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When the sun is out, it’s hard not to like Geneva. The city wraps itself round either side of the lake, with parks and gardens all the way down to the lakeshore on both sides. Proximity to water and mountains means its air feels fresh, while its small population, well-ordered streets and excellent public transport make for a relaxing contrast with the hurly-burly of London.

But it has its seedier side too. There’s the odd spot of graffiti and the occasional beggar on the trams. In some side streets, drugs and sex are fairly openly on sale. A senior figure from the City of London once told me he knew of several people whose luxury flats there had been comprehensively turned over by well-organised burglars.

Geneva is home to dozens of private banks, and the price of just about everything reflects that. Even by Swiss standards, it’s an eye-wateringly expensive city that feels perhaps a little too smug for its own good. Marvelling at the sheer pointlessness of the Jet d’Eau – a fountain that blasts water from the lake 140 metres into the air – I’m reminded of that Orson Welles quip about 500 years of brotherly love, democracy and peace producing nothing more inspiring than the cuckoo clock.

Jostling with bankers for tables at the city’s restaurants are officials from any number of non-governmental organisations, including various branches of the UN, the Red Cross, and the World Trade Organization. During a free afternoon, my main objective is to visit another of their number.

The work of the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, or Cern, hit the headlines in 2012, when scientists there finally proved the existence of the long-postulated Higgs boson. I studied physics for a while at university; for two terms in my second year I was taught by Albert Bore, a specialist in nuclear reactor physics who later became leader of Birmingham city council and was knighted in 2002. The mathematics of subatomic particles is daunting but the basic concepts and questions are so fundamental as to be childlike: what are we made of? What was there before the universe? These are questions that always fascinated me, and which Cern’s boffins are seeking to answer.

The complex dates from 1954 and won’t win any awards for architecture; sitting at the end of a tram line, it looks like a cross between a university campus and a military base. There are two permanent exhibitions, which make a reasonably good fist of explaining very abstract theories in a way that non-PhD students might understand. But the guided tour, which I booked months in advance, is a disappointment. Admittedly, this is partly because my French is not up to the job (the earlier tour in English was fully booked). But it’s also because the thick end of two hours is spent watching video presentations and listening to what sounds rather like one of Dr Bore’s lectures, not looking around the actual facility and its astonishing engineering.

The closest we get to the spectacular Large Hadron Collider is peering through the window of the control room, which looks rather like a tidier version of the FT newsroom – no piles of newspapers or dirty coffee cups here (although, oddly, there is a bright yellow bathtub duck perched on one of the workstations). Nor do we get a peek at any of the smaller particle accelerators constructed at Cern over the years.

After I returned to Britain, I wondered whether I was being churlish; after all, Cern is a working laboratory, not a physics theme park. A quick browse on TripAdvisor suggests a polarisation of views. Those who get to descend into the chamber and see its inner workings have a great time. Many of those who don’t, come away, like me, rather bemused. As an alternative I look up the Collider exhibition at London’s Science Museum, only to find it has closed (it’s now at the Museum of Science & Industry in Manchester).

One thing Cern does explain quite well is, perhaps, its greatest spin-off. Among its prized exhibits is the old NeXT workstation used by a British IT contractor working there in 1991. Frustrated by the problems of sharing information with other scientists around the world, Tim Berners-Lee and his colleagues came up with what they termed the “world wide web”. The first ever website, functional and practical like everything else at Cern, can still be seen at info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html.

The following day I’m in the chair at a family office forum organised by the FT’s trade publications at the President Wilson Hotel, its opulence a contrast to the anonymous Cern complex. There are the usual debates about asset allocation and the challenges of making wealth last. But the most interesting parts of the day are the discussions about succession planning and philanthropy.

Pity the “next gens” is one surprising message. The children of the very well-off are often woefully ill-prepared for the task of stewarding family wealth or of stepping into the shoes of an entrepreneurial parent at a family business. Wealth accumulated by one generation is often completely dispersed by the following two, hence the famous saying “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations”.

One suggestion was that offspring should be packed off to big multinationals to learn their trade and make mistakes with someone else’s money before returning to the family fold. Another more radical one is what might be termed the “Sting solution” – give most of the money away and force your children to make their own ways in life.

A growing industry stands ready to help those wanting to do good with their fortune. Philanthropy may have started out as a mix of tax mitigation and public relations – charitable donations look good and are usually tax-deductible. But “social impact investing” is now big business, and entrepreneurial types increasingly want to be more involved.

During the panel debate, we hear how tennis star Roger Federer (career earnings $81m) is in regular contact with those who oversee his eponymous foundation. For his parents, the foundation is practically a full-time job. Mark Weingard, who made millions from trading software but lost his fiancée in the 2002 Bali bombings, talks passionately about the venture he set up to provide healthcare and education to the needy in southeast Asia.

I’m reminded of this discussion a few hours later. I arrive back in Britain just in time to see England’s grotesquely overpaid footballers huff and puff their way to another early World Cup exit. Some players, such as Didier Drogba and Craig Bellamy, are well-known for their charitable work but the sport is more often associated with tax avoidance than good causes. Perhaps players need to up their game off the field or maybe, like Cern, they need to do a better job of getting their message across.

Jonathan Eley is editor of FT Money

Illustration by John Ferguson


Letter in response to this article:

Times of war and peace in Switzerland/ Mr John O’Byrne

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