In the Net, it’s a give and take

#inquisitive  #credible  #compassionate

The digital world produces gargantuan amounts of data. However, only through the detailed analysis and targeted use of that data to support simpler and more efficient products and processes can added value be created. Swisscom is already relying on such smart data in various fields of its activity. For Urs Schaeppi, the essential part of handling this data in a responsible and trustworthy way comes from transparency and openness towards customers – after all, they’re the ultimate source of the data.

Text: Corin Ballhaus | Images: Marc Wetli | Magazine: Trust in the Digital Age – December 2017

What springs to mind when you hear the word “Trust”?

For me, honesty and reliability cement the basis for trust. It also means being able to entrust somebody with something. Trust forms the very foundation of commerce and social harmony. If there was no trust, the economy would collapse, as would society. We got a snapshot of that in the recent financial crisis.

What value is there in attempting to build lasting trust when customers’ main focus is on paying the lowest price?

The constant hunt for the cheapest product is something I can’t endorse – it encourages a throwaway society and hence the waste of resources. If something costs nothing or only a miniscule price, then it has no value. Fortunately, the entire market for goods or services is not driven by price alone. Especially in Switzerland, customers appreciate quality and are willing to pay for it.

In the Digital Age, trust hinges on whether privacy is safeguarded on the Net. What is Swisscom undertaking in this regard?

For one thing, we’re subject to the Swiss Telecommunications and Data Protection Act, which provides a clearly defined legal framework for how data is to be treated. And secondly, we’ve been relaying telephone calls for more than a hundred years now, which means we have an enormous amount of experience in handling confidential data. We also have a multitude of instruments in place to ensure confidentiality and data protection. And of course customers have the option to prohibit the further use of their data. But if they are unwilling to share certain data in this digital day and age, they won’t benefit from some of the related advantages. For instance, if they choose not to reveal their current location, their weather app won’t be able to report on the local conditions. So as you can see, on the Net there’s a give and take. What’s important for customers to know, though, is how the telecom provider uses their data, and what policy lies behind that use.

“Above all, we need more pioneering spirit, curiosity and openness, instead of fear of change and fear of loss.”

Going forward, should the private sphere – as it pertains to the Internet – also be couched in the Federal Constitution?

The Swiss Data Protection Act is good, and with the impending revision it will become even stricter. The challenge rather comes from the fact that the data protection issue is a global one. The large Internet companies in the USA and China are globally positioned and operate according to different principles. This is why enforceable principles at the global level would be necessary in order to create an even playing field.

The annual PwC CEO Survey has revealed that the manner in which digital data is handled will be one of the differentiating factors for the future. Is that your view as well?

Data are the “crude oil” of the digital world – or so the current catchphrase goes. But to make use of that data, companies need to analyse it with the help of artificial intelligence and apply the findings in a way that spawns simpler, more efficient products.

Urs Schaeppi has been CEO of the Swisscom Group and head of Swisscom (Switzerland) Ltd since 2013. His career with Switzerland’s largest telecommunications and IT company began in the same year as its initial public offering: in 1998, he moved from Papierfabrik Biberist to Swisscom Mobile as Head of Commercial Business. In the following years, he oversaw various Swisscom divisions. Aside from his current duties, this ETH engineer and graduate in business administration represents the Group in the governing bodies of various organisations (including asut, IMD, Swiss Innovation Park and digitalswitzerland) and holds seats on the boards of the Swiss American Chamber of Commerce and Glasfasernetz Schweiz.

How can smart data be used otherwise?

With the help of data, not only is it possible to simplify products, but also to automate processes, optimise networks, create new added-value services, as well as to enhance quality and efficiency. Swisscom uses AI for example in the evaluation of customer feedback after the launch of new products. Or we draw on smart data in our efforts to develop traffic light control systems that adapt their red and green phases to the realtime flow of traffic.

Many companies have been victims of cyber attacks in recent months. Has the Net become unsafe?

Cyber risks in general are increasing markedly. The positive takeaway from the latest attacks is that companies have become sensitised to the risks that pervade the Net as well as the necessary preventative measures. At Swisscom, a specialised team has an eye out 24/7 for these problems. Already before an attack is even attempted, the order of the day is to find out whether one is imminent and who the hacker could be. To that purpose, early warning indicators and anomalies in Internet data movements are analysed. Here, too, artificial intelligence is a help.

