When Christian Simm came to San Francisco in 1997 as the Science and Technology Counselor for Switzerland, the city (and the world), was a very different place. Even though the smartphone had not yet been invented, the Internet and the World Wide Web were the new El Dorado with seemingly endless opportunities. This represented a paradigm shift in the way information and connections were made available, shared, and brokered. Within this new context, Christian saw a unique opportunity for Switzerland. He transformed his role and founded swissnex: a hub for international collaboration–where people from different disciplines, industries and countries could meet, exchange, collaborate and find new ideas. Today, open innovation and interdisciplinarity are well-known concepts, but fifteen years ago, they were truly visionary.
Leaving behind a legacy, we recently farewelled our Founder and CEO as he left San Francisco for Boston, where he commences as CEO of swissnex Boston in August. We sat down with him to hear his story.
swissnex was inaugurated almost fifteen years ago, in Nov. 2003, can you tell us how and why it all began?
A revolution started in the mid-nineties when the first web browser became available to the public. Having so much information available anytime, anywhere, organized in such a user-friendly manner seemed to promise endless opportunities. And Silicon Valley became the place where many of these opportunities were explored thus quickly turning the region into a magnet for pioneers, researchers and entrepreneurs from all over the world. This lead Switzerland to create a Science & Technology Counselor (STC) position in San Francisco, the first outside a national capital.
When I arrived in the Bay Area in December 1997, I quickly discovered that the scope of this position, as much as the web itself, were a work (constantly) in progress, requiring extreme agility and inventiveness for what looked like permanent and totally exciting exploration. The traditional role of the STC as a ‘reporter’ and middleman was bound to change fundamentally. Not only did one need to be part of the ecosystem, rather involvement in the community of innovators was indispensable to be credible. Collaboration was needed as everything seemed possible: giving before taking.
An idea was quickly born: join forces with other Swiss-based organizations, create a neutral place for experimentation of ideas, open this venue to the public with attractive programs, stay at the edge and adapt quickly when necessary. My boss in Switzerland loved the idea and said «I don’t have a budget for this (yet) but I will support you if you find third-party funders». The swissnex concept was born.
Did you envisage that swissnex would become the place that it is today?
The iPhone is only ten years old. Who could have predicted in 2007 the impact it would have on our lives by 2017? It was, and still is, the same with swissnex; an organization built to evolve with new topics, new trends, and new challenges. We detect faint signals, grab opportunities and transform them into actions, which are often premieres for Switzerland: From creating a “Facebook for scientists” (Swiss Talents), to a widely recognized art-science practice at a time when mixing these disciplines was still considered frivolous (now it has become mainstream); From pushing young entrepreneurs to go global, to putting trans-disciplinarity at the core of future thinking; From breaking boundaries between startups and large corporations to creating a new model for science diplomacy.
I once read the following text: ‘One must be generous. We are only here for a short time and we can’t take anything with us when we go. What’s the point of holding onto things and not sharing knowledge, ideas, insights and opportunities? If you keep them for yourself, then it’s gone when you are gone. But if you share, then you can make something that is much bigger than the beginning. In other words, ideas grow when you share them. Others grow when you share, and you grow when things are shared. In a way, it’s a win-win game’.
With that in mind, with an amazingly creative and dedicated team, with trusted partners, supporters and headquarters we were able to ‘re-invent’ swissnex San Francisco in 2016. We moved to a very unique venue at Pier 17, created an experiment in open innovation with more than seventy people from over twenty organizations, and quickly became the model many others wanted to understand. Did I all plan that in 2003? That would be presumptuous to say. But it was a dream, for sure!
What were some of the biggest problems you sought to solve when you started swissnex?
Solving problems was not the reason why I created swissnex San Francisco and grew it over the past fifteen years. swissnex is about seizing opportunities. The entire team works passionately to help partners, stakeholders, clients and other parties see potential and take action.
What is the most serendipitous moment you can recall at swissnex?
