Digitalization as Key Factor during the Crisis

It all seems to work now – at least more or less.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light how Switzerland has still largely been working with ancient computer systems. Many departments in the Federal Administration as well as numerous enterprises are, digitally speaking, lacking behind. Given Switzerland’s characteristic sense of innovation however, the future looks hopeful.

Going “digital” in one giant sweep

The open-plan offices around the country are rather quiet, with entire company divisions disappearing into home offices whenever possible. This sudden shift in work system operations has, however, also exposed a number of weaknesses in companies large and small. Whilst larger companies face the fight of telecommunication system overloads or needing to solve problems regarding the authorisation of remotely accessing otherwise restricted information in highly complex computer systems, smaller companies (SMEs, called KMUs in German or PMEs in French) face more fundamental problems such as: “Why does my office not have cloud computing?” Only a handful of companies have viable solutions in place – and this to their great advantage in this current crisis.

The retail business faces other challenges. Companies with modern distribution strategies for instance, have built up sales channels in e-commerce  well before this pandemic, with their own online shop or selling their products through a larger e-commerce distribution network. So the really progressive ones, corporate concepts need not worry about reduced profits at all. For all others, necessity is the mother of invention apparently and it is great to see Swiss farmers successfully putting the produce from their small farm shops online. It just remains to be seen if the range of these small digital sales channels will continue to exist after the crisis is over.

The unexpected and forced change in operational systems and the resulting increased digital activity is also attracting more cybercrime. Many employees are working from home for the first time. It makes them vulnerable for cyber criminals, who exploit security leaks in their systems. Unfortunately, also hospitals who have always been a target for cyber-attacks, have sadly become even more prone to such attacks.

A land of inventors and progressive thinkers

But there is hope. Switzerland has always been a country of innovation and progressive thinking whilst simultaneously being traditional, even pragmatic. It is unique and combines an intricate and detailed way of thinking with a certain groundedness, whilst keeping a focus on the big picture. Much of the research takes place away from the public eye and a larger audience only becomes aware of it, when new innovations, developed in small businesses, research laboratories or universities, eventually turn into new products or applications. It is quite extraordinary how many international inventors this small country has brought forth in its history.

Swiss innovation in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, precision engineering, timekeeping systems etc. are fairly well known, but who is aware of the famous Swiss ethnographer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, who discovered Petra in Jordan and the Temple of Abu Simbel in Egypt? Also, many everyday products have been invented by Swiss or developed in Switzerland, such as: cling film (cellophane) by Jaques Edwin Brandenberger, the velcro fastener by Georges de Mestral, or the hand blender by Roger Perrinjaquet. The electric guitar is also largely the product development of a Swiss emigrant, called Adolph Rickenbacher. So why not new innovations in the field of digitalization? Switzerland is already market leader in the so called Wearables market – small wearable computer technology to fit around your wrist.

The planning and test phase of digitalization has begun. The verdict is clear, there is certainly room for improvement. But ideas and progressive thinkers are here to explore. The new minister of the Department of Public Health for instance, has demanded a faster pace in digitalization, as the use of Big Data and personalized medicine  has proven to be indispensable during this pandemic.

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