What the world can learn from Switzerland

ABB CEO Ulrich Spiesshofer on Europe’s innovation heartland

As one of the world’s most advanced economies, Switzerland is ideally positioned to drive the Energy and Fourth Industrial Revolutions.

Switzerland is a true crossroads at the heart of Europe. For centuries, it has been a source of inspiration for thinkers, inventors and entrepreneurs. As CEO of the country’s leading industrial company, I am frequently reminded of the vital role that technology has played in its history and development.

The most recent example came with the opening of the Gotthard Base Tunnel, the world’s longest railway tunnel at 57 kilometers, last December. This marvel of engineering, for which ABB provided the power technology and ventilation system, affirms that technological innovation is what really sets Switzerland apart.

As a landlocked country with few natural resources and little arable land, Switzerland has always had to rely on the ingenuity and resourcefulness of its people. Today, it is one of the world’s foremost trading nations, with exports accounting for well over 60 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Contrary to popular perception, its most important export goods are not chocolate or financial services, but chemicals, machine tools and industrial machinery.

This is hardly surprising when you consider that Switzerland invests almost three percent of GDP in research and development and files more technology patent applications per head than any other country. Despite the continuing strength of the franc, Switzerland is repeatedly ranked among the most competitive economies in the world. This has a great deal to do with the fact that Swiss industry invested in advanced, productivity-enhancing technology – such as robotics and automation – early on, enabling it to preserve its competitiveness.

Digital innovations

A notable example is Wander, the producer of the famous chocolate malt drink, Ovomaltine (or Ovaltine, as it is known in the US and Britain). It has automated its production plants using digital technology from ABB and recently relocated the production line for its successful product, Ovomaltine Crunchy Cream, from Belgium to Switzerland.

ABB also has a number of world-class factories in Switzerland, including two in Zurich, where high-voltage equipment is manufactured, as well as several sites in the Baden region – including one of seven corporate research centers that we operate worldwide.

By embracing technology and the changes it brings, Switzerland has transformed itself from a largely agrarian society into one of the world’s wealthiest and most sophisticated economies. While the digital innovators of Silicon Valley lead the field in internet search, online shopping and taxi and accommodation services, it is companies like ABB that are doing the heavy lifting, connecting the digital and the industrial worlds. Indeed, one of our most striking comparative advantages is our unparalleled ability to apply digital technologies and software to industrial facilities and equipment to serve utilities, industry and transport & infrastructure customers.

Thanks to this capability, we have been able to launch around 200 digital “ABB Ability” solutions on to the market this year alone, with many more in the pipeline. By analyzing data from our customer’s power grids, machines, robots and facilities and comparing it with everything we have learned from ABB’s installed base of connected devices and systems across the world, we are able to deliver actionable information that customers can use to improve efficiency, productivity and output, and to optimize their operations.

This unique country, with its wealth of talent, entrepreneurial spirit and impressive cohort of advanced industrial enterprises, is perfectly positioned to play a leading role in Europe – and the world – in the Energy and Fourth Industrial Revolutions. Key to achieving the energy transition is to manage it pragmatically, through an enlightened demand and supply approach that encourages innovation.

Another strong advantage Switzerland has is its impressive dual-education system, which provides young people and mid-career workers alike with high levels of theoretical and practical vocational training and ensures its citizens have the skills required to run its innovative industries.

As companies like ABB continue to make previously unthinkable levels of efficiency possible by intertwining the physical and digital worlds, a future where we can run the world without consuming the earth is no longer a pipe dream. Despite many challenges, this vision is now within reach, and we are proud to be contributing to it through our work in Switzerland and around the world.


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