As Swisscom’s Chief Digital Officer (CDO), Roger Wüthrich-Hasenböhler is at the cutting edge of innovation. In this interview, he talks about how technological developments are shaping companies and Swisscom itself, and the impact that venture capital and artificial intelligence have on Switzerland’s economy.
Text: Andreas Heer, Pictures: Swisscom
28 April 2023
Seven years ago, digital transformation was the big topic. Companies have recognised the impact of new technologies: disruptive business models have emerged and brand-new opportunities have opened up. Like the blockchain, for example. For years, infrastructure was key. And now, all of a sudden, decentralised technology has appeared on the scene. This technology can digitise real assets, it can facilitate trades and storage, it can offer new currencies. These were and are very exciting topics and a genuine highlight when you’re practically working in the eye of the storm.
How can you transfer a successful company to this digital world, with all its fresh possibilities? Considerations of this nature were at the heart of the strategy developed by the management board and the Board of Directors. This was a highlight for me because of the sense of optimism, because companies were looking at how they could transform their business and tap into new areas of business.
My role hasn’t changed much, but things have become even more dynamic. Nowadays, developments are software-driven, pushed forward by the cloud, where there’s a great deal of data available, and by the opportunities offered by self-learning algorithms, i.e. machine learning and artificial intelligence. I think this is another wave of digitalisation.
The speed with which this trend is developing has really progressed, on the one hand. But, on the other hand, we humans can no longer keep up. If you take ChatGPT as an example, socio-political issues are in the foreground: what can it do and what can’t it do? What does it invent, what is reality? I think the issue of speed is very clear here.
There are several aspects to this. Companies generally generate success with services and products and operate with a business model. They need to conduct their business to the best extent possible if they want to be successful in the market. In turn, they lay the foundations for planning the next steps: what are the prerequisites for success in three or five years’ time? Which technology trends are important and which could threaten or be disruptive to their business model? This allows companies to fine-tune their business models in such a way that they remain successful in the future. It is crucial to have experts in these areas: business is still all about people. That’s why it’s key to have the right people in your team, to have the skills and the trust of your customers so you can analyse emerging technologies and assess their impact. These are the success factors I’ve identifed.
‘Having the right people at the company to analyse and review new technologies is a decisive success factor.’
Innovation is not an end in itself; it is intended to propel the business forward. For me, there are two levels of innovation. On the first level, innovation serves to make a company more competitive by developing efficient processes that let it do business in as simple a way as possible. The second level is innovation within the company itself, where it’s developing new customer services that meet a need and which customers are willing to pay for. In other words, new innovations that can be commercialised and create a win-win situation. For us, this entails a new product for our customers and new revenue for Swisscom. Today, 70% of our sales come from products that didn’t exist ten years ago.
Another aspect of innovation is a corporate culture that supports continuous development. We have a long history of that here at Swisscom: we invented the prepaid card, were at the forefront of roaming and were the first to launch a mobile data card for laptops, in the form of Mobile Connect. These are innovations that came out of Swisscom. But we also face challenges, due to the fact that: Switzerland is small and we don’t have the opportunities that international tech companies can enjoy. That’s why it’s important that we focus on innovative opportunities that are of interest to us. Innovation should contribute to business goals and play a role in structuring the business of the future.
Today, we have an innovation ecosystem in which start-ups serve as innovators because they are agile and fast. In this respect, it’s important to be part of this ecosystem. At Swisscom, we’ve played a pioneering role in Switzerland for several years here, which keeps us at the cutting edge of new trends. And with Swisscom Ventures, we also have the opportunity to invest in start-ups, something that’s enormously important. Of the ten largest companies in the world, nine have been financed with venture capital. 20 years ago, this figure was just one. That has changed dramatically. The US and China are also examples of just how much money goes into the start-up scene.
We’ve launched a strategic initiative in the form of ‘Switzerland 50’: we want to get Switzerland to invest a total of CHF 50 billion in venture capital by 2030. Today, around 4 billion is invested annually. With this initiative, we want to help establish Switzerland as a ‘deeptech nation’ by 2030 and create 100,000 jobs in deeptech by getting the Swiss innovation ecosystem to join us in embracing the idea of a deeptech nation and doing everything we can to achieve this goal. In turn, this will ensure that we remain amongst the most innovative countries in 2030 and, of course, that we stay competitive, that we have attractive jobs and, by extension, that we also contribute to safeguarding our prosperity.
‘The challenges posed by new technologies in the banking sector are enormous.’
We have already addressed many issues that also affect the banking sector. Banks have yet to experience digitalisation or the digital tsunami that has swept through many industries. Today, banks are successful because they have a stable business model – but that will change with new technologies, digital assets and digital currencies. The banking sector is facing an enormous challenge because new technologies need to be subjected to proportionate regulation so people can engage in trustworthy business. This means that issues such as identity, authentication, AML (anti-money laundering) and KYC (know your customer) also have to be clarified in depth within the digital space.
Swisscom has already shown that it can play its part here. For example, our subsidiary Ajila has implemented a digitalised account opening process at a cantonal bank, which allows customers to open an account without any human intervention. Online identification takes place via smartphone, is legally recognised and absolutely secure. This is an innovation and its benefits are now becoming apparent during the bank’s merger. In March, there were six times as many accounts opened online as in the first two months.
We offer a wide range of services in the area of trust: our vision is to be innovators of trust. In the banking sector, in particular, we have a lot to offer with our infrastructure, the operation of core banking systems, our expertise in decentralised infrastructures and AML/KYC security.
We will have to really get to grips with artificial intelligence, which is becoming extremely important for a whole range of issues. Just think about generative AI algorithms, such as OpenAI’s Chat GPT or Google’s Bard, from Swisscom's perspective: when someone makes a support request via our chatbot, an intelligent algorithm can work out what the cause is and offer solutions in no time at all. Without the algorithm, this would otherwise require manual effort and clarification every time. Intelligent algorithms can suggest a solution themselves and perhaps even solve the problem before the customer even notices it.
These are precisely the issues that will disrupt a successful, stable business at some point, because a newcomer will do business in a completely different way, offering a better customer experience and at a fraction of the cost. We need to gain experience quickly so that we can see the opportunities offered by these kinds of systems – as well as their dangers and risks. It’s utterly crucial that we are skilled in this area.