Trust Valley's Lennig Pedron on turning competition into collaboration

Lennig Pedron at the launch of the Trust Valley. Source: Trust Valley.

Trust Valley is a regional initiative and a public-private partnership that brings together industrial, academic, and political actors in the field of digital trust and cybersecurity.

It is also brought to life by a leading voice in the field: Lennig Pedron. The director and driver behind the project, Pedron has been engaged in issues related to cybersecurity and hacking for more than 18 years. She is the co-founder and president of iCON, a non-governmental organisation based in Geneva, the EPFL Innovation Park, Brussels, Paris, London and Rennes that federates an international community working on trust in cyberspace.

In an interview with Geneva Solutions, Pedron opens up about the Trust Valley, the potential of the Lake Geneva area, and the importance of the ecosystem.

How did the Trust Valley become a reality?

It took courage to want to do things. There was a real will from economy ministers Philippe Leuba and Pierre Maudet, as well as academics such as EPFL, the University of Lausanne, the School of Engineering and Management in Vaud, the University of Geneva and captains of industry with SICPA, Kudelski, ELCA, SGS or Wisekey.

While initiating this project, we began to segment, list and map companies and academics - everything from state and para-state organisations. We realised that we do have a lot of experts. If you take all these ingredients separately, yes, things happen, but if you put everything and everyone in an ecosystem, you realise that the breeding ground is unique, world unique. The question is how do you make the whole ecosystem work? The key is to find a binder. If we do find it, we can stabilise business and develop talent.

We are mutualising and co-building on very concrete projects. It's happening here and now, because the system is mature and capable of doing it. The politicians contribute to the system by giving an impulse, a vision. In the end, we don't invent anything, it's all there. The only difference is that you need a minimum of will to bring it to life. But today, in the post-covid situation, if we don't put ourselves in the ecosystem, we will go off track.

How is this need expressed?

Companies come to us with the same kind of projects, each one having worked on their vision alone.  They have created their own “brick”. But for some a piece is missing, and for others it’s another piece. They could complete each other. It's an ambitious objective to succeed in putting around the table competitors that are not necessarily destined to work together to obtain bigger markets. The aim is to change competition into collaboration as a “co-opetation”. The initiative becomes the solution.

What are the challenges?

The complexity is to respond to market demands quickly enough today, to ensure that we become facilitators. To do this, we need to know organisations and people well. We have been working on this for over year, to define common ground. We also need to make sure that we are focusing on the right projects. We have the energy and the means that we have, so we need to choose the projects well from the start.

To attract the industry, it's simple: it's all about the market. By associating their strengths and expertise, they can get better results. That's why we chose Ipsos as a partner, to have access to real market data, qualitative data. If we show companies market opportunities and development possibilities, it becomes even more interesting.

The other key element is our role as facilitator. We identify the problem, ask ourselves how to solve it, whether there is a market behind it, whether the problem is only in one structure or whether there are several structures affected by the same problem. And we connected and arrange meetings for them.

At the state level it's something else again. There is a discussion on how to improve relations, whether Switzerland trusts its technology. We look at what is feasible, reasonable and possible. How can we work better with the cantons, the confederation, the army and the different organisations ?

What is at stake?

There is one strong value that we must keep in mind when launching a Trust Valley: humility. Let's stay humble, and try to do the best we can.

The stakes are colossal….We see it with tracing apps. The ground is shifting, and it is very difficult to have a long-term strategy. The challenge is to be able to decipher how to do it. A year ago, the challenge was to have more trust and resilient technology, which is respectful of citizens and users. Today, the challenge is to be super-resilient and operational with this capacity for movement to protect the digital economy. For the region, if we manage to improve the resilience capacity, to protect our digital infrastructure, it is the economy that is being protected. Agility is key.

Tell me more about Tech4Trust…

Tech4Trust is our first concrete project. Last year we received 20 applications. This year, 47 and selected 27 [of them]. Tech4Trust is the Swiss acceleration programme for start-ups dedicated to digital trust, a five-month booster, during which there are six workshops and five roadshows. We give them the fuel, the expertise with the support of over 30 high-level mentors and coaches, and the energy they need to grow well during the winter, to increase their strengths, their turnover, and to hire more. We identify where they are at, their stage of maturity and we bring them to the next level.

Companies don't come to us only for the money. They come looking for talent, for access to the ecosystem, for peers and for the brick they are missing. That's our job. If we manage to make sure that a start-up comes out of there boosted and able to respond to the market, then it's a win-win situation.

The Trust Valley is an economic development initiative and we're here to help the region to move in that direction but also to help attract companies to the region. The idea is to say, if I come here, my business will naturally grow.

How would you describe the spirit of the Trust Valley?

We have something in common with other ecosystems in the US, Israel or China. That is the choice of creating an ecosystem. But we are very different thanks to our super federalism. We always think about the citizen first, it’s a direct bottom-up democracy. It works like a giant laboratory.

What we would like is for there to be a real fund dedicated to digital trust, for there to be a higher will. Florian Schütz, Federal Cyber security delegate, and his team opened The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) in July this year. Ambassador Thomas Schneider, director of international affairs at the Swiss Federal Office of Communications (OFCOM), spoke about digital self-determination. It's in the process of being built.

We have another capacity in Switzerland and that is funds. In Geneva, the financial centre is very important. And the financial sector also possesses a real expertise in terms of data protection, trust and human factors, with a real potential for knowledge transfer. We need to be able to capitalise on the lead we have taken. There are other countries working on their own Trust valleys. But we are the first rust Valley in the world. Will we do better than others? That is difficult to say, but we will try to instil this respect for technology throughout society, to reduce the risks we take every day due to cybercrime.

Why do you think this project is strong?

Trust Valley all started with the academics and the industry. SICPA, Kudelski, ELCA, SGS, EPFL and the Center for Digital Trust (C4DT). The HEIG-VD, offers a Bachelor's degree in cybersecurity with real operational expertise and the Swiss hacker group, BlackAlps Conference. UNIL is a leader in forensics. The Cyber Defence Campus (CYD) opened in September 2019 at the EPFL Innovation Park, with the support of the Swiss Army. In Geneva, there are the international organisations of course, but also the Graduate Institute. And the University of Geneva is at the forefront of all legal questions, blockchains, smart contracts. All of this, in less than a 50km area.

So we’ve had it all from the start. Because, what matters the most when it comes to cybersecurity is understanding the field. Experience first, before making big theories.