Progress toward a ‘digital Switzerland’ is advancing, but slowly

With the first Swiss Digital Day campaign this week, Switzerland’s digital elite has launched an offensive. But even though the country has acknowledged it’s time to improve digital services and education, we still have a long way to go compared to some other European countries.  

This content was published on November 22, 2017 - 11:51
Stefan Klauser

On November 21, the organisation digitalswitzerlandExternal link showcased to people across the country what digitalisation has to offer with its first Swiss Digital Day event. The previous day, representatives from politics, economics and science had gathered at the first national conference on a strategy for a “digital Switzerland.”  

In her welcome speech at the conference, Swiss President Doris Leuthard prepared the guests for the day. It’s about weighing up the pros and cons of digitalisation, she said: who would benefit? If implemented correctly, digitalisation is an opportunity, the president affirmed…but she stopped short of revealing how this would work.

Political scientist Stefan Klauser is the project manager for "Digital Society" at the Swiss Federal Technology Institute ETH Zurich

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Weddings, tax payments and company foundings – all done online in Estonia

Taavi Kotka, former information officer to the Estonian government, went on to show what Switzerland has missed in the past 10 to 20 years. During this time, Estonia has made huge progress in digitalisation. Already, 15 years ago, there was wireless internet for everyone in the capital Tallinn. Nowadays, all Estonians receive a digital identity the minute they are born. This entitles the citizens to use a multitude of government services on the internet, and enables them to set up companies, fill in forms, get married, pay their taxes, or cast their votes online.

Does this mean that Estonians have given up their private lives? A look at Estonian health data partially refutes this theory. Once a doctor accesses such data, which they can do at any time, their usage is tracked so that the relevant patient can find out who has looked at their dossier.

Estonians also put great emphasis on digital education, as they don’t want to miss the boat when it comes to digital development. Programming is taught at school, sometimes even in kindergarten.

Reluctance to develop further

In Switzerland, things still look somewhat different. Even though our politicians have started to acknowledge that it is about time to improve digital education, we still have some way to go to reach a digital Switzerland.

However, there have been some developments: the platform, for example, allows entrepreneurs to set up a company and facilitates the associated administrative procedures.

There is certainly some resistance to further development in the public sector, especially when it comes to politics. Calls for Swiss citizens to be able to participate in political processes via the internet are often deemed unsafe or undemocratic. Apart from that, the elderly would very likely be excluded from such activities, as they often do not have the technological knowledge or means.

However, there are also some positive voices, such as from Geneva State Chancellor Anja Wyden Guelpa. She is convinced that digitalisation would get young people back into the political process. Youngsters, she says, are a lot less politically active than the elderly; it is not about replacing traditional methods, but about enhancing them.

Is Switzerland lost?

It is certainly useful to have a dialogue about the right strategy for a digital democracy. The online space can be used to discuss new ideas, collect signatures, or even vote. Switzerland’s digital strategy is heading in the right direction, but changes can often take a long time. “You are lost. It’s all talk, but no action,” says Kotka says of the Swiss.

One idea would be for the federal government to advance the digitalisation of society and politics in cooperation with universities. This could be done in so-called digital labs, where experimentation with new participation methods could take place. This would also offer an opportunity to develop other attractive digital platforms for augmented reality (see box) as well as playful implementation.

First Digital Day

The question of who controls our data and how much participation in we want is another topic up for discussion. In order to discuss this efficiently, the population needs to have a certain level of digital knowledge and understanding. For this reason, digitalswitzerland launched the first Swiss Digital Day on November 21.

In more than 80 events across the country, the population was able to find out more about the opportunities of the digital world. The day also featured highlights from the fields of virtual reality and robotics, offering programming courses, and a chance to experience virtual reality cinema.

Augmented and virtual reality

Augmented reality is a technology that enriches the real world with digital information and media. Looking at a picture on your smartphone or tablet, for example, enables you to get more information about it, such as which mountains you are looking at. Virtual reality completely immerses you in a computer-generated virtual world. Using a so-called Virtual Reality Headset, a viewer can be transferred into any desired world without having to get out of their chair.

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The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of 

Opinion series publishes op-ed articles by contributors writing on a wide range of topics – Swiss issues or those that impact Switzerland. The selection of articles presents a diversity of opinions designed to enrich the debate on the issues discussed.

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