Ask the Experts Interview Series

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Christian Rutzer

Dr. Christian Rutzer is deputy director and project manager at the CIEB. He has a broad spectrum of methodological skills ranging from classical panel data econometrics to current machine learning, with a background in building international trade models. He holds a PhD in Economics from the University of Basel.

 

Published July 3, 2024 6:22 am UTC+0

Ask the Experts Interview Series

with Christian Rutzer

Tell us more about your work at CIEB.  

The CIEB — which stands for Center for International Economics and Business — is a research center within the Faculty of Economics at the University of Basel dedicated to the analysis of the Swiss economy, with a particular focus on structural change, innovation and digital transformation. Our work bridges the gap between basic research and applied analysis.

One of our focuses is the study of innovation in the life sciences, recognizing its significant economic impact on the Basel region and Switzerland as a whole. What distinguishes us from many think tanks and economic consulting groups is our independence due to our affiliation with the university.

Can you share a project you’ve worked on that has had a particular impact on you? 

About six years ago, I started working on a book that looked at whether deindustrialization was happening in Switzerland. Our research showed that deindustrialization had not yet occurred and that Switzerland was not a leader in digital innovation and digital technology adoption.

This finding inspired the Innoscape project, in which we are currently analyzing Switzerland’s Innovation landscape from multiple perspectives. Our goal is to understand how well the Swiss innovation system is prepared for future challenges and to identify areas for improvement. This project has profoundly influenced my career by enhancing my expertise in the Swiss innovation system.

What is innovation? How do we quantify it before being able to analyse it?

Innovation is the process of creating new products, services, or processes that significantly improve or transform existing ones. In doing so, it (usually) transforms industries, drives economic progress, and ultimately improves our lives.

Technological breakthroughs such as the Internet, smartphones, and artificial intelligence have (and will) revolutionize communication, work, and healthcare. Medical advances such as CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing and mRNA vaccines have the potential to cure diseases and respond to global health crises. Industrial innovations such as 3D printing and renewable energy technologies are driving sustainability and efficiency, reshaping the manufacturing and energy sectors. These examples show how innovation drives economic growth and significantly improves our quality of life. 

Quantifying innovation involves measuring various input, output, and performance metrics. Key indicators include R&D spending, the number of patents filed, and new product launches. Revenue from new products, market impact, speed to market, and development cycle duration  are also critical. Surveys, employee engagement, and composite indexes such as the Global Innovation Index provide additional insight. Together, these metrics provide a comprehensive view of an organization’s or country’s innovation activities.

Switzerland has once again reaffirmed its status as the epitome of innovation, securing the top spot on the Global Innovation Index (GII) for the 13th consecutive year in 2023. Is there something unique about Switzerland that nurtures this?

The country’s success is driven by strong academic and research institutions (ETH Zurich and EPF Lausanne are among the top technical universities in the world), a supportive regulatory environment, and significant investment in R&D. In addition, with high wages and a generally high standard of living, it offers a great environment and a highly competitive package to attract scientists and inventors from around the world.

One important thing that makes Switzerland special is that its innovation ecosystem is characterized by bottom-up government support, i.e. researchers and inventors drive the direction of research and invention, exemplified by Innosuisse, which funds research-based innovation projects and encourages collaboration between universities, research institutions and industry.

Could you highlight some industries where Switzerland excels in innovation and identify areas where there is potential for improvement? 

Switzerland is a global leader in innovation across multiple industries, with particular strengths in life sciences, IoT, drones and robotics, advanced manufacturing, and food systems. However, compared to other countries, Switzerland places less emphasis on digital innovation. Also, its venture capital system, while supportive in the early stages, lacks the scale and risk appetite of, for example, the US VC ecosystem for later-stage startups. This leaves room for improvement.

How can Switzerland successfully master the challenges of the 21st century and remain a global innovation leader in the future?

To remain a global innovation leader, Switzerland should increase its focus on digital technologies and ICT services, strengthen its venture capital ecosystem to better support later-stage startups, and maintain its world-class education system to ensure a steady pipeline of skilled talent. The currently discussed reduction of funding for basic research in Switzerland could be counterproductive, as scientific evidence suggests that high-quality science is crucial for high-impact innovation. Additionally, active participation in Horizon Europe is essential for fostering collaboration and accessing broader research funding.

What steps can be taken to encourage women to enter and thrive in innovative fields? How can companies and institutions support this? 

Compared to other countries, Switzerland has particularly low numbers of women studying STEM fields and high dropout rates during their careers among women engaged in inventive activities. However, the proportion of women who become inventors after obtaining a STEM degree is less of a problem. Therefore, efforts should focus on increasing the number of female STEM students and creating supportive work environments.

Highlighting successful women in STEM as role models, providing mentorship, conducting educational outreach, and offering scholarships can attract more female students. To keep women in inventive fields, such jobs need to be much more compatible with having children, e.g., through improved flexible working policies and better childcare support.

Can you discuss the impact of migrant inventors and researchers on the Swiss innovation landscape?   

Immigrant inventors and researchers play a crucial role in the Swiss innovation landscape. Switzerland’s limited capacity to train enough experts domestically means that it relies heavily on attracting international talent. The country’s highly attractive working conditions, including competitive salaries, excellent research facilities, and a high quality of life, enable Switzerland to compete globally for top talent. This influx of skilled migrants is a cornerstone of Switzerland’s economic success, contributing significantly to its leadership in innovation and maintaining its competitive edge on the global stage.

Any closing remarks/general advice to share. 

Innovation is a cornerstone of Switzerland’s high standard of living. However, innovation is not guaranteed and can be disruptive, often replacing old methods and potentially disadvantaging some groups. As a result, it can be challenging for society to embrace change, with many preferring to maintain the status quo.

However, to maintain and improve our high standard of living, Switzerland needs to continue to innovate. This requires a willingness to let go of old habits, embrace change, and support those who take the risk of creating something new. It’s important to celebrate and recognize their efforts, even when they fail, because they drive the progress that benefits us all.

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