From algorithms to train travel


Lea Müller



Illustration of a light bulb shooting into the sky like a rocket

Getting young people excited about politics, making environmentally friendly travel the standard way of getting from A to B, contributing to the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development through start-ups and making algorithmic decision-making processes transparent – four completely different objectives with one shared vision: shaping a responsible society that reflects on its actions and considers future generations, as well as planetary resources. At the Migros Pioneer Fund, promising new pioneering projects are being launched in the form of Discuss it, SimpleTrain, Twiliner, Geneva ImpACTs and AlgorithmWatch Schweiz.

Ideas for positive social change sometimes strike like lightning, spark waves of enthusiasm and stay in people's minds in the short and long term. But that isn't enough. These ideas need to be implemented in reality and take off in the long term – which also requires a lot of entrepreneurial skills, drive and the guts needed to persevere. Last but not least, they need a sound business plan and the necessary start-up funding. Each year, an average of ten to twelve new projects are added to the Migros Pioneer Fund portfolio. In this article, we will present five new additions:

Watching out for the «political grumps»

The Discuss it team brings lots of energy and enthusiasm to the table. The not-for-profit organisation works to strengthen democratic values on a voluntary basis by promoting young people's participation in and enthusiasm for politics as early as possible, so that young people can have a say instead of letting others decide for them.

Group photo of the four members of the operational project team of Discuss it

The operational project team behind Discuss it: Isabelle Ruckli, development and partnerships; Sven Egloff, recruiting and organisation; Raffael von Arx, offers and networking, and Melanie Studerus, communications and IT (from left to right) (Photo: supplied)

To reach even the «political grumps» among the youth, Discuss it targets Swiss secondary and vocational training schools directly. The approximately 50 members have already organised over 150 events on current political issues, referenda and elections over the past three years. «We want to use the school events to make politics tangible, highlight different perspectives and get young people actively involved,» says Pascal Spähni, founder of Discuss it.

With the support of the Migros Pioneer Fund, this offering from Discuss it will now be professionalised and developed throughout Switzerland. A four-person project team took on the operational leadership and is working to drive forward the further development of the association structures and regional teams. «We are looking forward to meeting new people, institutions and regions with whom we can share our enthusiasm for getting young people involved in politics,» says Melanie Studerus, project leader for communications and IT at Discuss it.

Sustainable railway travel

The SimpleTrain team is also looking to raise enthusiasm – this time for sustainable travel. The pioneering project wants to show how easy and pleasant train travel can be – even for more far-flung destinations. «For me, travelling through Europe by train has always been the most convenient and cost-effective way of discovering new destinations,» says Marius Portmann, who launched SimpleTrain together with Austin Widmer and Linus Egli. The students notice in their environment, however, that the time needed to find the best and cheapest train connections abroad presents a big hurdle for many people (too big for some) and that there is a lack of inspiration when it comes to train travel.

Group photo of the SimpleTrain pioneering project team, taken in a station building

The team behind the pioneering project SimpleTrain: Saskia Bilang, Austin Widmer, Marius Portmann, Karin Hugentobler and Linus Egli (from left to right) (Photo: Sascha Deboni)

This is where SimpleTrain comes in: supported by the Migros Pioneer Fund, the pioneering project is creating a central platform that, in addition to travel tips, offers a booking service. That gives travellers an uncomplicated way of purchasing train tickets for the quickest, cheapest connections throughout Europe. SimpleTrain wants to make switching to environmentally friendly travel easy. Marius Portmann hopes that the project will continue to travel full steam ahead this year as planned, despite COVID-19 and any travel restrictions. The launch of the platform is scheduled for the start of April.

The overnight coach of the future

The pioneering project Twiliner also wants to play its part in making travel within Europe sustainable. The project team has not set its sights on train travel, however, but wants to bring the «overnight sleeper coach of the future» to the streets. This is intended for use in places where there is currently a lack of environmentally friendly alternatives – for example, if there are no night bus connections. «We are convinced that people increasingly want to remain on the ground – for themselves, the environment and future generations,» says project leader Luca Bortolani.

The project team is still at the beginning of its journey: the main feature of the coaches – their high-comfort seats with the ability to recline back fully, compliant with European safety guidelines – is something that has never been done before. They first need to be developed and approved by the competent authorities. «The first milestone is set to be achieved by the end of the year,» says Luca Bortolani. «By then, we would like to have developed a high-comfort seat that can be transformed into a comfortable bed.»

Photo of Ivan Mele (left) and Luca Bortolani (core team of the Twiliner pioneering project) sitting at a laptop

Ivan Mele (left) and Luca Bortolani are the team behind the pioneering project Twiliner. (Photo: supplied)

2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development at the top of the agenda

Geneva impACTs celebrated the launch of its new website a few weeks ago. The initiative, which was brought to life by think-and-do-tank Geneva Macro Labs, is one of the latest projects of the Migros Pioneer Fund in the area of «Collaborative innovation». It counts, after all, on a variety of stakeholders connecting with each other, thus promoting collaboration over competition.

Geneva impACTs would like to play a role in our (at least near) achievement of the 17 global Sustainable Development Goals as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. «We want to establish sustainable development goals as a guideline, as well as a fixed component of innovation and development, including and especially in the start-up scene,» says Renate Guenther, who is responsible for business development at Geneva impACTs.

Group photo of the Geneva impACT project team on a platform

The project team at Geneva impACTs: Dr. Ekkehard Ernst, President Geneva Macro Labs; Jörn Erbguth, legal and IT; Renate Günther, business development; Robert Zapfel, project management, and Dr Marianne Schörling, stakeholder engagement and impact (from left to right) (Photo: supplied)

Specifically, Geneva impACTs works with experts and investors to develop project concepts that directly contribute to the UN development goals and ensures they have the financing they need. These projects are then put out to tender for implementation in the start-up scene. The first pilot project was launched in January with a design thinking workshop. Renate Guenther and the team are delighted to now be taking steps towards achieving their joint vision: «We want to show that start-up funding can go hand in hand with the objectives of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.» This is a first in Switzerland, which is set to become the new standard.

Anna Mätzener, project leader of AlgorithmWatch Switzerland

Anna Mätzener, project manager at AlgorithmWatch Switzerland (Photo: Julia Bornkessel).

Trust in algorithms?

The Algorithm Watch initiative is also new in Switzerland. Based on the model of its German counterpart, AlgorithmWatch Switzerland was launched last autumn and has already received a lot of attention in its first few months (cf. NZZ am Sonntag and FM1today). In January, the Swiss Edition of the Automating Society Report 2020 was published. This highlights the role that algorithms – applications that automatically analyse data and prepare or make decisions – play in our lives. They also formulate recommendations for action for politics, public authorities and society.

We want to ensure that algorithmic decision-making processes are fair, inclusive and non-discriminatory and that those responsible are held accountable.

AlgorithmWatch Switzerland believes that a society can only trust the decision-making processes of algorithms if it knows how they work, which objectives they pursue and how these processes are controlled. The not-for-profit organisation is therefore pushing for more transparency and regulation. «We want to ensure that algorithmic decision-making processes are fair, inclusive and non-discriminatory and that those responsible are held accountable,» says project manager Anna Mätzener. AlgorithmWatch Switzerland not only analyses algorithmic decision-making processes, but also explains their impacts on society to a wide audience.

An overview of all pioneering projects currently made possible by the Migros Pioneer Fund can be found here. The portfolio will be updated with new projects on an ongoing basis.

Your opinion