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Interview Laurent Haug: ”Connecting people with ideas, and ideas with people”

Monday 03.03.2014 Christian Walter
Christian Walter

Christian Walter ist Geschäftsführer und Redaktionsleiter von swiss made software. Bis Ende 2010 arbeitete er als Fachjournalist für das ICT-Magazin Netzwoche, publizierte zuletzt aber auch im Swiss IT Magazin, der Computerworld sowie inside-it.

Laurent Haug is best known for having founded the international Lift conference. In this interview, he talks about his original idea, its subsequent development, his departure and his new activities.

More about Laurent Haug
Laurent Haug

Laurent Haug is the founder of Lift, Switzerland’s first ideas conference on the subject of innovation, technology and society. He grew the event from 360 participants in 2006 to over a 1000 in 2012. In 2012 he left Lift to pursue new goals. Today he is a consultant, public speaker and partner at Anthemis Group. 200Ideas is his newest foray into the event business. He was twice honored as one of the most influential persons in Switzerland (L’Hebdo in 2006, Bilan in 2011), won a Swiss ICT award, and was named one of the top 20 Swiss young entrepreneurs in 2011. He originally hails from Reims in France and came to Switzerland in 1994, where he studied business at the University of Lausanne.

swiss made software: How did Lift come about?

Laurent Haug: In 2004 I worked for a very large and successful company. Though it had been clear to me since the 90’s that the internet would bring about fundamental changes, my employer had that very Swiss belief that things can never change too radically, that there is no need to worry about emerging models and technologies. I did not agree with that vision at all. Around the same time I attended a conference called Reboot in Denmark. Its main theme was how the internet would change society, business and the world. Afterwards, I figured that we need this kind of discussion in Switzerland, and Lift was born.

So you decided to help Switzerland into the future?

Kind of. Maybe being a French immigrant allowed me to see this country from a different angle. In the late 90’s I studied at the University of Lausanne. There the tech infrastructure was so much better than what my friends had back home. Everyone had an email address and access to yahoo. and other early resources. This opened up all kinds of doors for me personally, while at the same time making me realize that Switzerland had the potential to be huge in the digital world. What was missing was awareness of this.

What made you think Switzerland was not fulfilling its potential?

If your business is information, all you need to do your job is internet access. So if you could choose where to live, Switzerland should be pretty high on anybody’s list, right? Especially once you have kids. We have great health care, good public schools, the country is very secure, there are plenty of well-educated English speakers, and we have worldclass research centers. The list is long. But somehow all this did not translate into Switzerland taking a leading role in this new digital world. I think my work at Lift was about trying to make locals realize the potential they had. I wanted to create a platform for the kind of discourse I knew was vital to navigate the future of society as a whole.

That sounds rather grandiose.

Maybe, but I think time has proven me right to some degree. If you look at the topics we covered in 2006: DRM, data security, freedom of expression, etc. Essentially these are all deep social questions. I remember distinctly being interviewed at the time and hearing that what I was putting together was a nerd conference. I don’t think anybody would make this claim today. These themes have gone mainstream now. Nobody can ignore the privacy issues technologies are raising, for example.

So Lift isn’t really a techie conference, right?

No, I always envisaged Lift to be more about technology’s impact on society. In my opinion, computers will cease to be considered as something separate from business or society. No company has an English department after all, though everybody speaks it. I think the same will be true about IT in the future. It will be everywhere, and stop being a topic by itself.

Did you have prior experience with organizing such events?

Not at all. Looking back, that was a good thing. Had I been aware of all the risks involved, I might not have done it. For example, in 2006 I booked the conference room just three weeks in advance. At the time, the conference center’s staff thought I was completely crazy since bookings tend to be made a year in advance. In my mind that made perfect sense, though. I didn’t want to book before I knew how many people were coming. Needless to say we changed our approach the following year (laughs).

What was new about Lift?

We were the first to share our talks online for free. Today nearly everybody does that. We were among the first to use online ticketing as well. Though there was a bit of luck involved because right around then online ticketing companies like Amiando sprang up. We kind of helped each other into the world at large. Now Amiando is a very successful company that was sold to Xing.

Lift grew from just 360 participants to over a 1000 in seven years. Why did you leave the organization?

I was lucky and privileged to run Lift. The company experienced huge growth and I was able to organize close to 15 events on two continents in just seven years. But anybody running events knows how stressful a job it can be. After the birth of my first daughter, I wanted to travel less, settle down a bit more. And I felt that all the ingredients for Lift to continue without me were in place. Sylvie Reinhard, who joined the project in 2007, took over as CEO, thus providing continuity and adding to the stability provided by a visionary investor in the person of Abir Oreibi. I’m happy to let Lift continue in its current form, and in very capable hands.

So what are you doing now?

Because of my work as an innovation curator, people kept asking me to help them make sense of what is going on. So I became a consultant and a coach. I help my clients understand the impact of innovations on their business model, building innovation programs for large companies or working with lean startups. This turned me into a public speaker as well because my clients asked me to spread these ideas within their organizations. And now this has turned into another event — again.

Can you tell us a little about your new event?

It’s a short, local, intimate business gathering called 200ideas. Decision makers are notorious for their lack of time. 200ideas is a place where they can pick up the most important trends and innovations. They are presented in 200 minutes, for 200 francs. It was invitation only, and all content was recorded and made available free on the web. The first edition took place in French on the evening of November 11th.

Why French, isn’t that a bit retro?

I think global and local are not mutually exclusive. Ideas and technologies are global, but the way they interact with society is location-specific. Instead of doing one global event, I am now more interested in several local gatherings, all adapted to a specific place.

What else are you involved in?

I teach social media at the University of Lausanne, I do consulting in the event business and I’m a speaker mentor for Wired UK. Finally I am a venture partner with Anthemis, a company that is reinventing finance for the information economy. I also have some crazy not-for-profit projects. My favorite right now is teaching social media to people over 80. It’s one of the things I do to reconnect the generations.

You seem busier than ever.

In some ways yes, but I don’t work 20 hours a day. I just found a way to leverage my strengths into different channels. My take on innovations is my content. This is supplemented by this great network of people around me. And I bring all this to other people. I call it ‚Connecting people with ideas, and ideas with people‘.

Any perspective on the impact of recent events for the future?

I think Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA spying will have a huge impact. It might be the best thing that has happened to European IT in years.

Why is that?

Data security is important, especially for corporations. What Snowden has shown is that you can’t place your trust in US companies when it comes to sensitive, competitive information. If people in Europe are a bit smart about this, a huge market just opened for them.

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