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Effective innovation policy – past, present and future

Innovation policies around the world are changing in response to global challenges such as climate change and digitalisation. The federal government analyses these developments and, if necessary, adjusts its approach to promoting innovation at national level.

Author: Laetitia Philippe
A woman with shoulder-length brown hair, blue blazer and white collar against a grey background.
Laetita Philippe became head of the National Research and Innovation Division at SERI on 1 October 2023. Image: Monique Wittwer

Switzerland has placed among the top countries in international innovation rankings for a number of years. For our part in the federal government, we aim to ensure that Switzerland maintains its leading position by pursuing a targeted and forward-looking innovation policy. There are many reasons for the country's consistently good performance, with the high level of private sector involvement standing out as particularly influential.

Two proven principles of Swiss innovation policy are a bottom-up focus and a high degree of autonomy for innovation stakeholders. These values date back to the very beginnings of the federal government's innovation promotion, with the founding of the Commission for Scientific Research – today's Innosuisse – in 1944. At that time, while the Second World War was still raging, 'technology promotion' or 'technology policy' were the most commonly used terms due to the special circumstances and needs of wartime. The commission aimed to promote technological developments in order for Switzerland to maintain its economic performance; this remained the case in the post-war years as well. 

Swiss efforts to promote technology and innovation have always involved finding the right balance between science policy and liberal economic policy. Switzerland's early technology policy, for example, focused on establishing innovation-friendly framework conditions, such as moderate corporate taxation and a stable institutional framework.

This approach is still fitting today, given the simple fact that private sector activity is a dynamic driver of research and development in Switzerland. Most often it is companies that develop new ideas and turn research into marketable innovations. It is for exactly this reason that a bottom-up approach and a high degree of stakeholder autonomy remain important pillars of the federal government's innovation policy to this day. These funding principles have helped Switzerland to create innovations with global reach: the Velcro fastener, for example, which led to a turning point in the history of the textile industry when it was invented over 70 years ago, or the latest drones currently seen in the sky. 

Nevertheless, we still have to keep a close eye on global developments in this area. More and more countries around the world, as well as the European Union, are pursuing an increasingly active innovation policy, either through direct support for companies or by implementing top-down programmes, also known as mission-oriented research and innovation. The aim is to generate innovations that can contribute to solutions for pressing social challenges. 

Traditionally Switzerland has not intervened directly in the market or pursued an industrial policy as such, but we must still analyse these developments and adjust the federal government's innovation promotion measures where necessary – and this is precisely what we have been doing. For example, in 2021 the Innosuisse promotion agency introduced the Flagship Initiative to support projects in specific thematic areas. In addition, in 2023 the agency began providing support directly to start-ups before they enter the market. Both programmes represent a paradigm shift in national innovation promotion, and we are also considering whether mission-oriented instruments could be expedient for Switzerland. 

In order to develop a basis for these discussions, we monitor the long-term development of innovation activities in Switzerland. According to the KOF Swiss Economic Institute's 2020 Innovation Survey, the proportion of R&D-active companies in Switzerland rose in the 2018–2020 period. This was the first increase since the 2000–2002 survey period – and hopefully an indication of more good things to come! 

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