As swissnex is about the future–where knowledge is in flux, certitudes are scarce and leaders still have to emerge–serendipity plays an important role in our practice. Though, it is not just about waiting for something unexpected to happen. Serendipity can be engineered with the right methodology: constantly pushing the boundaries, listening carefully to faint signals, showing genuine curiosity and generosity, planning improbable encounters and a few more ‘secret ingredients’. Successful outcomes are often beyond expectations.
Among the many examples of serendipitous moments, I’ll cite one of the very first. To brainstorm out-of-the-box ideas for what swissnex may become, a good colleague of mine offered to cook Greek specialties at her home if I could come up with a wildly diverse group of participants. Intrigued by swissnex, a confidential list of top San Francisco creatives joined. They enjoyed the unusual setting and conversations so much that, without being asked, they spontaneously offered to invent our brand and graphical identity for our, then nameless, initiative. Their legacy is still all around us every day!
swissnex San Francisco occupies a unique space that transcends disciplines, industries and borders; a place where people meet and collaborate to let new ideas emerge. What is the greatest success story of swissnex San Francisco?
We started very early on to help Swiss entrepreneurs and startups with benchmarking, gaining international exposure, having a base abroad and ‘thinking big’. This type of support was very uncommon at the time, whereas now, incubators, accelerators, hackathons, pitch events and the like have become mainstream.
For a long time, maybe since the Renaissance’s famous polymaths, sciences and arts were considered so far apart that dialogues between them were few and remained mostly intimate.
With San Francisco’s receptiveness for experimentation, my love for the arts, very talented team members, and the trust of several key supporters, allowed us to be at the avant-garde of the nascent art/science and art/technology movement. There are many different ‘languages’ to describe the world, and some of the most fascinating insights emerge at their intersections.
Open Innovation was pushed to a new level with our move to Pier 17, where selected startups and large corporations, universities and individual researchers, creatives and communicators, short-term visitors and long-term ‘Residents’ share an inspiring open space. In this very unique innovation ecosystem, engineered serendipity has become the norm.
In each of these instances–and there are many more examples–swissnex fully played its role as pioneer: discoverer, experimenter and, as we would say in Silicon Valley jargon, ‘evangelist’. Part ice-breaking, part ground-breaking, we laid the foundations on which new and meaningful projects became possible.
You’ve witnessed some of the biggest changes the world has seen over the past fifteen years from the vantage point of Silicon Valley. What are some of the biggest changes you expect the world to see in the next fifteen years?
Predicting precisely the future requires a crystal ball. swissnex’s methodology, on the other hand, starts with the faint signals of the future that I mentioned earlier. They are collected through listening, reading, observing, talking to people from all types of backgrounds and sectors, and more. Possible scenarii are then imagined, analyzed and tested through more discussions and storytelling, for instance on our ‘nextrends’ blog. The knowledge and understanding gained reduce the cone of uncertainty about the future.
Technologies like virtual reality, deep learning, gene editing tools like CRISPR, autonomous vehicles (whether on the ground or in the air), and artificial intelligence will clearly have a deep impact in the next fifteen years. Machines will become even more like us. They won’t necessarily look like us, but they will sense, interpret, understand, communicate and act in ways which will make physical devices: robots, algorithms, and bots will blend into our daily lives like the smartphone did over the past decade. Such machines will negotiate directly with each other and possibly manage their own entities: they may be taxed like humans, and I’m certain that it will trigger in-depth debates about the future of our societies.
At the same time, this techno-centric view is very much the culture of Silicon Valley. Apps are not the solution to every problem and the world has a very differentiated approach to technology. The needs for and impact of technologies are wildly different around the globe. Companies cannot ignore this anymore and they will have to ask why, what for, and under which conditions their new devices and services are developed. Business models will need to include Corporate Social Responsibility, Sustainable Development Goals and global political, environmental, humanitarian (as well as other) issues. Switzerland and swissnex are perfectly positioned to encourage, support and lead the shaping of a better common future.
Christian Simm commences as CEO of swissnex Boston in August 2017.
Gioia Deucher, previously CEO of swissnex Brazil, is now CEO of swissnex San Francisco
Interviewed by Perrine Huber, Head of Marketing and Communication