton of Vaud.”.

Despite optimism from the event’s participants, there were also many concerns.

Regional digital impact

Martin Vetterli, President of EPFL, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, expressed his fears that if Switzerland fails to teach kids at an early age about technology, the country’s impact will be diminished.

He also pointed out that the region is facing its challenges from a good position, with its excellent conditions for economic activity and a strong network of top academic institutions including IMD and EPFL.

Digital transformation must be inclusive, across ages and genders, said Nuria Gorrite. The President of the Canton of Vaud talked about how her government is leading a holistic digital strategy in areas such as digitization and jobs, data protection, digital infrastructure, environmental impact, SMEs and more. She highlighted the large investment the Canton is putting into experiments in digital mobility (CHF 10 million) and green tech (CHF 67 million) as well as hosting the first inter-cantonal conference on digital affairs.

The message from Professor Marcel Salathé of EPFL was that more digital upscaling is necessary for workers in Switzerland. Going from number one to number five requires more funding in lifelong learning. “I think we can upskill people with 1000 francs per person”. “That’s a good investment that comes back. We would have completely transformed society to be digitally ready.” The Digital Epidemiologist also dispelled some myths about AI. It will improve the work of humans, not replace it, he said.

For Fathi Derder, Swiss National Councillor, the country needs to pick up the pace. “When everything is changing so quickly, we must be able to change regulation in less than one, two, or three years. This is almost impossible today.”

To compete in the area of talent, the politician thinks that current trends in immigration laws are a problem. Access to venture capital and incentives for entrepreneurship should change quickly.

Ranking Switzerland’s competitiveness

Christos Cabolis echoed the importance of education in digital competitiveness.

“Education is a very strong component. Many of the top countries in the Digital Competitiveness Ranking focus heavily on education,” said Cabolis, Chief Economist & Head of Operations at the IMD World Competitiveness Center. However, he added that the country needs more graduates in the sciences.

Kamila Markram, CEO and Founder of Frontiers credited part of her organization’s success to the region’s education ecosystem. But a major challenge for Frontiers and Switzerland at large is finding and attracting new talent from at home and abroad. Regional universities should seize the opportunity to train more people in emerging subjects like AI.

Nicolas Durand, CEO of Abionic, a medtech innovator, agreed that investment in education and R&D should not be reduced. “In business, when you talk about cutting R&D, you kill the company,” he said.

Wrapping up the event Martin Vetterli stressed that the country needs more entrepreneurs who know the country has to do more and think outside of the box. Funding for growth and gender equality also must be high on Switzerland’s agenda, if the country wants to be a digital leader.