Think tank given credibility boost by choice of boss

Thomas Held thinks Switzerland is not achieving its full potential

The appointment of Thomas Held as director of Switzerland's first business-funded "think tank" has taken the wind out of the critics' sails.

This content was published on November 26, 2000 minutes

A sociologist and leader of student protests in 1968, Held doesn't fit the stereotype of the neo-liberal right-winger.

His appointment has silenced critics, who had claimed that the new think tank is no more than an effort by private enterprise to extend its influence over politics.

The "Foundation on the Future of Switzerland" is funded by 13 of the country's best-known companies, including Swiss Re, Credit Suisse, UBS, Novartis and Nestlé. But the 54 year-old Held says they have no interest in the think tank becoming a kind of business pressure group.

"They know that the success of this effort stands or falls with the quality of the work, and the quality of the work stands or falls with independence," he told swissinfo.

Nevertheless, the think tank's financiers do want to see the institute become a leading voice in economic and social policy discussions in Switzerland. They also want it to promote a liberal and pro-market approach.

Held himself believes that Switzerland is not fulfilling its full potential and urgently needs to think about adapting to a changing world.

"Switzerland is not in a superb position," he says. "If you look at the current economic situation, it appears as more of an upswing than a structural revolution. One can't say that Switzerland is a more modern country now than it was five years ago."

Held, who is closing his own management consultancy to lead the think tank, says there is a need for more entrepreneurship in Switzerland.

"There are start-ups - it is happening - but if you look at the scale of it compared to the overall economy, it is not yet sufficient, and it's not sufficient to meet the international competition."

But Held says Switzerland's stability and the quality of its education system and infrastructure are such that it could easily aspire to be among the world's most dynamic economies. Achieving this potential is where he thinks the think tank can help.

The institute, which formally opens in January, will have a core staff of about 20, and aims to work closely with researchers at existing institutes and universities, at home and abroad.

No research projects have been approved so far, although Held has clear ideas as to what the priority fields should be.

"We must look at the demographic question, and it's not just about ageing. You have to look at the same time, which is seldom done, at immigration, at naturalisation, and how Switzerland can become a young, modern country and still keep its identity."

Another priority, Held says, is education. He says it is necessary to explore ways of creating or encouraging entrepreneurship at an early age, or at least determining the factors that play a role in its development.

Held also believes Switzerland's institutions deserve a close look. While admitting that the consensual tradition in Swiss politics makes for stability, he says it is also very slow.

"Everyone agrees that life and markets have accelerated in an unprecedented way, yet the institutions have not really adapted to that."

Held is convinced the system can be speeded up without Switzerland having to abandon consensus politics for the confrontational politics prevalent in most other western countries.

He says this can be done by lowering the acceptable level of consensus, for example by taking decisions based on a two-thirds consensus instead of striving for an 80 per cent consensus and having to water down the plans in the process.

Held also has a novel idea for injecting some fresh thinking into debates about Switzerland's future. He plans to invite foreign researchers to analyse and study certain aspects of Switzerland.

The business-funded think tank will have competition from a rival body set up in reaction by left-wing groups, although Held does not see it as a threat. He says the more think tanks there are, the more debate there is likely to be on the issues shaping Switzerland's future.

by Malcolm Shearmur

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