SNV Story No. 12: Like a harmonious composition

To round off this year's series “Clear explanations for the complex world of standards”, we spoke with Urs Fischer, CEO of the Swiss Association for Standardization (SNV). With the stories he has to share and his wealth of experience, he once again proves that standardization work is more lively and sometimes less complicated than you'd think. We also provide a deeper insight into the world of standardization with some impressive and surprising figures.

How do you explain the complex world of standardization in simple terms to outsiders?
Urs Fischer: I use musical notes as an example. They are a convention, and function like a standard. Musical notes are the language for everyone who plays music, and they guarantee that a piece always sounds the same. They are also interoperable. They work everywhere in the world, regardless of which musical instrument is used to play them.
How do people come in contact with standards in everyday life?
Urs Fischer: Everyone benefits every day from standardization work, in most cases without being aware of it. This starts straight away in the morning when you switch on the coffee machine or brush your teeth, shower, and then put on moisturizer. The relative dentin abrasivity (RDA) value of toothpaste, for example, specifies how intensely it scrubs off dental plaque, making it easier for you to choose a toothpaste for sensitive teeth. The “Cosmetics” ISO committee deals with the skin tolerance tests for all creams, and provides people with the certainty that they can use the corresponding products without any concerns. If you then cycle to work, your bicycle helmet has been checked according to strict standards from CEN. Standards protect consumers every day.
What are new topics that were the subject of standardization work in 2023?
Urs Fischer: The current topics are very widely diversified. In the energy sector, we have just finalised a guideline for liquid methane plants in Switzerland. The topic of aptitude testing has appeared on the radar, as well as thoroughly professional guidance for apprentices, which was recorded in a set of guidelines. Internationally, topics relating to sustainability continue to advance. One example from the continually progressing field of digitalization is the ISO 12911:2023 standard, which deals with a framework for Building Information Modelling (BIM). The model describes how information from architects, planners and infrastructure operators must now all be available digitally without media disruption. This is an area in which we’re lagging behind here in Switzerland.
Sustainability is a topic that also has huge significance when it comes to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations. How does that play into ISO standards?
Urs Fischer: In 2015, the United Nations drew up an ambitious 15-year plan to address the most urgent problems in the world. The result of this was 17 topics of focus that are known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) . ISO contributes to all of these SDGs by developing and publishing relevant ISO standards together with the best experts worldwide. One absolute frontrunner here is “SDG 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure”. In total there are 14,515 ISO standards that count towards achieving this goal. Following behind, there are 3,594 ISO standards for “SDG 3: Good Health and Wellbeing”, and in third place, there are 3,198 ISO standards for “SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production”. Without the current international standards, industry and society would not be capable of meeting the necessary targets. ISO has made the commitment of working together with members, stakeholders and partners to ensure that ISO publications support the successful implementation of the UN’s Paris Agreement. ISO is also represented at international climate change conferences, most recently at the COP28 summit in Dubai not long ago.
Concrete standardization work takes place in committees and in the related working groups. Were any new committees established in 2023?
Urs Fischer: When we form committees in Switzerland, in most cases they are mirror committees. You can imagine them as foreign branches, as you’d see with companies. The last ones that we established were the “Hyperloop” and “Cannabis” committees. In my opinion, the topic of cannabis will take off again in 2024. Hemp is a sensational plant with many areas of use. There’s industrial hemp, hemp used for food, medicinal hemp and hemp for leisure. This last one is the one with an intoxicating effect that unfairly contributes to hemp’s bad reputation. At the moment we lack quality standards for the cultivation of hemp. The tolerance limits allowed for pesticide residues urgently need to be set so that food items for consumers, for example, offer no cause for concern.
Are committees sometimes disbanded?
Urs Fischer: Only very rarely. Now and again a committee is placed in a “dormant” status. That means the corresponding standards still have a port of call if any changes are necessary or if someone is looking for a point of contact. What happens more often is that two committees and their standards portfolios are combined together in order to avoid overlaps in topics.
Are there standards that were ready for publication but haven’t yet been published?
Urs Fischer: In my career at the SNV, which spans more than 20 years, I've only seen this happen once. It was around eight years ago when we were working on a European standard for halal food. At that time, individual representatives of Muslim society insisted that we mention the Quran in the references. However, this contradicts the principles of standardization work, which is strictly neutral when it comes to values. Standards do not have any political, religious or cultural dimension. Inclusion has been a topic for us for more than 100 years. It’s only when everyone has a voice that a standard attains the necessary credibility. The draft of the halal food quality standard has not been published to this day, and the work was stopped at that time.
Developing standards is a time-consuming process. Is that right?
Urs Fischer: This isn't the first time I've heard that. A common misconception here is that, for the market, it's not about the time but about the effectiveness of standards. One relevant time-waster for the development time is the principle of the unanimous vote. It all comes down to whether two or twenty parties are sitting at the table and how controversial the discussion on a topic is. Individual standardization projects require elaborate tests or a ring trial conducted by an external testing laboratory to make evidence-based statements that are incorporated into the standard. These are external factors that may seem like drains on time but are indispensable for a credible result.
Is there an example of a standard that was prepared in record time?
Urs Fischer: One that springs to mind is the one for community masks. With the outbreak of Covid, experts came crawling out of the woodwork from everywhere. Whether it was on the “Tagesschau”, “Arena” or “Kassensturz” programmes, the populace was being bombarded non-stop with differing opinions. The SNV was asked for help in putting an end to this situation and producing a consensus among everyone involved. At that time we wrote to the experts who had been appearing on television and the radio and gathered them around a table. Everyone came and hashed out their various views, and poured everything into a uniform mould. Due to sociopolitical pressure, we introduced a shortened procedure that led to a standards document known as a Swiss rule (SNR), and not to a traditional Swiss standard (SN). As a result, we were able to do without a public survey, which always takes three months. That is why SNRs have a limited lifespan. The idea is that an SNR can be transformed into a fully fledged SN within a prescribed amount of time, or is allowed to run out after that period has expired.
To finish up, is there anything you'd wish for in regard to standardization work?
Urs Fischer: Our colleagues in Asia are very committed when it comes to new advances and a physical presence in working groups or meetings. This year we were able to organize an international conference in Winterthur. The Chinese delegation arrived with a group of around 20 experts. For Europe there were only a few individuals from Germany, England and Scandinavia. Most preferred to attend via a web call. In standardization work, the conversations during breaks or shared meals are just as important as what happens in the meetings. I wish that the Europeans would take a page out of the book of Asian member states when it comes to getting involved.

Preview of SNV stories in 2024
You can look forward to exciting interviews with important personalities in the world of international standardization. They highlight what topics are relevant in their markets. In each case, Urs Fischer reflects on the current state of affairs from the Swiss point of view.

Urs Fischer

Urs Fischer has been the CEO of the SNV for seven years. He was a member of the ISO technical steering committee for a few years, and since January 2022 he has been a member of the CEN Executive Board.

Urs Fischer has been the CEO of the SNV for seven years. He was a member of the ISO technical steering committee for a few years, and since January 2022 he has been a member of the CEN Executive Board.

Urs Fischer has been the CEO of the SNV for seven years. He was a member of the ISO technical steering committee for a few years, and since January 2022 he has been a member of the CEN Executive Board.

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