Four highlights from the Swiss Tech Experience
I went to Switzerland so you don’t have to (but I think you actually may want to).
In the early afternoon of Sunday, June 26, the luckiest staff writer in the world made lust-filled eye contact with Lake Zurich. It was a glorious opening act offered up ahead of the Swiss Tech Experience, a weeklong tour through the country and what its tech scene has to offer. It turns out, that “plenty” is the output of both the country and the innovators who call it home. As I navigated winding train rides and robotics-manufacturing facilities alike, here is what I experienced along the way.
The place for space
Upon hearing that our week would kick off at Kraftwerk, I thought 8:30 a.m. was on the early side for a concert. Perhaps, that’s how you roll when your band reached its apex in 1978. But, any thoughts of Cold War-era synth-pop were distanced when we arrived. Kraftwerk is a former power station located near the city’s transit hub, a Waterfront-Station-on-steroids known as Zurich HB. Our opening building provides space for the city’s tech community to converge and collaborate. Put another way, “Kraftwerk is fueling Swiss innovation and collaboration,” an obvious nod to the building’s history.
I immediately thought of my home and what spaces Vancouver had to offer. It’s a talking point I’ve heard before: a lack of local tech gathering space. We’ll have to add Kraftwerk to a list featuring Station F and Newlab that local frontier tech leaders are clamouring for. A unique element of Kraftwerk seems tailor-made for Vancouver, too. Zurich’s offering is home to repurposed shipping-containers-turned-hot-desks and meeting rooms. Any glance north or east of downtown Vancouver shows that we might have a few of these shipping containers laying around to help make this happen.
Chocolate, watches, Roger Federer, and… blockchain?
At Kraftwerk, I was greeted with a smile and a latte by Paola Valencia. I wanted to get the lay of the land of my new surroundings and she kindly offered a great quip: “Switzerland’s natural resource is innovation.” One such innovation is blockchain. Valencia is the director of operations and strategic partnerships for Home of Blockchain.swiss, an initiative of the Swiss Blockchain Federation.
Swiss: Home of Blockchain is a little bit private and a little bit public, but a lot bit advocator. Working in tandem with leading local blockchain organizations, the initiative aims to bring the strength of the Swiss blockchain sector to the world stage through conferences, publications, and a media campaign.
Again reflecting on my backyard, I couldn’t help but think of NFTs and the link between digital collectibles and Vancouver. The innovation calls the area west of Boundary Road home, after all, and organizations like Frontier Collective and Webcouv3r are here to remind the world of it.
This is a cheeky term offered up by the marketing department of Swiss tourism. It points out that Switzerland is a paradise for everyone from outdoor lovers, train enthusiasts, organic food fans, and everyone in between. “Swisstainable” could also be used to define the country’s cleantech and circular economy-driven might. Think of all those shipping containers at Kraftwerk; real world examples of the latter. Another is Planted, a plant-based meat alternative producer, who we took one of the many aforementioned trains to visit the factory.
Exemplifying cleantech diplomacy was B.C.’s own TrendiTech Inc., a Burnaby-based startup that’s creating robotics-powered food waste solutions, were winners of an application to join the Swiss Tech Experience, (and not just a freeloader like myself). Hanging with folks from Trendi and Planted was a reassuring example of the drive to tackle the food crisis. Even if “Burnastainable” doesn’t have the same ring to it as “Swisstainable,” it does have the same international grandeur.
The human side of robotics
On my final day of the Experience, we hopped aboard yet another train. This time we arrived in Biel, a city near the French border. The city is home to the Switzerland Innovation Park highlighted by the Swiss Smart Factory, a robotics and manufacturing hub.
Obviously, not everyone has a multi-thousand-square-foot facility to manufacture the robotics they may need. The Biel-based team incorporated a variety of AR, VR, and digital interfaces to support the offsite manufacture of these devices. This is how I found myself in front of a series of labeled buckets that would make any DIY-happy dad jealous. The buckets contained the pieces necessary to put together a drone — wings, batteries, wires — while a screen guided me through the process. Somewhere between step seven (grabbing and then positioning the third of four motors to power the drone’s propellers) and step eight (grabbing and then positioning the third of four compartments that cover the electronics running to the propellers’ motors) I fell behind. What followed was a blur of plastic, red lights, and error messages, not to mention an overriding feeling that I should stick to writing.
When Dominic Goreky, who heads the Factory, returned to check on my progress, he kindly offered that the whole process hasn’t been perfected just yet. “I think the problem was me, not the machine,” I further explained. “Well, it’s supposed to be for humans,” Goreky replied. That sentiment gave me solace; a timely confirmation that we are not all living within a Black Mirror prequel. That was until moments later, when my humanoid form was battling a foosball-playing robot to limited success. I guess that one didn’t get the memo.
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