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We analyze the problem of switching controls for control systems endowed with different actuators. The goal is to control the dynamics of the system by switching from an actuator to another in a systematic way so that, at each instant of time, only one actuator is active. We first address a finite-dimensional model and show that, under suitable rank conditions, switching control strategies exist and can be built in a systematic way. To do this we introduce a new variational principle building a new functional based on the adjoint system whose minimizers yield the switching controls. When the above rank condition fails, the same variational strategy applies but the controls obtained this way fail to be of switching form since they may be, for some instants of time, convex combinations of both controllers. We then address the same issue for the 1-d heat equation endowed with two pointwise controls. We show that, due to the time analyticity of solutions, under suitable conditions on the location of the controllers, switching control strategies exist. We also show that the controls we obtain are optimal in the sense that, for instance, for two scalar valued controls, they are of minimal L2 (0, T; ℝ2)-norm, the space ℝ2 being endowed with the l1-norm. We also discuss some possible extensions to multi-dimensional heat equations which require a preliminary analysis of generic properties of the spectrum that, as far as we know, are not yet well understood. © European Mathematical Society 2011.