swissnex at 20

The swissnex network connects Switzerland to the international education, research and innovation community. It supports the global exchange of knowledge, ideas and talent and bolsters Switzerland's reputation as a top-notch location for research and innovation. In 2020, swissnex marks its 20th year of existence. A good opportunity to take stock of past developments and look to the future.

The building of the first swissnex office in Boston. Left: before renovations were carried out, Right: afterwards. Photo: zVg

Although the swissnex network itself has been around for 20 years, the history behind it dates right back to 1958. It was then that the first science attaché was appointed at the initiative of Switzerland’s ambassador in Washington. At the time, the USA was a role model in terms of promoting research and developing new technologies. In the middle of the Cold War, information on nuclear research was also of particular value to Switzerland. One of the main tasks of the science attaché was to report back on technological developments and measures taken to support young scientists. Another important objective for the science attaché at the time was to establish and maintain local contacts with Swiss researchers with a view to their possible return to Switzerland.

Opening of swissnex Boston
Following the positive experience in Washington, science counsellor positions were also created in Moscow and Tokyo in 1969. In the 1990s, the Federal Council was tasked by the Council of States with further expanding this network. Against this backdrop, two science counsellors in the United States developed a novel platform to facilitate the open exchange of knowledge and bring researchers and entrepreneurs from Switzerland and the USA together. The aim was to project the image of Switzerland as an open and modern country and as a location for knowledge and innovation.

In addition to the five swissnex offices (red dots), the current swissnex network also includes 19 science counsellors (black dots) at Swiss embassies abroad.

Thanks to a public-private partnership, the first swissnex office was opened in Boston in October 2000 - a spin-off, as it were, of the Science Section of the Swiss Embassy in Washington. At the time, the swissnex office was called ‘Swiss House for Advanced Research and Education (SHARE)’. This was the first Swiss ‘science consulate’ ever and probably the first of its kind in the world. And it laid the foundation for what would later become the swissnex network. Today, this network is comprised of five swissnex offices and around 20 science counsellors assigned to Swiss embassies around the world.

Building bridges between ERI stakeholders
In its early days, swissnex was an experiment intended to serve as a proof of concept. Since then, the network has established itself and its basic principles have proven effective. From the very beginning, swissnex was founded on the conviction that in an age of global networking and open innovation processes, Switzerland must maintain a presence in the world's leading knowledge and technology hubs in order to build bridges to the national education, research and innovation landscape. In this way, Switzerland positions itself as a leading location for education, research and innovation.

Nowadays, swissnex offices bring ERI actors in the respective country in contact with those in Switzerland. Without swissnex, their paths would never have crossed. The ‘chance encounters’ facilitated by swissnex are highly appreciated and are important for the respective project partners. For one thing, Swiss actors benefit from the globalisation of the ERI activities because support is given for exchange of knowledge and researchers. In 2019, more than 180 Swiss actors received support from the swissnex network. Good examples of this were the Innovation Camp for innovation-driven companies in San Francisco, various workshops at swissnex offices and messages on an inclusive future based on artificial intelligence.

What's nex(t)?
As part of a continuous innovative endeavour, swissnex has experimented with new formats in recent years. For example, swissnex mobile teamed up with Presence Switzerland for a joint stand at the World Expo 2017 in Astana, Kazakhstan. The idea behind this undertaking was to move beyond the concept of fixed swissnex locations to offer swissnex services at major events as well. The swissnex offices themselves are also branching out, intensifying their activities in other cities. For example, swissnex China has become involved with programmes such as the FinTech Venture Leaders in Shenzhen and Hong Kong; swissnex Brazil has provided office space for a number of Innosuisse start-up companies in São Paulo; and swissnex Boston has organised various events at its branch in New York.

The swissnex network sees this year's anniversary as an opportunity to reflect on the future: How will Switzerland position itself as an ERI location in the world over the next 20 years? What remit will swissnex have in 2040 and how will it meet the changing needs of its partners? Under the motto ‘nex20 - connecting tomorrow’, various commemorative events will take place to jointly develop future scenarios and visionary ideas. Because one thing is certain: the swissnex story should reach at least as far into the future as into the past.

