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Pandemic is ‘wake-up call’ for Switzerland, says EPFL president

Martin Vetterli spent many years in the US before becoming head of the Swiss National Science Foundation and the president of EPFL. © Keystone / Laurent Gillieron

The Covid-19 crisis has revealed how much Switzerland is lagging behind when it comes to digitalisation in politics and everyday life, according to Martin Vetterli, President of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL).

In an interviewExternal link in the Tages-Anzeiger newspaper, Vetterli argues that the pandemic should be a wake-up call for Switzerland, which in his view was caught off guard. The pandemic revealed “weaknesses as if under a magnifying glass” – not only socially, politically and medically, but also technologically.

“We have to be honest now, identify the deficits and improve,” said Vetterli who was a professor of Columbia University in New York and the University of California, Berkeley, before becoming the head of EPFL in 2017. He says he went to the US in the 1980s because “computer science mattered there”.

Money only plays a limited role in fixing the problems, he said. “Switzerland refuses to accept reality out of convenience. We are rich, traditional and sluggish,” he added. “If we have an IT problem, we get help, for example from experts abroad. These are bad prerequisites for breaking new ground digitally.”

The Swiss government has been facing heat over the lack of modern IT systems that have contributed to bottlenecks in the roll-out of Covid testing and vaccines. At one point, health authorities were using fax machines to share data and information. The vaccine registration systems in several cantons crashed earlier this year when thousands tried to sign on, causing some systems to be taken offline completely.

Crisis as an opportunity

Earlier this week, an investigation was opened into the electronic vaccination record platform Myvaccines, when it was revealed that the records of some 240,000 people vaccinated against Covid-19 were openly accessible and vulnerable to manipulation.  

Vetterli called on Switzerland to see the crisis as an opportunity to turn the corner on digitalisation. He pointed to the example of Estonia, a relatively young country, which has shown how quickly a society can be digitalised. He noted that education is key to help people in Switzerland understand how tech companies work and where the risks lie.

He also supported a more dynamic ecosystem in Switzerland where top research, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists come together, noting that many good start-ups leave the country because there simply aren’t enough investors.

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