Swiss innovation leverages tech for sustainable solutions to global challenges

Last Updated on: 21st November 2023, 09:42 pm

While it may be best known for hosting the annual World Economic Forum (WEF), Swiss town Davos may soon be a household name for another reason: a new AI laboratory. Indeed, the country as a whole is often primarily associated with luxury travel and natural splendour, but Switzerland has in fact established itself as the global leader on innovation for over a decade.

With a world-beating education system, an enviable quality of life and an emphasis on thinking outside the box, Swiss industry has long been able to attract the best and brightest minds in the world of technology, science and industry. Innovative Swiss start-ups and businesses are thriving in the green and tech sectors, combining a forward-thinking approach with social and environmental responsibility to drive progress towards solving global problems – without neglecting their obligations at a local level.

Applying human smarts to artificial intelligence

The man chiefly responsible for reshaping public perception of Davos is Pascal Kaufmann, a neuroscientist with an insatiable thirst for knowledge and a penchant for looking at mechanical problems with a human eye. To that end, his NGO Mindfire opened the doors for Lab42 in July 2022, inviting scientists, AI enthusiasts and other industry experts to devise algorithms capable of solving as many of the infamous ARC tests as possible. Successful candidates win cash prizes and an invitation to join the community of global experts working in and with Lab42 going forward.

Crucially, Mindfire maintains good relations with the municipal governance in Davos, ensuring its work supports a thriving local economy and the prestigious quality of life for which the country is so famed. At the same time, it is defined by an intentional neutrality when it comes to politics, serving as a potentially important counterpoint to the AI epicentres of China and the USA, where the tech is all too often used as a means to serve their diametrically opposed political ends.

High-tech innovation meets employee well-being

Of course, excellence in innovation and technological proficiency are hardly limited to Davos. Elsewhere in the country, Lausanne-based SICPA has established itself as one of the leading names in high-tech digital ink and stamp solutions, providing regulatory oversight and consumer confidence for all manner of industries, from banknotes to fuel feedstocks and tobacco packets. 2022 proved to be a particularly impactful year for the company as it continued its expansion into cutting-edge industries through innovative partnerships. For example, it is working alongside Canadian broker-dealers INX to provide central banks and their governments with digital currencies and tokens. Meanwhile, a collaboration with French biodefense unit BMPM has resulted in a state-of-the-art solution to detect pathogens in aircraft wastewater.

As well as producing these transformative products and solutions, SICPA is also ensuring that it takes care of those who have made these milestones possible. In fact, it was recently named as one of the best employers in the country, according to a survey of more than 15,000 employees from over 1,500 companies with at least 200 staff, and was also named Best Swiss Company as part of the Vaud International Business Awards. Key to SICPA’s success – exemplified by a 94% staff retention rate in 2021 – is its willingness to adapt to evolving employee needs in the age of teleworking, such as additional education and training courses, while also undertaking a variety of sustainable and humanitarian projects.

Academia and industry produce greentech unicorn

Another future-oriented Swiss firm committed to ESG is Climeworks, a greentech unicorn which recently raised $650 million in its latest, record-setting funding round for carbon removal. A spin-off from one of the nation’s major tech universities, Climeworks is a shining example of the fruits of a robust education system which features the highest density of Top 500 universities per capita of anywhere on the planet. The start-up specialises in using carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and funnel it underground. Indeed, it recently received third-party verification from independent auditors DNV, becoming the first such company to do so.

Its potential has not gone unnoticed, attracting the attention of some of the biggest names in business. Microsoft, Spotify and Stripe all have contracts with Climeworks to offset their carbon footprint, and in the wake of DNV’s green light, more are expected to follow their lead. The company is presently capable of removing 4,000 tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere annually and has designs on a new plant in Iceland which would expand its capacity tenfold. Of course, the fact that 40.5 billion tonnes of CO2 were emitted globally last year makes the scale of the challenge all too obvious, but as pioneers in the sector, Climeworks are showing a viable way forward.

Tomorrow’s solutions, today

While for many Switzerland may be synonymous with traditional exports such as chocolate, cuckoo clocks and private banking, it has far more to offer the world. Indeed, it may come as a surprise to learn that Switzerland has topped the Global Innovation Index for an astonishing 12 years running. This remarkable record has been achieved due to the high sums invested into R&D (3% of GDP, or $25.5 billion, in 2019), the staggeringly high number of new patents submitted each year (a world-leading 8,442 in 2021) and the seamless integration of world-class academia and tireless industry.

Crucially, this perfect set of circumstances has not just been conducive to topping leader boards and winning welcome awards, but it has also helped the country produce industry-leading companies such as those mentioned above, prioritising a practical and apolitical approach to tackling the world’s most urgent crises. For a landlocked nation with a relatively low population and relatively little natural resources, that’s certainly an impressive feat of innovation, and one which can serve as a source of inspiration to the rest of the planet in these trying times.

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