The Winds of Digital Change

Bern, 24.01.2017 - Speech by Federal Councillor Johann N. Schneider-Ammann, Head of the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research EAER World Web Forum

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Mr. Hediger,
Federal Chancellor Thurnherr,
National Councillors,
Sir Berners-Lee,
Ladies and gentlemen:

I would like to thank National Councillor Dobler, the Digital Shapers and Digital Switzerland for their “Digital Manifesto”. And I would like to say a very big thank-you to the World Web Forum for inviting me. I am delighted to be with you here in Zurich today.

I have come here almost directly from this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos. Which will, I am sure, be remembered for some time for the address given by the President of the Peoples Republic of China, Mr. Xi Jinping.

As our own Neue Zürcher Zeitung commented, it’s strange times indeed when the world’s most senior communist has to preach globalization to the West…

We’re not here to discuss the WEF. Or free trade. Or even the new President of the United States.

But since it was China’s leader who gave the opening address in Davos, I would like to offer you a Chinese saying which I think is relevant to our World Web Forum discussions:

“When the winds of change blow, some build walls, and others build windmills.”

Ladies and gentlemen,

On such a complex and challenging issue as digitalisation, I am not suggesting that we should base our policies and responses on the words of a fortune cookie. But every cliché has a kernel of truth.

And this Chinese saying well captures the paradigms we are facing in this Fourth Industrial Revolution:

  • When they look at digitalisation, some people see mainly risks. The jobs and professions  that could well disappear. The need to gain some kind of control over the new products and services which are threatening the established sectors.
    So when the winds of digital change blow, these are the people who will seek to build a wall.

Others see all the opportunities that digitalisation offers. 

They see that there is no way of stopping or banning these new technologies:

  • they just want us to make the best possible use of it, in the interests of progress, wealth and jobs. They want to provide even more space and scope for even more new ideas. These people, then are building the windmills of our 21st Century.


The Digital Manifesto that I have just been presented with is many things:

  • It’s a clear call for more windmills in our country.
  • It’s an excellent foundation and prompt for the many debates that we need to have – about the right parameters, the education initiatives, start-up financing and more.
  • The Digital Manifesto is also  an excellent example of how easy it can be to get together and develop ideas. I’m convinced that it’s far more than a paper exercise, and will bring some welcome extra momentum to the whole digital issue.

That, of course, is up to all of us. But I will be doing everything I can. And events like this World Web Forum are an enormously important part of this. 

Ladies and gentlemen: Building windmills for the digital age: how do we do this? For the Digital Manifesto, which I also had the pleasure of working on, we took the symbol of the kind of “digital house” that we want to build here in Switzerland.

This house stands on a foundation of freedom and initiative – because without these, nothing new or creative can ever happen.

And our digital house has a number of floors, rising from an outstanding infrastructure to excellent education, training and innovation all the way up to entrepreneurial flair and the resulting jobs and wealth.

Our house is held together through society’s support, and by the bold mentality that we all need to develop. But it’s also held in place by regulations: regulations that are forged on the clear principle of “as much as necessary, but as little as possible”.

Our Digital Manifesto makes concrete proposals on where we should focus our energies most. Which is exactly what we need.

What we also need are initiatives that promote our country in this digital world. Initiatives like Digitalswitzerland – over 50 major Swiss corporations from all sectors and universities, all working to help Switzerland show the digital way. Which is excellent for us all!

To you, Digitalswitzerland, and to you, Digital Shapers, let me say this: I and our whole Swiss Federal Council are behind you all the way!

That’s why, just under a year ago, the Federal Council approved our new “Digital Switzerland Strategy”. A document that clearly states our basic attitude to digitalisation: We want to make optimum use of all the opportunities it offers. Our Digital Switzerland Strategy also defines how we aim to achieve this: We have no intention of trying to steer the digitalisation process. Not only is there no need to: it simply cannot be done.

What we do aim to do is create and maintain the best possible foundation and framework for this Fourth Industrial Revolution to flourish, to everybody’s benefit.

We also aim to convince people even more of the amazing opportunities here. Every one of you in this room is a leading light here, and you all have your own concrete projects and plans.

But many parts of the population are still very fearful of the digital revolution. And we – the politicians, the business world, the scientific community and society as a whole – need to show that we appreciate these concerns.

We also need to allay these fears, and give the people who hold them more confidence in what lies ahead. And we can make a great start here by helping them understand what exactly digitalisation is about.

Two weeks ago the Federal Council approved a new report on the economic parameters involved. This report concluded that we don’t need to introduce more regulation to undertake this digital journey. The laws we already have are basically sufficient.

What we do need to do is see what adjustments may need to be made. In some areas, the tried-and-trusted regulations may no longer be required – maybe because new valuation systems give customers far more transparency than they have had in the past. Other regulations may have to be updated. “Digital testing”, we call this.

Education and research are two more vital areas. Digitalisation brings major challenges: we’re all aware of this. Big Data, artificial intelligence, robotics, sensor technology: they all open up unimaginable new opportunities. But those same opportunities will also transform jobs, trades and professions.

Some will disappear, and others will emerge. Our education system will need to keep pace with these developments. Further training, in particular, will be a key issue here.

My State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation, our cantons, our education circles and institutions and our social partners are all working on these issues already.

And we will report to the Federal Council in June on whether we feel further action is required and, if so, what form this should take.

This applies not only to education but also to the research field. Switzerland occupies a top position here; and we must make sure
that we retain it in the digital age. We must do all this quickly: digitalisation won’t wait for us.


And now, ladies and gentlemen, this “Berner” – that’s my home canton – is delighted to introduce a “Berners”: Sir Berners-Lee, the inventor
of the Internet, without whom we probably wouldn’t be meeting here today.

Some see the Internet as humanity’s greatest-ever invention. And when we think of all the pioneering feats that have been achieved on the basis of the World Wide Web, superlatives are certainly in order.

We Swiss are particularly proud, of course, that – as I’m sure you know – Sir Berners-Lee developed the Internet in Switzerland, at CERN.

That’s what I mean about Switzerland’s leading position in the research world. And it’s why we’ve been doing our utmost in the last few years to get Switzerland back involved in Europe’s Horizon 2020 research programme. The fact that the Internet was invented in Switzerland should be both a beacon and a challenge to us all for the years ahead. Digitalisation is a massive opportunity for us, and we are excellently equipped to make the most of all its possibilities.

We must do so, too – for the sake of our jobs, our affluence, our competitiveness and our innovative strength. And can we? Well, to quote a recent holder of the highest office in the United States: “Yes, we can!”

Ladies and gentlemen,

Switzerland and the world owe so much to Sir Berners-Lee. It is a true honour for me to present him with the World Web Forum Lifetime Achievement Award.

Sir Berners-Lee, may I ask you to join me on stage?

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