When companies actually care about their communities


I am sitting in a conference listening to a presentation by Luc Tissot, the current CEO of the Tissot watch company in Switzerland. He points out that his company is in the middle of ‘watch country’ in the canton of Neuchatel in Switzerland.

“When the electronic watch appeared on the market, our industry was devastated. Our community lost 30 per cent of its population,” he says. How did Tissot react?

Luc Tissot set up a foundation. The purpose was to revitalise the community by creating a new high-tech industrial base. It had to be high-tech because that is all that the Swiss cost base can reasonably support. No race to the bottom mentality in Switzerland. The foundation sought help from Swiss investors and Swiss know-how from pharmaceutical and other medical technology companies. They all helped willingly – a sign of the social cohesion and community spirit that still prevails in Switzerland.

One of the results is Tissot Medical Research and a company that now makes hi-tech contact lenses with embedded digital sensors that can measure intra-ocular pressure and transmit results directly to ophthalmologists. But that is not all. The whole Canton of Neuchatel has become somewhat of a cluster of med-tech start-up companies. The community is thriving and growing.

Such a story is almost inconceivable in the UK. When communities are devastated as a result of technological disruption, we reach for two tools: welfare payments to keep people fed but unemployed (still, after 40 years, a scourge in former mining communities), and sometimes, maybe, some kind of government intervention to try to revitalise areas – intervention that most often fails.

Yet communities have skills. They have initiative. But in the UK, community spirit has been eroded. As has the belief that communities can use their own resources to revitalise themselves. Neither are there many substantial family-owned companies that care about their community enough to try to revitalise them when their own business goes South.

Instead we have companies that close down facilities and go to seek new pastures elsewhere, maybe throwing a bit of money around before they leave for ‘re-training.’ So the gap is left for government to fill. Though well-intentioned, initiatives are inevitably bureaucratic and tend to top-down approaches rather than ones that cultivate bottom-up co-creation initiatives as with Tissot.

It is not clear that anything like the Tissot initiative can ever be developed in the UK until we re-discover a true sense of community and start believing in the ability of people to be creative. And in their desire to do things for themselves without being stifled by highly centralised mentalities.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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