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Switzerland's Answer to Silicon Valley - Credit Suisse

Le Boom!

Without a doubt, Nicolas Durand is one of the driving forces behind the boom, as is EPFL as a whole. The impressive development of the university during the last 30 years has produced a massive wave of creativity and a willingness to take risks. The region's economic boom has spread throughout all of Switzerland and has been witnessed by Laurent Miville, Head of Technology Transfer at the University of Geneva. "The EPFL has swung the gates wide open. Now it is being followed by other universities that also heavily nurture and promote innovation." This will for openness was especially supported by formative experiences gained in the US. "Like many other researchers, I went to the US to get away from a certain frustration that I experienced during my student days a frustration concerning the hesitant attitude toward technology transfer," explains physicist Miville. Will this make the area around the EPFL a kind of "Swiss Silicon Valley," using its California template as an example? Well, maybe a little. "When we returned to Switzerland, we adopted the best methods from the other side of the Atlantic. We are giving creativity free rein and have become more open toward chaotic competition than is often the case in the German part of Switzerland," emphasized Miville.

The Arc Knows No Borders

The region has many additional benefits that Jean-Luc Rochat, who heads Credit Suisse in western Switzerland, describes as follows: "Thanks to its beautiful surroundings, this region offers not only a high quality of life, but also a greater openness toward newcomers. EPFL, the multinational corporations and sports organizations attract a great deal of talent to the Lake Geneva region." In fact, the western tip of Switzerland has not only its ability to attract innovation to thank for its success, but also its capacity to integrate foreign workers, who mainly come from Portugal, France, Italy, Spain and England. The Canton of Geneva has the highest percentage of foreigners in the country at 41 percent, which is far higher than the national average of 23 percent, and it is noticeable. "I really had no problem integrating into the Swiss business world. I have never felt excluded because I am French. Here in the Arc lmanique the labor market transcends national borders. People commute to work here from everywhere from Lausanne to Lyon," says event and communications specialist Claire Gadroit. She is a cross-border commuter: Every day she drives 45 minutes from her home in Annecy, France to her office in Geneva and back. Although there are no language barriers between France and its French Swiss neighbor, there are considerable cultural differences. "The Swiss take responsibilities and general lateness more seriously than the French. When it comes to personal relationships, the Swiss are very courteous and formal, whereas some French feel that the Swiss tend to be stuffy," adds Claire Gadroit. It is not only the cities that are developing new identities. The village of Denens, located north of Morges, was a quiet farming and wine-growing community well into the 1970s. Then the first mansions were built on the southern banks of Lake Geneva and on the slopes of the Savoy Chablais, the foothills of the Alps.

Development, Yes, but Controlled

Over the past 30 years, the number of inhabitants has doubled to over 672 with many of the newcomers from abroad, mainly from English-speaking countries. The freeway is just a five-minute drive away, the train station has good connections and the regional headquarters of many multinational corporations are only a stone's throw away. The village therefore has much to offer. But does it want this? "We are not a bedroom community yet, but we are well on our way," says Mayor Bernard Perey with a touch of nostalgia. "When I was a child, everyone in the village knew each other. Today, on the other hand, we know almost nothing about many of the people who live here. Of course, I certainly understand that after a long day at work, people don't feel like having an active social life." Nevertheless, the village has a busy town council which organizes events to bring the community together. For example, it has held a scarecrow competition every three years since 1995. "But usually the same 40 to 50 residents take part every time," admits the mayor. The village of Denens wants to continue to grow. However, it also wants to maintain control, and that, to a certain extent, is happening naturally: "We cannot expand anymore because there is a shortage of buildable land," explains Perey. "The growth plan for the region shows an increase in the population density around Morges. Most of the new housing developments and jobs are going to be there outside of Denens." Perey is not unhappy about this.

Obstacles to Growth

Housing is in notoriously short supply, even if the housing market has relaxed a bit over the last year. The inventory of available housing in the region is at an all-time low, with 0.36 percent in Geneva and 0.61 percent in the Canton of Vaud. In June 2013, there were only 804 apartments available for sale or rent in Geneva, Switzerland's westernmost city, which of course drives the prices up. Rolle, a charming market town between the lake and the area's wine-growing region, has experienced a population boom in the last few years. There, a four room apartment often sells for one million Swiss francs. "I got stuck in traffic," is one of the most popular excuses for being late. However, in the Arc lmanique, it is usually true. Traffic jams here are a daily occurrence during the week and are being seen increasingly on the weekends too. Traffic heading to the big cities is as jammed as the trains one of the uncomfortable results of the economic boom. The number of cars on the road is increasing each year. Currently, there are already 100,000 vehicles traveling between the western Swiss cities of Geneva and Lausanne daily. Philippe Gumy from the Vaud Chamber of Industry and Commerce has been a commuter since he began working. First, he commuted for ten years to Bern, which meant more than an hour from his home in the Romont region to work. Then he had a one-and-a-half hour commute to Geneva for three years. His current commute to Lausanne is now a half hour shorter. "Commuting is part of my daily life, it comes with the job."

It's Not Where You're from that Counts

Commuting has become a lifestyle, an integral component of our culture. Among the French Swiss alone, 77,000 commuters traveled daily from one canton to another to get to work in 2010, almost twice as many as twenty years ago. In addition, there are the 90,000 cross-border commuters as well as ten thousand commuters who travel longer distances without crossing canton borders. "A commute of less than an hour has become a luxury in Switzerland nowadays," says Gumy, who lives in Fribourg and compares his situation to that in metropolises like Paris or London. "There, travel times are considerably longer and the means of transport not as comfortable." One drawback to this professional mobility, however, is that the feeling of belonging to a canton has been somewhat lost. Every fourth resident of Fribourg works in a different canton, while every third wage earner in Geneva lives outside the canton. Almost 200,000 Swiss live in France, many in the French suburbs of Geneva. As Gumy comments, almost no one cares where their colleagues live or come from.

New Times, Old Fears

Not only is the feeling of belonging somewhere getting lost in the shuffle, society's traditional structures are under growing pressure from globalization and more intense communication. "Companies that still operate based on old hierarchies are having difficulties; due to lack of flexibility, they are becoming outdated and have reached their limits," explains Anne-Catherine Pozza, who works in Geneva as a management coach. While such developments appeal to freedom-loving, creative innovation drivers, it irritates others who are settled in their comfort zones and are losing their point of reference. "The casualty of this movement in which collective action plays an important role is the individualism that prevailed during the last decade," says the Geneva native, although she enthusiastically adds, "Today, we are heading toward new values that consist of fruitful uncertainty, intense cooperation and a sharpened awareness of how important openness, transparency and citizen initiatives are." Since the beginning of the millennium, the French Swiss have embarked on an adventure, which most of them do not regret. The economic boom which started in the Geneva canton has benefited many. The desire to create, to achieve and to advance is spreading.

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