11. March 2021

“Expanding our digital infrastructure must be the utmost priority”


Infrastructure // As an umbrella organization, digitalswitzerland represents over 220 companies whose mission is to position Switzerland as a leading digital hub worldwide. And Switzerland is already well on its way. We spoke to Nicolas Bürer, managing director of digital-switzerland, about the weak spots, and his tips for a successful digital transformation.

ti&m: digitalswitzerland is funding a “digital new deal”. What exactly is this and who is it aimed at?
Nicolas Bürer: The changes that we’ve seen over the last few months have ushered in a new digital order. This new situation also requires new intellectual approaches. The “digital new deal” is a call to arms, so to speak, to future-proof Switzerland’s infrastructure, institutions, and innovative power. This approach is based on the understanding that our future world will be a hybrid one, in which analog and digital coexist side-by-side and inter­act with each other. The call seeks to engage everybody — government, society, and business.

Which areas in particular need to be reinforced with the digital new deal?
The first step is to take a look at our digital infrastructure, training and sustain­ability. To build a digital Switzerland of the future, expanding our digital infrastructure must be the utmost priority. And these days it’s more important than ever to strengthen digital integration, by building capabilities, in order to stay informed and involved, and to retain a critical voice in a rapidly changing and technologically advanced world. Technology and digitalization are future-oriented and can be very valuable in solving urgent problems. We need to establish a conscious link between digitalization and the economic, social, and ecological aspects of sustainability. 

According to the Global Innovation Index, Switzerland is the world’s most innovative country. Does this also apply to digitalization?
Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to carry over this top spot to digitalization. In 2020, the IMD ranked Switzerland 6th (out of 63 countries) in its World Digital Competitiveness Ranking. In the category of Knowledge”, Switzerland came second; in “Technology” and “Sustainability” we’re ranked 10th. Switzerland also scores well (7th place) in scientific skills and IT integration. But despite this solid performance, there is still room for improvement. It’s still pretty complicated to start up a company in Switzerland. Immigration regula­tions are not especially innovation-friendly, and, like in many other European countries, IT companies’ market capital­ization is too low. The capital available for digital progress is moderate compared to other countries.

What would you say are Switzerland’s weaknesses in terms of digitalization?
You can pinpoint three areas where there’s work to be done:

  1. In e-management, Switzerland still hasn’t managed to take a leading position. There needs to be a greater  exploration of topics such as e-taxes and electronic patient files. Some companies are even moving their head office abroad as a result.
  2. Here in Switzerland there isn’t enough of what we call risk capital — i.e. money available specifically for start-ups. The upshot of this is that start-ups are raising money abroad. Some are even moving their head office abroad as a result. So, lots of companies are disappearing from Switzerland — and once they’re gone, they rarely find their way back.
  3. There’s still a high skills shortage in STEM professions, and it’s very hard to fill vacant positions. Despite the best en­deav­ors, we need to invest more in new talent.

In which technologies could Switzerland play to its strengths?
Switzerland should focus on new industries:

  1. Decentralized infrastructure;
  2. National digital infrastructure (5G, IoT, smart home/cities, smart mobility and fiber optics);
  3. Advanced manufacturing & robotics;
  4. Personalized medicine; and
  5. Digital technologies to tackle social and ecological challenges.

When can we expect to see a digital champion emerging from Switzerland?
Switzerland already has some 20 to 30 promising scale-ups. In the next five years, we can hopefully expect a few of them to achieve unicorn status, and we can look forward to two or three IPOs.

Which industries are pioneers in digital transformation? And which areas are still lagging behind?
It’s not the industries themselves that are pioneers, but the players who shape them. The taxi industry, the watch industry, the hotel industry are just a few examples. In most industries, things are moving fast. Large-scale companies and corporations are undergoing a far-reaching process of transformation. Industry, health care, financial services, and industrial production will experience another big push over the next few years.

In your view, what are the core elements of a digitalization strategy? What approach would you recommend to Swiss businesses?
Digitalization changes how customers inter­act, and revolutionizes the value cre­ation chain. Every digital strategy should therefore tackle three key questions:

  1. How do you encourage customer orientation, multi-channel interaction, user- friendliness, and product innovation?
  2. How do you make the internal value creation chain more efficient?
  3. How can a company’s business model go from zero to 100 thanks to digitalization, and how can you start immediately?

What’s your take on the situation with public administration and in the area of e-government?
The need for digital interaction between citizens and public institutions on a national, cantonal, and municipal level continues to grow. Recent experiences have shown that only a competent digital administration can deal with crises effectively and efficiently. The Swiss Covid App is a good example of tech ’made in Switzerland’. Many of the existing problems, for example with data avail­ability, can be traced back to an inadequate level of digitalization. In this respect, it is par­ticularly vital for Switzerland to push ahead with the digital infrastructure. Our country boasts an excellent physical infrastructure. The same should apply to digital infrastructure. This can be achieved with e-ID, electronic patient files, 5G, and fiber optics, for example. 

What sort of political impetus does this require?
No question: coordination and cooperation between government, science, business, and society. Transversal and interdisciplinary collaboration is more important than ever. With the coronavirus, silos were broken down within a matter of months, because of urgent new need. This highlights the potential of multidisciplinary ecosystems. It is essential to boost collaboration between the Confederation, the cantons, and the municipalities in digital adminis­tration in order to harness synergies.

What effects will digital transformation have on society? Who will be the winners, and who the losers?
The world is going hybrid, and is not how it used to be. Online and digital go hand-in-hand, complementing one another. The winners will be those who adapt to the new circumstances and view the new world in a positive light — those who learn something new every day, because change is happening fast. In the econ­omy, the winners will be those who seize digital transformation as an opportunity, and who already have good infrastructure, agile organization, and a digital presence.

The coronavirus crisis was a catalyst for digitalization in many areas. What long-term effects will this have, in your opinion?
Our world is looking at a hybrid future. Hybrid working models, working from home, and digital collaboration are becom­ing the new norm. The digital element of transactions such as shopping is going to increase. Longer-term, social interactions and contact will pick up again, and we can look forward to the pleasures in life. 

Nicolas Bürer
Nicolas Bürer

Nicolas Bürer has been at the helm of industry association digitalswitzerland since 2016. A physics graduate, he has also worked as a marketing officer at Deindeal.ch and as CEO of Joiz. In 2018 he won Switzerland’s Business Angel of the Year award. He also co-founded the relocation portal Movu.ch and serves as chairman of its board of directors.