Entrepreneurs from around the country are in the town of Thun for a two-day meeting aimed at encouraging smaller firms to be more innovative.
The Swiss Economic Forum, the country's largest annual event for small and medium-sized companies (SMEs), has attracted about 1,000 people from the world politics, science and business.
The theme of this year's two-day sell-out conference, "Challenging Times - New Inspirations", is particularly relevant against the backdrop of the recent call by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) for Switzerland to liberalise its product markets and strengthen competition.
"We need to encourage and support the young, creative entrepreneurs of Switzerland, to ensure that we do not miss out on future market opportunities," said former cabinet minister Adolf Ogi, who is president of the Forum's advisory board.
Lead by example
In an address to the conference (see video below), the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, said the Swiss business community had to lead by example, particularly now that the country is to become a member of the UN.
"Treating workers as your most precious asset is the only way to sustain growth and productivity," Annan said. "Making environmental concerns an integral part of your business operations is the only way to sustain our future.
"My challenge to you is to modernise your entrepreneurial energies and innovative instinct to demonstrate that embracing universal values makes good sense," he added.
Although Switzerland is well known for its large multinationals, such as Nestlé, 60 per cent of the workforce is employed by firms with fewer than 50 employees, according to provisional figures from the Federal Office of Statistics.
Commenting on this year's conference theme, Stefan Linder, a co-founder of the event told swissinfo that it was very important for Switzerland to have a culture that encouraged entrepreneurs to take risks.
"I think there are many ideas around, but people are not willing to take enough risks to bring these ideas through to business," he said. "Our message is for people to go out and try to develop a company which will be very prosperous in the future and therefore important for Switzerland."
He added that there were concerns about the future of Switzerland, pointing in particular to the fact that about 500 scientists leave the country each year.
Keynote speakers at the event include Jens Alder, CEO of Switzerland's largest telecommunications provider, Swisscom, and Tyler Brulé, the man behind the marketing campaign to launch the new airline "swiss".
Future of Switzerland
The future of Switzerland, new business for the old economy, and priorities for entrepreneurs are some of the themes that will be discussed at round tables and in workshops.
The Swiss economics minister, Pascal Couchepin, is to use the occasion for a panel discussion with his Austrian and German counterparts on Friday in Interlaken on the current challenges facing German-speaking countries.
Last month, Couchepin presented a report from the State Secretariat of Economic Affairs (Seco) which showed that throughout the 1990s Swiss economic growth was the lowest of all countries belonging to the OECD. Couchepin said he was "ashamed" of this performance.
In his address, Kofi Annan appealed to business leaders to make globalisation work for everyone.
"Our world faces daunting global challenges, from terrorism and poverty to Aids and environmental degradation," he said. "But there is also a new spirit of global partnership in addressing them."
He added that "by deciding to join the UN, Switzerland has decisively embraced this spirit of partnership".
The event is not "all work and no play". For example, a lake steamer will serve as a "networking" vehicle, providing a whisky and a smoking lounge for participants to relax and build up their contacts while cruising on the Lake of Thun.
The climax of the Forum is the presentation on Friday evening of the Swiss Economic Award to the most innovative young business in Switzerland. The award ceremony takes place at a gala dinner in Interlaken. The three finalists are:
- Chemspeed of Augst, which is a technology leader for automated synthesis workstations in medicinal research;
- IDS Integral Drive Systems of Zurich, which produces advanced power converter systems;
- Prionics of Schlieren, which developed a fast and reliable test to detect BSE (mad cow disease) in cattle.
"This has developed into the most important award in Switzerland for small and medium-sized companies," Linder told swissinfo.
"It's not the prize money they get that is the most rewarding aspect. The award makes it easier for them to attract more investors and to employ the right people," he added.
by Karin Kamp and Robert Brookes