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The importance of the UZH Digital Society Initiative (DSI) for the University of Zurich was abundantly clear at the official launch at the main lecture hall on Wednesday evening, with Swiss Federal President Johann Schneider-Ammann and Zurich Director of Education Silvia Steiner both lauding the research initiative. Speaking on behalf of the University, President Michael Hengartner and DSI initiator Abraham Bernstein, who directs the Department of Informatics, explained the venture. There were also words of approval from IT entrepreneur Ralph Mogicato and Caroline Hirt, co-director of the Museum of Digital Art in Zurich.
In a comprehensive address, Swiss Federal President Schneider-Ammann highlighted pioneering developments in digitization, and praised UZH for launching the Digital Society Initiative. “All seven faculties of the University are involved in the project.” This, he said, was “exactly the right approach,” as theologists and sociologists were just as important as computer scientists and mathematicions in terms of technological innovation and social reflection.
Schneider-Ammann received plenty of applause, not least because he peppered his speech with whimsical comments and obviously very much relished the topic and the venue, which he’ll be visiting again next Monday as part of the Churchill celebrations. Canton Zurich Director of Education Silvia Steiner had also insisted on attending the launch event even though it took her away from a government council retreat. She said she was proud that the Digital Society Initiative had been born in Zurich, a university town of global importance. “The initiative is a great opportunity for the University.”
In his address, University president Michael Hengartner discussed the question of why UZH had picked this time to launch the initiative, talking about the way digital transformation was increasingly permeating society and science and raising urgent questions concerning matters such as the future of democracy and new avenues in science and the world of work. As a broadly diversified university, he said, UZH was predestined to research and reflect on questions around the digitization of society. He highlighted UZH’s pioneering role in this field and stressed that the research initiative would be expanded on an ongoing basis. The promoters were then backed up by Zurich IT entrepreneur and UZH alumnus Ralph Mogicato, who explained that there was no way around digital transformation. There were also words of congratulation from Caroline Hirt, who has set up the unique Museum of Digital Arts (MuDA) in Zurich and works with digitization at the interface of art and science.
The launch marks the beginning of the start-up phase of the UZH Digital Society Initiative. The promoters have given themselves four years to drive the first projects forward (see box) and launch new ones. The idea is also to embed the initiative in a more extensive network and raise additional funding, with new projects financed from both university and outside sources. The plan in the medium term is to appoint new professors to match the initiative’s DNA.
The DSI Board of Directors, led by Abraham Bernstein and managing director Markus Christen, also have plenty to keep them busy. There was a heady atmosphere of optimism in the lecture hall and at the subsequent drinks. Education director Silvia Steiner summed up the prevailing mood, prophesying that the child that’s just been born is going to make us proud.