Oliver Väärtnõu is the CEO of Cybernetica, a company that played a leading role in developing X-Road – the backbone of the Estonian digital state. We will be directing our spotlight on his experiences prior to our upcoming Digital Discussion on March 10, where he is one of the high-profile international panelists discussing digitalisation challenges and the national digital strategies of Estonia, Singapore, the UK, and the OECD.
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Cybernetica is inarguably the Estonian IT company with the oldest pedigree. The company was established in 1997 as Küberneetika AS, but is a successor to the applied research unit of the Institute of Cybernetics at the Estonian Academy of Sciences, which was set up back in 1960. The firm really gained steam in the 2000s, leading the development of X-Road, the e-customs system, and helped to deploy internet voting.
An R&D hub
Today, Cybernetica specialises in cybersecurity, data exchange technologies, digital identity technologies, information security systems, and surveillance systems. It also hasn’t forgotten its academic roots and maintains an in-house information security research institute.
“Our scientists publish scientific publications every year and speak at weighty international conferences,” Väärtnõu noted in an interview to the magazine Sirp. “I would like to stress that these are researchers employed by a private company, whose publications are of a very high level and are internationally competitive.”
Väärtnõu took the helm of Cybernetica in 2014, the same year the company introduced its Unified Exchange Platform (UXP), which has since been adopted by Japan, Ukraine, Aruba, Benin, and Greenland. He has overseen the roll out of SplitKey, a mobile identity technology and the Estfeed SmartGrid platform. Last year, the firm introduced a next-generation consent management platform for UXP that added interoperability features, enabling individuals to directly control data usage. The tools were piloted in Japan at Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Bank.
Indeed, exporting Estonian solutions has become a focus for Cybernetica under Väärtnõu’s leadership, but in many ways, there is a convergence of need as countries large and small have to manage ever increasing complexity.
“Estonia is increasingly encountering similar problems as larger countries, such as how to update their systems and keep them up to date, because the world is changing at such a crazy rate that new and innovative solutions are already outdated tomorrow,” Väärtnõu told Sirp. “In order to be at the forefront of the development of information technology, we need to move even faster and invest even more, and bring more good people into the sector,” he said. “We need to come up with a vision of what the next big things we want to do are.”
Väärtnõu has always worked in IT and holds a master’s degree in innovation and technology policy from the University of Sussex in the UK. Before joining Cybernetica, he was director of the Government Strategy Office in Estonia. He also was CEO of Eliko, a Tallinn-based company that develops next-generation location tracking solutions. Väärtnõu has also worked as a consultant before, with extensive experience in management and international relations in Scandinavia.
A means for survival
Given this breadth of experience, Väärtnõu has come to see that digitalisation is a means for companies and institutions to survive in the modern era. “I always ask critics what the alternatives are,” Väärtnõu told Sirp. “Are we going back to paperwork? Are we going to live in a country with a paper bureaucracy again?” He noted that while countries have different ideas of personal identity and its relationship to the state, they are still all headed in a digital direction.
“If there is a desire to offer people better public sector services, then there are no alternatives to digital solutions,” said Väärtnõu to Sirp. “Actually, there are alternatives,” he noted, “but again they are digital solutions. There are quite good alternatives to the ID-card, such as mobile-ID, Smart-ID and biometrics-based solutions,” added Väärtnõu, “and there will definitely be more.
He commented in a recent interview with IT News that the pandemic has also created opportunities for the Estonian IT sector to showcase its solutions. “Estonia has certainly stood out in the crisis because we have not had any barriers to the provision of services to citizens, even when the country was locked down,” Väärtnõu said. This has raised the market values of Estonian IT firms, he pointed out, and, in his opinion, improved the image of e-government.