Swiss Up Your Life:
What’s Helvetia Got to Do with Innovation?
The Swiss are on the go! And we can tell you this much: It’s not because of chocolate, cheese or mountains, but because of augmented creativity, high precision, and punctual perseverance.
Yes, this is a mouthful. Let us put it this way: We are proud to be the most innovative country in the world actually for the seventh time in a row according to the Global Innovation Index.
The Swiss are still known for their food and scenery rather than their innovations and inventions. With 8 million inhabitants, we are a small country in the heart of Europe where people like to go on vacation—which we appreciate. And, of course, we also love to go skiing or have fondue for dinner. But we Swiss are not only made of that.
“We tend to be very accurate, almost finicky when working on something,” our Ambassador Martin Dahinden explains about the Swiss mindset. “We want to get it right and not just about right, but as perfect as it gets. This, for example, also shows in our strong suit, punctuality. We don’t just think it’s rude to let somebody wait when meeting up with them, but our goal of being on time has led to one of the most punctual public transportation systems in the world.”
You could observe those values when the Gotthard Base Tunnel opened in Switzerland last year. The world’s longest tunnel became operational after 17 years of construction on time and on budget as predicted and planned. Punctuality, precision and reliability are key facts of life in Switzerland. That’s probably what has made us such good watchmakers. But punctuality even led to today’s famous digital helper when it comes to time management and date scheduling, whether for business meetings or family reunions: Doodle, invented by Swiss computer scientist Michael Näf and electrical engineer Paul E. Sevinç.
Another highly successful example of Swiss innovation is, of course, the world-famous Swiss Army knife, which is even part of the equipment used by soldiers in the United States. It was first produced by its inventor Karl Elsener in 1891. The Swiss Army knife generally has a main spearpoint blade, as well as various tools such as screwdrivers, a can opener, and many others. These attachments are stowed inside the handle of the knife through a pivot point mechanism.
But Swiss innovation goes beyond the obvious and famous: in 2016, Switzerland filed the most patent applications per capita at the European Patent Office.
Do you remember when you were a kid and had sneakers or maybe a bag that closed easily because of the fabric hook and loop fasteners also known as Velcro? That’s a Swiss innovation! Swiss electrical engineer George de Mestral invented his first touch fastener when, in 1941, he went for a walk in the woods and wondered why cockleburs clung to his coat and dog. He discovered it could be turned into something useful. He patented it in 1955 and subsequently refined and developed its practical manufacture until its commercial introduction in the late 1950s.
Or that the way we peel potatoes today heavily relies on Alfred Neweczerzal and his Rex vegetable peeler, also known as a ”Y peeler?” One legend relates that he came up with the gadget after becoming fed up peeling potato after potato in the military; his design definitely revolutionized kitchens across the globe. The Swiss peeler remains the sharpest.
Is Innovation a Big Deal?
When trying to explain what makes Switzerland such an innovative country, one should probably take a step back and look at the bigger structure of the country: It’s not just about our inventors, but also about the infrastructure that supports and nurtures them. There are our world-class research institutes and our well established dual-track educational system, allowing employers to find highly skilled and trained employees and specialized experts.
But does the level of a country’s innovation even matter? A country’s ability to innovate accounts for business change, growth and competition—it makes a country successful also in economic terms.
There’s a reason why tech firms like Google and Disney decide to build up their European work hubs and research centers in Switzerland. The Swiss-based Internet mapping company Endoxon, for example, was acquired by Google and has been crucial to the innovation of what we know today as Google Maps.
In fact, a lot of pioneer work for the digital age was done by Swiss or in Switzerland: the building of the first mass-market computer mouse, the birthplace of the world wide web and the android operating system, and we also host the world’s largest particle collider at CERN in Geneva.
You might know this already. But there are smaller-scale innovations that you might not have heard of yet. Everyone knows virtual reality, but have you ever heard of augmented creativity? It is what happens when technology and art are combined in the collaborative research project between Disney Research’s Animation Group and the ETH Game Technology Center in Zurich. It is what happens when highly skilled and trained people meet a company’s needs and become equipped in return to actually further advance their own techniques and expertise.
In the Air and on the Ground
Once upon a time two Swiss dreamed of flying around the world solely with clean technology. It was not an easy path, but Solar Impulse 2 made its way and circled around the globe fueled by solar energy and piloted by Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg last year. Of course, it would not have been possible without the knowledge of a big team in the background and the support of major companies believing in it.
The range of innovation and what Switzerland does for it is vast. Right now the Swiss government is planning an innovation park with hubs all around Switzerland. Its two major centers will be close to the top Federal Institutes of Technology in the French-speaking and Swiss German- speaking parts of Switzerland, EPFL and ETH Zürich. The park is supposed to nourish innovation and the use of synergies across industries and the public and private sectors.
On the other hand, innovation made in Switzerland can also happen on a much smaller, yet effective scale such as medical lab samples transported by drones from a hospital to the lab and back, which is an initiative of The Swiss Post, in partnership with the California-based company Matternet. The result: saving time, saving money, and more eco-friendly. What more could you wish for?
As a world-leading country in innovation, Switzerland draws its distinctive character from both innovation and tradition.
That we’re not just Heidi, but also high-tech can be discovered through our Swiss Touch campaign in the U.S. Check it out and come visit us at the next Swiss Touch event!