Digitizing Outdoor Uncertainty in Valais


Uncertainty is part of the appeal for people who love high-risk outdoor adventure in the Swiss Alps. Ask anyone who indulges in risky outdoor sports (and lived to talk about it). They’ll recall with absolute clarity outdoor adventures when uncertainty turned into sheer terror — or enchanting bliss.

Hell can only be a night like that and cold like that,” Tommaso Piccioli, told Italy’s Corriere Della Sera. An experienced Alpine ski tourer, Italian architect, Piccioli, was one of the few survivors from a deadly misfortune on the Haute Route in the Valais Alps, April 29, 2018.

When we reached the peak of Baird, we stop, astonished at the ranges that fold themselves around us … the sheer mass and variety and spread of them, the way they fill the world with wonder. Neither of us speaks. Both of us are near tears.” Excerpt from Jefferson Slagle essay, “Bottomless.” Creative NonFiction #68, Fall 2018.

Managing the uncertainty inherent in Alpine sports is the job of outdoor professionals, a.k.a. mountain guides. Of roughly 15’000 professionals working in Switzerland, Valais authorities estimate 1’800 outdoor professionals (including 500 Mountain Guides) are active in their canton.

Managing the certainty

But if managing the uncertainty of a risky Alpine sport is part of a guide’s duty, managing the certainty of professional guides’ qualifications is the job of Swiss authorities where high-risk outdoor activities take place. In canton Valais, it’s Department of Economic Affairs, Tourism and Innovation that delivers and controls Swiss and foreign guides’ authorization. Digitizing the process provided a perfect motive for an innovation challenge, “MontagnePro – A Digital Platform For Outdoor Professionals.”

“We bet that by October 2018 we realize a digital authorization process for all risk-sensitive outdoor activities. By April 2019, all 1500 outdoor professionals will be certified/validated in Valais with their real-time status visible by their customers. By 2020, extension to all outdoor professionals within Switzerland is done.”

No business case

Similar to the bet, Digital Founding Process using Blockchain, MontagnePro is attempting to solve a uniquely Swiss administrative problem. Which as last season’s successful blockchain bet demonstrated, provides bet sponsor Valais, and their partners like Swiss insurer, La Vaudoise, a motive for collaboration where no commercial business case can be made.

When investigating digitalization of Swiss incorporation, I learned Blockchain project owners tend to be tightlipped until their tech is tested and operational. Jérôme Salamin and Joël Rossier, innovation managers employed by bet partner, CimArk, were more confident or more outspoken when we met at digitalswitzerland’s January 2019 bet workshop in Lausanne’s Gotham co-working space.

60 Day sprint

With only 2 months left to complete their bet, Jérôme assured me, “The process is totally digitized. It means that if you are a mountain professional, you can ask for an authorization online and receive your documents electronically, signed by the Canton du Valais.” Which wasn’t surprising since their bet states the process work would be done by October, so I asked them, ‘what else?’ Joël answered, “What we did until now is automatize all processes online. In the second step, we’ll have automatization and real-time status by April – and for that, we still have to connect with a professional association in order to automatically get information from different (mountain guide) associations.”

As certain as the two young men were about completing their bet, uncertain were my chances of interviewing former President of CVP Switzerland, and bet Captain, Christophe Darbellay, Chief of the Valais Department of Economics and Education. So I was relieved to learn former acquaintance, Eric Bianco, Head of Valais Office of Economy, Tourism and Innovation, was a spokesperson for their bet.

Facelift or surgery?

Before calling, I checked out the canton’s existing website, montagnepro.ch, that Joël and Jérôme had mentioned earlier. I found the stylish trilingual site (FR/DE/EN) offered a news feed, info links, an application page for guides to register and a directory of outdoor sport professionals. Was I mistaken? or was this bet more a renovation than innovation?

Musing over my first impression, I recalled a conversation with Stefan Schöbi, former challenge steering committee chair, for a story I wrote about newly launched Open Challenge. Stefan had said, Pursuit of innovation is very simple, because there’s no such thing as alchemy (seemingly magical process of transformation) to create innovation. It’s the combination of already known things.

In that context, it’s clear MontagnePro is a solid innovation play with the potential to punch above its weight class. A few days later Eric threw gasoline on my smoldering thoughts.

Geometry of innovation

“The way we plan to use the blockchain is actually to invert the whole process,” he said. Because after MontagnePro’s blockchain smart contracts are operational, Eric continued, “that’s the only time guides need to do the paperwork.” The biggest change, in Eric’s view, is the flip-side of enabling real-time customer validation of guides’ authorization: real-time cantonal compliance monitoring.

If 24×7 controlling sounds Orwellian, consider the 18 tourists and 3 guides who died in 1999 while canyoning near Interlaken. Following the tragic accident, which brought negligent homicide sentencing for the company that organized the activity, the Swiss federation imposed stringent regulations for outdoor professionals requiring cantonal oversight. Frédéric La Sala, Coordinator for the mountain guides and organizers of high-risk activities commission of the State of Valais, emailed, “Until last year we were giving authorizations by paper – and once a year we published the list of authorized professionals. Customers had nearly no chance to control if the professional he was hiring had authorization or not.”

Whole lot of paperwork

Having never applied for authorization to guide T4 alpine hikes or lead WT3 off-piste skiing, I failed to appreciate the lengths professional Swiss guides must go to stay legal. Eric filled me in, “Guides need to prove they have a federal diploma (FA), that they have followed continuous training to ensure their capabilities are up to date and have CHF 5 million insurance that covers the risk for customers. And they have to make the paperwork to prove those things; every four years for federal authorization – every year for the canton.”

That’s a whole lot of time and paperwork demanded from individuals who have intentionally shunned the office cubical to make a career of being outdoors. Take Markus Glättli for example. Eight years ago, he walked away from the indoor comfort zone as a developer for a Swiss blue chip to found outdoor tour company, hike.ch. In mid-January, between leading a snowshoe hike in the Simmental and a group tour to pristine Finnish Lapland, Markus made time to share a café table and his thoughts with me near his home in Wädenswill.

Minimal risk – maximum security

MontagnePro bet states, “Customers want a guarantee that their instructor/guide possesses the required skills and satisfies legal, regulatory and social obligations …” I asked Markus how a customer can validate a professional guide’s credentials today. Markus said, “it’s really difficult … they have to rely on the information you put on your website. Maybe they contact the Association, but I don’t think many people know to do that. So yea, it’s quite difficult.”

A few days later, Frédéric emailed me the canton’s position, “By controlling the professional, the aim of Canton Valais and the confederation is to guaranty a certain level of quality and to allow customers to practice those activities in a maximum of security.” Eric had said the same thing, “We want that people enjoy the mountains and they contract with professionals to let them experience the best activities you can do in the mountains.

Small world big vision

Based on conversations with Valais’ bet team and partners, by April they are certain MontagnePro will be operational. But the main reason I award this bet even odds to win, is their vision of what more their bet might inspire. Valais may be a small corner of the world. Yet perhaps they have a wider view from the mountains which dominate their land. Eric hopes others also see the obvious,”… that for every activity where the state or local community has to give an authorization, you could do it the same way (we) do it for mountain professionals.”

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