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From Silicon Valley to Sustainable Valley?

Piccard plans to fly around the world in a solar-powered plane in 2007 Keystone

Bertrand Piccard, a keynote speaker at this week's annual meeting of the Swiss Science Forum, is Switzerland’s best-known innovator and adventurer.

This content was published on October 12, 2004 - 16:36

In an interview with swissinfo, the first man to fly around the world non-stop in a hot-air balloon talked about new ways to promote innovation in Switzerland.

Piccard, who is known for his commitment to promoting renewable technologies, used the event to launch a trial balloon of a different kind – the prospect of turning Switzerland into an international “centre of excellence” for sustainable development.

Echoing the dominant theme of the conference in Bern, he stressed the need for innovation to become a strategic priority in Switzerland, and outlined one way in which that might actually happen.

swissinfo: We often hear calls for Switzerland to become more innovative, but the reality seems to lag behind. Why?

B.P.: It has a lot to do with our fear of the unknown, of problems. If we want to create, we have first to accept the unknown. The process of innovation is based on doubt, on self-questioning, on being prepared to recognise mistakes.

For instance, everyone – including us – believed at first that to fly around the world in a hot air balloon, you have to fly high and fast with the jet stream. We succeeded where others failed because we realised that was wrong and changed our strategy.

swissinfo: Do you think innovation is an area where the Swiss could excel?

B.P.: In the 19th century, with humanitarian work and the creation of the Red Cross, Switzerland was everywhere on the international scene. In the 20th century, it was the same, with regard to international negotiations, mediation, etc.

But the situation has changed – everyone is now doing these things and, to be honest, a lot of people don’t need us any more. So we need to find something else for the future.

swissinfo: What do you think that could be?

B.P.: I am convinced that one very good cause to support and to invest in massively is sustainable development. Switzerland can be a very good example in terms of developing and promoting and inventing new technologies, which will allow sustainable development to happen without diminishing people’s quality of life.

That is the main problem – each time we want to diminish the quality of life of the population to protect the environment, there will be resistance, and that’s normal.

So I think the challenge that could help Switzerland find its new place on the international scene is to invest in new ways of producing energy and better ways of using it.

swissinfo: What is needed in practical terms to make sure this happens?

B.P.: If you kick people out of their comfort zone, it will create more resistance. I think we need to show that sustainable development can be sexy, can be associated with positive emotions.

People have to understand that it is old fashioned to pollute, and that this is the real reason to change. The people who do understand that will make much more profit.

swissinfo: So it’s really an issue of persuading people that being sustainable doesn’t mean going back to year zero?

B.P.: It’s exactly this. Sustainable development needs marketing; what it doesn’t need is fanatical ecologists who want to protect the environment by destroying people’s lifestyle. People will never be ready for that. For example, car free Sundays are the completely wrong approach to solving our problems.

swissinfo: There’s obviously a large publicity element to your own ventures. Is there more to them than just marketing stunts?

B.P.: My new project, to fly all the way round the world in a solar-powered aeroplane, will clearly be oriented as a communication platform in favour of sustainable development.

We want to show that incredible things can be achieved in the future without pollution. The goal is not to have fun in the air with a solar-powered plane; it is to launch a process that symbolises what people can achieve if they invest in the right technologies.

swissinfo: Is this an area where Switzerland has a strong starting point, a competitive advantage?

B.P.: Switzerland does not have a competitive advantage yet, but if it wants to survive on the international scene, it had better grab this opportunity very quickly.

The Americans created Silicon Valley – we can create Sustainable Valley in Switzerland. All we need to do is be ahead of the others.

swissinfo: If you had to give just one piece of advice to Swiss politicians, businessmen and scientists, what would it be?

B.P.: Create one common political platform that will bring the left and right wing together and use this to promote sustainable development. In that way, we can ensure that Switzerland is able to produce this quality of life not only inside its borders, but also as an export industry.

swissinfo–interview: Chris Lewis

Key facts

Psychoanalyst Bertrand Piccard was the first man to circle the earth non-stop in a hot-air balloon, Breitling Orbiter 3, in 1999.
His grandfather, Auguste, invented the principle of the pressurised airline cabin and was immortalised by cartoonist Hergé as Professor Calculus.
Piccard plans to fly around the world in a solar-powered plane in 2007.

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In brief

Bertrand Piccard has unveiled his vision of Switzerland as an international centre for sustainable technology.

At a conference in Bern, he echoed the belief that innovation is key to the future success of the Swiss economy.

Piccard added that successful marketing would be as important as good technology in ensuring popular acceptance.

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