Switzerland is a world leader when it comes to innovation, thanks to a model education system, creativity and a flexible labour market. But this added value is not always to be found in the most obvious places.
It’s without a doubt one of the most widely agreed upon policy principles among decision makers and economists in Switzerland today: to remain competitive at the international level, Swiss companies have to focus on innovation.
The innovation mantra is even more popular in the context of a particularly challenging global economic environment.
The eurozone’s public debt crisis has emphasised the Swiss franc’s role as a safe-haven, upping prices on already expensive Swiss products. Meanwhile, the European Union wants to slow the flow of multinationals setting up shop in Switzerland to benefit from favourable tax deals.
According to a report published by the Swiss Business Federation in May, “innovation is the only way for Switzerland to remain prosperous in the long term”.
A view echoed by Philippe Leuba, economics minister in canton Vaud: “Today’s innovation represents tomorrow’s jobs. We have to stay at the cutting-edge of progress if we want Switzerland’s economic success to last.” Leuba plans to invest an additional SFr25 million ($24.5 million) in his canton to make it a “Swiss champion in innovation”.
The theme has crossed over from the pure economics realm. Parliamentarian Jean-Christophe Schwaab of the centre-left Social Democrats sees innovation as the way ahead.
“To survive, our economy has no choice but to innovate. It must target niche sectors, focusing on high quality. It’s the only way to keep added value coming out of Switzerland,” he said.
Hugues Jeannerat, an economics researcher at Neuchâtel Universtiy, noted that over the past few years, innovation has become “an absolute paradigm of competition”.
This reflects a “vision of development devoted to an idealised belief in technological and scientific progress”. Innovation has become an institutionalised part of political debate without established proof of the economic and social value it creates, he argues.
Switzerland regularly figures at the top of the list in terms of international innovation rankings (see sidebar), not least thanks to the large number of patents obtained by the pharmaceutical industry.
“A patent does not necessarily equate to an innovation which will impact our everyday lives. On the contrary, patents can be used to block competition and actually stop the development of new applications or they can be used to boost a company’s stock market value without leading to a real market offering,” explained Jeannerat.
In addition, as highlighted by Schwaab, Switzerland’s top ranking is also linked to the public debt crisis affecting a number of European countries, often forced to limit investment in education and research.
“Our industries are doing well because they can count on highly skilled workers, the only actual ‘raw material’ in Switzerland. We should be making huge investments to protect this advantage, but some members of parliament from the right are currently refusing to pass budgets,” Schwaab complained.
The Swiss Business Federation emphasises the fact that in Switzerland the private sector, rather than the government, is responsible for the bulk of research and development spending.
The lobby group maintains that in order for new ideas to come to fruition, a company needs both an enterprising spirit and a tradition to innovate.
“This observation goes against the popular belief that in Switzerland that it’s the young start-ups that are innovating the most,” the federation said.
Nonetheless, business incubators, programmes designed to support the development of new companies, continue to pop up across Switzerland.
“This tool is widely developed by cantons through regional political initiatives across the country. Everyone considers it the right way to move toward innovation,” explained Jeannerat.
These political decisions are linked to an understanding of innovation through the lens of technological progress. But some experts are calling on decision makers to adopt a broader understanding of innovation.
“The success of the watch, cheese or chocolate industries cannot only be explained with this singular vision of innovation,” said Jeannerat, who is currently studying the various components that lead to value creation in the Swiss watch industry.
“There’s a whole symbolic aspect, driven not only by powerful marketing departments, but also by journalists and trade magazines controlled by watch brands. This dynamic makes the sale of authenticity and tradition of certain products possible. That is where actual innovation lives in the watch industry,” said Jeannerat.
In the same sense, Schwaab said, “We have to be innovative in our traditions. As they evolve, we must find ways to make them more attractive.”