Open Geneva: Bringing the Silicon Valley spirit to Geneva

Thomas Maillart at the SDG Solution Space - UNIGE, Campus Biotech.

Innovation can take many forms. Today, more than ever innovation invites itself at all levels of society. As the 2020 list of Swiss Digital Shapers reveals, Geneva is proud to count many strong personalities working to drive innovation forward. But innovation can be more than individual initiatives. It can also take the form of community driven-projects, with benefits to society on both local and global levels.

This interview is available as a podcast:

Geneva Solutions · The Geneva Solutions podcast - Thomas Maillart, Open Geneva

Open Geneva is an association created to promote open innovation in the greater Geneva area. Its president Thomas Maillart, who is also member of the Faculty of Economics and Management at the University of Geneva and works for the Geneva Tsinghua Initiative, believes in the power of a community of innovators. By bringing together public institutions, universities, research centers, local and international companies, associations and citizens, ideas can be brought to life.  Innovative projects can be shared and concrete problems solved. Because the challenges to come are big, there is an urgency to work towards a sustainable model that will benefit everyone. Let us now see how we could change the world, here in Geneva.

Geneva Solutions: Open Geneva is an association but is also part of your own story…

Thomas Maillart: I spent over three years in the Silicon Valley between Palo Alto and Berkeley, as a postdoc from the Swiss National Science Foundation. What I discovered is that this amazing ecosystem, and collaborative and cooperative spirit that you have in Silicon Valley. People exchange ideas, business ideas, projects. It was striking compared to Switzerland, where actually we have a tendency to keep things for ourselves and to develop ideas on our own. I saw a lot of value in this collective intelligence.

GS: Do you have any concrete examples of that innovative approach?

TM: Two of them. I hadthe chance to get in touch with multiple VCs in Palo Alto. And it really struck my mind how these people were actually exchanging projects. They would get someone to pitch a project. Before evaluating the project, they would just sort of have the project make a journey. We would follow people from Silicon Valley until this project would either die or metered by some kind of bootstrapping. That was the first striking example. The second one was all these hackathons, these moments of innovation, that people would organize for whatever reason or goal. The idea would be to improve society or Silicon Valley a better place.

Facebook popularized hackathons, when it was still a small company. People would work all day, and during the night, sometimes during the weekend, they would take on some outstanding or practical challenges. And they would just give themselves 24 or 48 hours to overcome a problem.

GS: What impact did it have on you?

TM: It was really a game changer. In Switzerland, we focus on technology, which is absolutely great. At EPFL, ETH Zurich and at Swiss engineering schools, we learn technical matters at a very high level. But what Silicon Valley adds is this notion of use case. When you develop a product or an innovation, you need to find your users. These collective intelligence innovation “hackathon” moments when people have the opportunity to bootstrap their use case in a way that is going to be relevant for society. Then eventually come the followers and revenue. There’s much progress that can be done in that sense in Switzerland.

GS: What makes Geneva a good place to experiment with this?

TM: One thing Silicon Valley is really proud of is the diversity of profiles of people and companies from all over the world. You even have a Swisscom research centre there. You also have Oracle, Facebook, Google, NASA, biotech companies, the University of California (at Berkeley and San Francisco)… They're really proud of this diversity.

Now you get back to Geneva and you realize that Geneva is only roughly a million inhabitants. But actually, we have so much more diversity than in the Silicon Valley. You get people from all over the world coming and working with the international organizations, CERN, top universities like the University of Geneva, Campus Biotech and also more broadly with EPFL in Lausanne. We have an amazing potential here. Maybe the problem is that people and institutions don't talk to each other in the most efficient way. There can be partnerships between institutions of course. But you know, if people are not used to talking to each other, it's never going to happen. It's going to happen because people have this culture of working together.

GS: How do you make that happen at Open Geneva?

TM: Open Geneva is a spin-off of the University of Geneva and HES-SO (the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Western Switzerland). We really work with big institutions, but at the same time try to build grassroot communities of people who are just bought onto a project as volunteers to change things. We get them together to work out some concrete problems. It creates a community of practice on some topics. From there, these communities grow and eventually some innovations get out, as startups, associations or in the form of entrepreneurship.

We co-organized, for example, a smart city hackathon with Hewlett Packard Enterprise in 2017, which gave birth to Légumes Perchés, an association focused on urban farming. Every hackathon you get, more or less, one or two sustainable offsprings. Given the relatively low financial investment, I think it's quite a good result.

GS: How can it really be efficient in the long run?

TM: Hackathons are different from a brainstorming session, as brainstorming sessions quite often are open ended. But a hackathon has a deadline. You have 24 hours to come up with a convincing proposition to solve an actual problem. And this way of actually setting the stage for people to work together is making the difference. I'm not just saying it's simple, there's a lot to do to build the right environment to make the hackathon really conducive of results, and to keep people motivated and mobilised.

On a broader scale, if you think about the challenges for humanity, climate change or cybersecurity, which is another research interest of mine, we are facing deadlines. And it's very important that we keep that in mind when we start innovating. Moreover, we believe that a hackathon is also a great learning moment. So we believe that people can really learn in a hands on and practical way. We convinced our partner University, Tsinghua University in China, that this was the way to educate students,to develop their soft skills to build sound use cases. Last year, we helped them replicate Open Geneva as SDG Open Hack! It’s a festival of hackathons that will take place again in China at the end of November. The goal is to really tackle the sustainable development goals (SDGs) through education and innovation.

Changing culture is actually something very hard but that's really where we want to go. It’s a grand plan to actually change culture as fast as possible and as efficiently as possible. Silicon Valley started to really sparkle in the 60s and the 70s. And it took them 50 years to be where they are now. We cannot afford to wait 50 years to change the world. So the question is how fast can we change people? I'm not talking about brainwashing here, but at what pace can we change people's culture in a way that they really get a sense of urgency? Something must be done to tackle the problems in a pragmatic and community-driven way. If we can remain together as humans and solve problems collectively, we’ll have a greater chance than if we are alone.

What I saw that was really amazing in Silicon Valley was of course these big companies, but I also could witness people who at the end of their shift at a restaurant would go into a coffee shop, tinker with some Arduino hardware or some software, and develop new things. Whoever you are, wherever you come from, whatever your social status is, you get a chance to make it. It is a great message of hope. Now more than ever, we have access to so much information, we have access to so many resources to do things by ourselves. And this is truly empowering. It's really a question of having this drive for innovation, and this trust that you can make a positive impact on the world. In Switzerland, there is still this hierarchy, where we expect the greatest innovations to come from the EPFL or ETH Zurich. It is true of course, but we also have to keep in mind that some people come out of nowhere and come up with great innovations. These people deserve respect and support in the same way we give support to the great startups of the top Technology Universities in Switzerland. As a society we need to support innovators wherever they are.

The mission statement of Open Geneva is also to create social connections between people. But we also see the true benefits for innovation and for the quality of the technology coming out of this. We need to confront this technology with the needs of society, and in a way that is harmonious.


The GS news podcast series: Conversations on resilience is produced in partnership with Open Geneva and the University of Geneva. Interviews are available also on our SoundCloud page.