Since 2008, the gold standard for judging which countries are the most innovative has been an annual report released by Cornell University, INSEAD, and the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO).
And for the last six years, Switzerland has been ranked number one.
The tiny European country has managed to stay at the top because it consistently leads the world in per-capita patent applications, novel use of cutting-edge technology, and university programs that groom new talent.
Meanwhile, fluctuations in e-commerce, manufacturing, and exports have led much of the remaining top 10 to play out like a game of international musical chairs.
Bettina Rutschi, an economic researcher at Credit Suisse, points to the country’s strong history of immigration from the 16th to 18th centuries as laying the foundation for future prosperity. “Many of them were wealthy or highly skilled in a trade,” Rutschi explained of these immigrants in a recent Credit Suisse blog post.
As a result, Switzerland’s business sector is one of the most robust and high-performing in the world. Large corporations like UBS, Novartis, and Nestlé have each applied for hundreds of patents since 2014, Rutschi says. On a per-capita basis, Switzerland’s 40,000 patents rank it the highest in the world.
The way the Swiss do business is also innovative. Take virtual reality, which Swiss investment bank UBS has taken to using in a variety of novel ways.
Last year the head of the company’s innovation lab, Dave Bruno, began toying with presenting complex investment portfolios through virtual reality. Instead of relying on boring white charts, Bruno used iPad apps and games to shoot user-friendly data straight to the VR headset.
The goal is to cater to a new generation of clients that does business differently than their parents.
“How do you get under the skin of clients today, because they often work on their mobiles and they manage their wealth in their spare time,” Bruno told Reuters. “It might be in the bathroom, it might be waiting for a flight.”
Switzerland’s minds get moulded at some of the best research universities in Europe. Earlier this year, the prestigious École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) was voted the fourth most innovative university in Europe, behind such powerhouses as Belgium’s KU Leuven, Imperial College London, and the University of Cambridge.
Other Swiss universities also made the list, including the University of Zurich in 10th, Zurich’s ETH in 13th, and the University of Basel in 33rd.
That combination — a rich history of entrepreneurship mixed with an ongoing investment in a future of innovative thinkers — is what has led the country to win the top spot six times over.