Towards the end of most conversations that I have with political stakeholders and business leaders, the following question arises: “Tell me, Florian. What are Estonia’s plans for the future?” In response to this, I would mention the 50+ AI use cases we want to have up and running by the end of this year or about the KrattAI concept that will revolutionise the way we think about service delivery. The task that I would spend the most time discussing, however, is that of pushing the rest of the world towards digital topics. In the EU, this means working on system interoperability so that, one day, an Estonian tourist in Spain could get prescription medicine from a Spanish doctor on the basis of their electronic ID. In the United Nations Security Council, this entails discussing cyber law and attribution – bearing in mind that Estonia was the first ever country to put this topic on the UNSC’s agenda. To call this a mission of Herculean proportions would be an understatement.
Piecemeal digitalisation efforts, bit by bit
The easiest way of implementing such disruptive changes can often be to first try it out on a smaller scale. In many ways, the upcoming 3 Seas Virtual Summit hosted in Tallinn on 19th of October will provide ample opportunity to see how cross-border cooperation on digital issues can work out. For the uninitiated, the 3 Seas Initiative links together 12 member states between the Baltic Sea, Adriatic Sea, and the Black Sea – ranging from Estonia to Slovenia and Bulgaria. This corridor is home to some of the most dynamic economies in the EU but in terms of infrastructure – be it with regards to digitalisation, electricity, or road connections – one of the least connected. The good news is that several member states have already chipped in millions of Euros into the so-called 3 Seas Initiative Investment Fund that seeks to rectify these strategic shortcomings. Poland and Romania have already contributed with more than €500 million and plucky Estonia, too, has pledged €20 million, with the US as an external supporter indicating investments of around $1 billion to the region. Crucially, the Fund is financing profitable projects only and does not issue grants that don’t have to be paid back. That’s quite a bit of money but also doesn’t come close to the €40 billion or more that the EU spends in this part of the globe each year, so you needn’t worry that the 3S Initiative might become some sort of parallel or even undermining structure to the EU.
So, what will the money be spent on?
Good question! We don’t know yet! But as part of its focus on Smart Connectivity, these are the areas that the Fund will look at in particular:
- Smart enablers: Topics in this area include everything from cross-border recognition of digital identities and e-signatures to interoperable data exchange layers (such as the X-Road). Indeed, I view this as the main issue that the EU as a whole continues to struggle with as well. A unified approach in this diverse part of Europe would provide a useful best practice experience for the rest of the continent.
- Smart mobility: This section refers to the logistics corridor connecting the 3S member states and it faces great challenges. The road network certainly merits further expansion but there is also the necessity to implement technological solutions: seeing as the majority of member states also share the longest contingent external border of the Schengen area and EU as a whole, software solutions to automate border crossings and speed up administrative procedures between customs authorities could be positively life-changing.
- Smart energy: Arguably the strategic Achilles heel of Eastern Europe, the electricity grid, pipelines, and thus big chunks of the energy market are tied to our neighbour in the east, Russia. Stronger investments and political support could mean the implementation of smart and resilient electricity grids, sustainable energy solutions, and the movement towards a circular economy.
That’s a lot of “Smart” stuff!
It is! And it’s about time! When reading the core documents of the 3 Seas Virtual Summit, it was fantastic to see how the Initiative has truly come to understand and appreciate digitalisation as one of the tools that can fundamentally overhaul and streamline the region. The word “Smart” comes up so frequently, that the 3S Initiative might as well change its name to the 4S Initiative. Still, we have to give these developments time – the continent continues to contend with Covid-19 and simply has lots of other things to do – but seeing these topic areas at the heart of the 3 Seas Initiative fills me with optimism for the upcoming years!
Join Three Seas Virtual Summit and Web Forum on 19th of October at 14:15 (Tallinn time)
Digital Transformation Adviser at the e-Estonia Briefing Centre