USA meets Switzerland: Energy Innovation Days 2015


I have rarely seen as many satisfied faces as I did last Friday, August 21, 2015, at the end of the second Swiss-US Energy Innovation Days in Zurich. In 2014, the event took place in Boston, in the environment of MIT, Harvard, and Northeastern University, while this year the exciting three-day conference was hosted in Switzerland, with more than 300 attendees from various regions of both Switzerland and the U.S. The program included various intensive discussions about topics such as mobility, buildings, space planning, society etc., coupled with instructive site visits to companies and institutions, who pride themselves in being a part of shaping the future of energy.

USA: Seeing opportunity instead of risks
The exchanges with the Americans gave me many ideas to think about. In many areas, as EMPA-representative Peter Richner rightly emphasized, we are not so far apart, although we may have different approaches. From the US-side I often heard the term “opportunity” being used. In the USA, the changes in the field of energy are seen as amazing chances to try something new. In contrast, here in Switzerland, change in this sector is understood as a risk that could possibly detract from success already obtained. That’s why many Swiss power companies are still against the full opening of the market, as well as a sensible pooling of consumer data. Patrick Warnking, Country Director of Google Switzerland, pointed out which new services and platforms the company is planning for the next years in the energy sector, and what could be done to improve efficiency. These IT-driven innovations will surely prevail, despite continued resistance in the power industry.

Storytelling instead of hard numbers and facts
Something we could learn from the US-attendees, is how they create their presentations about technologies, innovations, and companies. We Swiss tend to make ours very descriptive with lots of numbers and with more or less plausible arguments. The Americans tend to present their case in their own special way: Storytelling. In this they are miles ahead of us. Innovation is presented in a highly attractive way; as an interesting narrative summarizing the basics of the idea. Thanks to this method of storytelling, the main elements and features of the presentation stick much better in our minds.

How can we learn from each other? This was a central question raised during various discussions: Should Switzerland try to copy American experiences and success models and re-invent them with a swiss-touch at much expenditure? Or would it make more sense perhaps, to directly approach the fathers of the US models, for example the globally successful accelerator MassChallenge, and directly import the original into Switzerland? If we start such schemes all over and try to build them up on our own, we risk to lose the dynamics inherent to many American innovations, leading to a result not more than good Swiss average. I find it difficult to understand the motives underlying such „not-invented-here“ actions of current Swiss Innovation politics. Will this approach enable us to maintain ground in the increasingly intense global competition?

The Swiss-US Energy Innovation Days 2015 offered the attendees from science, business as well as politics, many opportunities to network and even initiate joint projects. A young entrepreneur from Ticino described his success to me: he had apparently not brought enough business cards with him but was still able to establish contacts with representatives from building companies as well as general entrepreneurs. In addition, he met the vice president of SIA, who showed him how his technology can be in the future covered by standards correctly.

There also much attentiveness to the presentations of Swiss Federal Councillor Doris Leuthard  as well as US ambassador Suzi LeVine, who presented the most recent stands of the US and Swiss Climate and Energy Policies. Both support an incentive-based transformation of the energy systems, in order to reach the 2 degree target.

A Big Thank-you!
This second edition of the Energy Innovation Days was made possible due to the many companies and organizations that helped support the initiators – the Swiss Society of Engineers and Architects, Switzerland Global Enterprise (S-GE), the Zurich University of Applied Sciences, swissnex Boston and the Swiss Federal Office of Energy (SFOE). Driving forces for this event included Felix Moesner, Consul and CEO of swissnex Boston, as well as Marianne Zünd, Head of the media & politics division at SFOE. In these last weeks they and the organization committee worked strenuously to make the Swiss-US Energy Innovation Days 2015 a success. A very sincere thank you to all of you (photo: organization committee)!

2016: Back to the U.S.A
What in 2014 saw the light of day in Boston as a small seedling, presented itself in 2015 in Zurich already as a robust plant, which in 2016 – back in the USA – will come to bloom. Different states and cities, from Chicago to Rhode Island to California and even – according to Ambassador LeVine – Washington State have signaled their interest in hosting the event.

Walter Steinmann, Director, Swiss Federal Office of Energy (SFOE)