‘The only constant at swissnex is change’
Christian Simm knows the swissnex network better than nearly anyone else: In 1997, he went to California as a science and technology counsellor and founded the swissnex office in San Francisco in 2003. In 2017, he took over management of swissnex Boston, which he handed over to Benjamin Bollmann in the summer of 2020. For over two decades, Christian Simm played a pivotal role in the design and development of the swissnex network.

For over twenty years, Christian Simm played a pivotal role at the swissnex network in the United States.
Photo: swissnex Boston

You were with swissnex from the beginning. What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think back over the past 20 years?
Christian Simm: Historically, twenty years is nothing, but so much has happened in this time!
Widespread use of the Internet began in the second half of the 1990s. At that time, there was a cheerful optimistic mood at the seemingly unlimited possibilities for creating a better world: through greater access to information, networking, transparency, speed, just to mention a few examples. Back then, no one was talking about start-ups and venture capital, artificial intelligence, interactions between art and science in such diverse forms, personalised medicine and electrically powered vehicles. The so-called ‘smartphone’ and its countless apps had not yet been invented. So much has happened and changed, often for the better, but in some cases for the worse.

What were the key milestones for swissnex?
Even the start of swissnex was a challenge: first everything had to be created from scratch, everything had to be built from the ground up. There was no concept and no instructions and incidentally, swissnex is constantly evolving in this manner. Flexibility and agility are constantly required, because the only constant at swissnex is change. This allows the network to remain closely in tune with developments taking place around the world.

The swissnex network would not exist without generosity. First of all, the generosity of all those who shared our vision, who gave financial backing to a new initiative that had yet to prove itself, and who followed the credo ‘Why not?’ rather than ‘Why?’. Then there has been the generosity of hundreds of colleagues, interns, speakers, the local population and other local stakeholders who all put their skills and passion at the service of swissnex every day. And finally, the generosity of thousands of listeners, spectators, visitors, hosts and keynote speakers, whose active participation gives meaning to our slogan ‘Connecting the Dots’.

How has the swissnex network evolved during this time?
With the help of renowned experts who volunteered their time and energy, I introduced the term ‘swissnex’ (‘nex’ as in ‘nexus’ as a symbol for connections and encounters or as in ‘next’ in the sense of opening), designed the corresponding visual appearance and came up with the slogan ‘Connecting the Dots’ for the swissnex office founded in San Francisco at that time.
Since then, the brand and the spirit that it stands for have continued to spread. Initially in geographical terms to five locations, then to an expanded network of around 20 science counsellors worldwide. Then a thematic expansion occurred: swissnex has become a symbol for new forms of interaction at the crossroads between science, society and international relations. Many countries now see swissnex as a model for ‘Science Diplomacy’ and ‘Public Diplomacy’.

What is swissnex particularly good at?
The swissnex offices were initially designed as ‘neutral’ locations - a term that naturally fits Switzerland well, although ‘neutrality’ here should not be understood in the political sense. The neutrality of swissnex refers to intellectual experimentation and mixing of different disciplines, which is mutually enriching. But ‘neutrality’ is also about ‘engineered serendipity’, about creating these very special conditions in which unforeseen or even unlikely encounters become possible. And these encounters result in an exchange of knowledge and often to international cooperative endeavours.

In many cases, swissnex is present in far-off locations. Through their work with a wide range of education, research, innovation stakeholders and creative minds in Switzerland, swissnex offices are also ideally positioned to facilitate interdisciplinary approaches and cross-cutting synergies among themselves.

What is your vision for the network for the next 20 years?
swissnex was created and supported by visionaries who were convinced of the power of ideas and willing to launch a generous project for which no ‘proof of concept’ had yet been provided. I would like Switzerland, and therefore swissnex, to maintain this intrepidness, this originality and this pioneering spirit. And to my colleagues in the network and all those whom they work with, I would like to share these four words from Steve Jobs: ‘Stay hungry, stay foolish!’

Further information

Malin Borg Soares, SERI
Head of the swissnex network