This conversation took place in April 2017 with Lino Guzzella, President of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) and Professor of Thermotronics.

Clips from the interview


Digital Transformation in Science

“Was there a point where you noticed that digitization or digital transformation changes the way you work as a university?”

Lino Guzzella: “Thinking there was a switch that we flipped and then we changed is a wrong metaphor. It’s a gradual process, a continuous transformation that started in the 80’s, early 70’s with networks, ARPANET, browser technology, etc. We scientists are tech geeks and picked this up as soon as it was available. It’s not one moment in time that this happened, it happened over the last 30-40 year. It’s essentially the working of Moore’s law.”

Digital Advantages

“Where do you see the main advantages of digital technologies in the future?”

Lino Guzzella: “The main advantage is efficiency gains. We can make the same things with much less energy, resources, time, money, or losses. Just think of the medical sector. How many errors could be avoided by having a completely digitized information chain, avoiding wrong medication, double medication? Making the system more efficient is one thing. The second thing is making the system able to do things that haven’t been possible before. Information is available at zero cost at arbitrary bandwidth everywhere. This makes many jobs much easier. For startups, the development of the cloud allows you to build a business with zero investment. I think the development is very promising and I’m very optimistic.”

Upsides and Downsides

“Have you noticed any negative impacts of digital transformation on science and education?”

Lino Guzzella: “I don’t think so. Science loves changes, and these developments boost education. The problems are more with the general public that undergoes rapid changes, which creates anxiety. But there are many upsides. The glass is not half empty, it is almost full.”

Future-Ready Skills

Lino Guzzella: “We need to make our students able to deal with situations that we have not encountered. How do we do that? The answer is rather simple. First, you need a sound foundation in the basics. Some things will be true also in millions of years. Newton’s law will still be there. Teaching our students things that are fundamental, that is a good basis. The second thing is probably even more important. We need to teach our students how to think. How to think critically and creatively and how to use their knowledge to create new value in an entrepreneurial way. Basics, critical thinking, and entrepreneurial action; that’s the best preparation we can give to them.”

Competition and Success

“Some people may believe life was easier earlier. Imagine being thirty, forty years younger and studying today. Would you enjoy this environment?”

Lino Guzzella: “I would certainly enjoy being thirty years younger. But I enjoyed this environment when I was young and I’m sure our students enjoy the environment right now. On the inside it’s exactly the same. If you want to be cutting-edge in science, business, or the arts, you are in a competition. This doesn’t change. Competition is tough, you have to fight and devote your energy. On the other hand, competition is the source of progress. The key elements in life are always the same: You need to choose a field you’re interested in and then you need to compete. Go to the front of the development and make your own contribution. This is extremely rewarding. Imagine you’re the first person who knows a new fact of microbiology and can share it with the world, which might help cure diseases that before weren’t curable. These are the things I and our students dream of.”

Tearing Down Walls

“Do you think the current economic and political system is ready to take full advantage of new technologies?”

Lino Guzzella: “There will be resistance, of course. There will be people who will lose and they will fight back. This has been going on forever. There will be problems, I’m not saying that it will be easy. But I believe having access to information, which is one of the key aspects of this digital revolution everywhere, is a fundamental element to progress. With all walls, be they physical walls or virtual walls in the Internet, humans have always been very creative at tearing down walls, and I’m sure they will be torn down.”

An Experience with Disruption

“Have you made a personal experience with disruption through digital technologies?”

Lino Guzzella: “As I said, it’s not an aha moment in my life. I don’t think there is a disruption. People always take about disruptive technology, but if you look back, it’s a continuous process, an evolutionary process. I believe in evolution. This is maybe the most personal statement you get out of me.”