Geneva is not the capital of digital governance – just yet

Geneva is home to several digital governance actors, including the Swiss Digital Initiative. (Credit: Xavier von Erlach/Unsplash)

A detailed study by Foraus examines the role of Switzerland, but also of Geneva, regarding digital governance, pointing to gaps the country will need to address in order to step up its game.

The words are carefully chosen, without extravagance or too much emphasis. But when reading through the 40 pages of the latest Foraus report, published on Tuesday, one senses that digital Switzerland is far from its stated ambitions. The study reveals shortcomings, both at the federal level and in Geneva, which still dreams of being the world hub of digital governance.

The city of Calvin, has hoped for years to host future international digital conventions, as suggested in 2017 by the president of Microsoft, Brad Smith-  But the authors of the study warn: “There is a gap between Geneva’s ambition to be recognised as an international capital of digital governance and the political support for concrete projects.”

Aside from the lack of political support, there is also “a conflict of objectives within Internet governance between strengthening international Geneva and supporting a multi-stakeholder model”, the think tank notes.

An ongoing commitment

So, how to judge Geneva’s role? According to Sara Pangrazzi, one of the three authors of the document, the city has “good potential”, and benefits from the fact that “digitisation is a cross-cutting theme at the UN”. But Pangrazzi warns: “Our analysis shows that the importance of a hub is not a given. With the growing awareness of digital governance, we are seeing increased global competition to position other locations as hubs. Continued commitment is needed to maintain, or even strengthen, Geneva’s role.”

In Geneva, there are many digital actors, from the Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator (GESDA) to the Geneva Dialogue, via the Swiss Digital Initiative. Co-author Nicolas Zahn says that “the Geneva authorities have long embraced the field of digitalisation and seem very aware of the need to become active”. At the federal level as well, “digital initiatives are supported in principle,” he adds.

Read also: Swiss initiative launches digital trust label

What is missing is “a coherent vision shared by all stakeholders," according to  Zahn, who cites the example of Estonia, “where one of the main factors for success has been political understanding to develop digital projects in a certain direction, across party lines and ministries”. “We’re not sure we have that unity in Switzerland yet,” he continues.

A warning for Geneva

Such lack of unity could also harm Geneva’s position in the humanitarian field. NGOs are quietly calling for Switzerland to commit itself to creating secure digital services. On this point, Switzerland must do more, stresses Kevin Kohler, third author of the study.

“We would welcome an open discussion on updating the responsibilities of host countries, such as Switzerland, to adapt infrastructures to the digital age,” Kohler said.

“Indeed, the ‘digital embassy’ model, i.e. part of a data centre with a special legal status, is one of the reasons why the ICRC’s new ‘cyberspace delegation’ is located in Luxembourg and not at headquarters in Geneva.”

This is a half-hearted warning: if Switzerland does not do more, other countries could attract such services, and Geneva could lose its attractiveness.


This article was originally published by Le Temps in French. It has been adapted and translated to English by Geneva Solutions.