Former Swiss State Secretary Charles Kleiber reflects on 20 years of swissnex, and imagines a future Switzerland that tackles global challenges head-on.
In 1997, Charles Kleiber was appointed State Secretary for Education and Research of the Swiss Confederation. He remained at this post until his retirement in 2007. During his tenure as State Secretary, the presence of Science and Technology Offices in Swiss embassies abroad increased dramatically, and he oversaw the creation of SHARE, the Swiss House for Advanced Research and Education — which would later become known as swissnex.
He spoke with us about that time, and reflected on what the future may hold for Switzerland and swissnex.
swissnex Boston: How did SHARE come about? Did it emerge as a result of a need, an opportunity, or both?
Charles Kleiber: In 2000, the world was in flux with the fall of communism, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the development of the internet, and with it the internationalization and the informatization of exchanges and communication. Traditional diplomacy was confronted with a new reality and new actors, and needed to invest in new instruments and new forms of cooperation. Diplomacy was less and less responsible for defending national interests, and more and more a facilitator for an exchange of ideas, for the creation of added value, and for linking different sectors of activity.
As such, there was political and economic pressure in Bern to create something new. This pressure came mainly from the Parliament, and was something which crossed over all political tendencies. There was a real effort among the MPs to unite and build something unique. But of course, there was uncertainty about what was to be built.
What motivated and led you to support the vision that became SHARE and then swissnex?
We wanted to invent a new diplomacy. We had this idea that technology would solve all the world’s problems and that science was the universal language. We believed that globalization is driven by technological and financial achievement, which induces systemic and organizational changes. But the new diplomacy that would emerge needed new places to unfold. SHARE was one of those places, the very first of its kind. It reconciled the need to be global and local at the same time. It was a realistic and pragmatic utopia, and a bet on the future.
So this is what we did, and it was good. Xavier Comtesse, who was a Science Counselor at the Embassy in Washington, came up with the idea for SHARE and really was the builder of it. Thierry Lombard, a prominent Swiss philanthropist, saw that there was potential and gave the money in order to buy the property for SHARE. Then came Christian Simm, who helped coin the term swissnex, and all the rest.
What are some of the highlights you remember and what are you most proud of in relation to swissnex?
I’m proud of the fact that swissnex exists. Because if it exists, it is only because of trust. When you are in my position, you are the State Secretary in Bern and you have people who are all over the world, the only way to manage that is to have more contact with them. So the choice of these people and all the mechanisms which link each of us to the others are very important. So the construction of swissnex is based on trust. So based on that, I would say it’s a good mechanism. I’m sure that the other people who were in this adventure had the same feeling — that it was important, and that they had a role to play, and that people like me could trust them. So I think all of us can be proud of that trust.
We now are in the exciting and challenging position to invent and imagine what we can be for the next 20 years. Right now, the global system is in a phase of profound transition and uncertainty. What do you see as the role of swissnex in this new world?
Today, the question for me is what is the next step? What does Switzerland have to say about the global challenges facing humanity, like inequality, justice, climate, and democracy? There are many young researchers and artists in Switzerland tackling these challenges, and there are a lot of people in universities and institutions in Switzerland with bright ideas. For me, the purpose of swissnex then is to be all over the world, amplifying those voices and helping to elevate questions which address these global issues.
At the time of swissnex’s founding, the rule of the game was multilateralism. We had the belief that there was progress, that humanity could be more just, that people would have more knowledge. We believed that the truth mattered. Knowledge by proof has the power to bring people together. But this is no longer the situation today. Truth has disappeared, and multilateralism is disappearing. But swissnex is anchored in science. So one of the most important things that swissnex can do now is to steer back to that foundation and show that knowledge by proof is at the center of our civilization. swissnex is the tool by which Swiss universities, researchers, and artists can be present in the rest of the world.
This interview has been edited and condensed.