“Tasks that require intuition, creativity and empathy cannot be handled by machines. Here the human being has a clear USP.”

And which protective measures are necessary?

It takes defence systems. Data encryption is just one of many possible measures. Cyber security in the meantime has become a global business and requires constant rearmament. The attackers are getting smarter all the time, and their invasion tactics are more intricate. In the past, hackers were lone wolves; but nowadays, highly professional organisations are behind the attacks. Moreover, in an increasingly networked world, the vulnerability points are multiplying. Until recently, only PCs and mobile phones were connected to the Internet. As the Internet of Things grows, so too does the number of devices. However, this should not prevent us from forging ahead with these new technologies.

Human behaviour and attitudes change much more slowly than technological advances. What’s up with this divergence?

People tend to overestimate the possibilities of innovative technologies at the beginning and underestimate them later on. As a rule, new technologies bring about little change at first. However, if they catch on, the trend usually evolves faster than expected. One of the many examples of this is digital photography.

What does it take for a realistic assessment of this syndrome?

We should foster a culture in which we are more focused on experimenting in the sense of “try fast, fail fast, learn fast”. We must therefore also allow mistakes to be made – something that unfortunately runs counter to our Swiss perfectionism. But above all, we need more pioneering spirit, curiosity and openness, instead of fear of change and fear of loss. If Switzerland wants to remain at the top of its game and maintain its prosperity, it may in no case fall into lethargy and adopt a defensive stance.

The vision of Ittigen-based Swisscom, Switzerland’s leading telecommunications company and one of its foremost IT companies, is to be “The best in the networked world – always and everywhere”. As a provider of mobile and landline telephony, as well as Internet, digital TV and various IT services, Swisscom stands for digital transition in the economy and society like practically no other company in Switzerland. To ensure that its business and private customers can continue to communicate without restriction in the future, Swisscom is constantly investing in reliable, high-performance infrastructure – in 2016 alone, these investments totalled Swiss francs 2.4 billion – and developing solutions for the secure evaluation and transmission of data. With its more than 20,000 employees, Swisscom achieved sales of Swiss francs 5.7 billion and EBITDA of Swiss francs 2.3 billion in the first three quarters of 2017. The company’s registered shares are listed on SIX Swiss Exchange.

All the same, the public debate on digitisation seems to be driven by fear.

That fear is unfounded. History shows that after every technological revolution there were more jobs and prosperity than before. The invention of steam engines and electricity substantially changed job profiles at the time. This is not to say, though, that only highly trained people are needed. I’m even convinced that we’ll see a resurgence of skilled-trade professions – after all, automation is only possible for very repetitive, simple tasks. Tasks that require intuition, creativity and empathy cannot be handled by machines. Here the human being has a clear USP.

So what you’re saying is that there will never come a day when a robot takes your place as head of the company?

I don’t think so [chuckles]. But I actually can imagine that one of them could assist me in certain jobs, like perusing hundreds of pages of complicated reports and coming up with the salient points for me. That way, a future robot could provide me in short order with a better sense of the big picture. But in negotiations, conducting an employee review or moderating a project meeting with a customer, that little mechanical man won’t be able to replace me. At the end of the day, a robot is only as good as the way a human has programmed it.

At Swisscom’s Repair Center, defective smartphones are brought back to life.

Urs Schaeppi
Short questions – short answers

Which app is your favourite?
None in particular. My favourite “app” is essentially my smartphone, where I’ve set up a digital world for myself and reach out to it according to the given situation – be it the navigation app, Swisscom TV, my mail account or a mobile payment system.

Can you remember the first mobile phone you ever had?
It was a Natel C from Ericsson with a fold-down antenna. After about a half hour of telephoning, the battery was already dead. And each minute cost a franc. Then came the GSM cell phones, which were much smaller and less expensive – and that triggered the breakthrough in mobile telephony.

What kind of wallpaper do you have on your mobile phone?
I change it occasionally. Currently, it’s a photo I call “Snow Ghost Trees”. I captured the powder-laden pines against a steel-blue sky during a trip to Canada.