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Estonian digital development is now founded on green foundation

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Digitalisation is one of the staple answers to the surmounting need for achieving sustainability, as it streamlines processes, and saves resources. However, how can the expanding edifice of digitalisation itself correspond to the challenge of transition to a green economy?

This question has moved both Estonian public and private organizations to update their aims and operational logic.

Green IT entrepreneurs, but not tree huggers 

The IT sector emits about 2% of the greenhouse gases and with the accelerating digitalization, emissions may rise above 14% by 2040. Estonian Association of Information Technology and Telecommunications (ITL), an NGO inducing co-operation among IT companies, has recently elected a new member of the board, Mattias Männi, who works directly towards tackling this issue for ICT companies in Estonia. 

A blond man facing the camera
Mattias Männi. Photo credit: ITL. 

“I am definitely not a tree hugger. I am an ICT businessman, and we are often more about ones and zeroes. But I do want to leave a decent planet for my son,” Mr. Männi, Member of Board at Corle, an energy and telecommunications infrastructure company, explains the background for his motivation. 

“In my daily work, I witnessed a discrepancy between power engineers and ICT people. While energy people talk about the environment all the time, IT and communications people often saw themselves as the solution, not as a problem. At the same time, there is pressure from the EU, from the greening of the capital. I wanted to make sense of all of this, and apparently, so do the rest of the members of ITL,” Mr. Männi elaborates.

Mr. Männi’s platform that got him elected consisted of three types of activities in the ITL: mapping of digital policies, standards, and relevant organizations that influence the constraints and opportunities for ICT companies in Estonia; creation of a tool for calculating the environmental footprint of those companies; and a road map for developing greener ICT products and solutions.

“I have been surprised by the support I have gotten for this. 70 companies immediately participated in the information seminar we organized and we have a regular working group with 20 companies. Although there is a lot of harmonizing to be done among our 112 members, I am very positive we will achieve our aims in the two years I promised,” Mr. Männi concludes.

New green aims for government agencies

The developments in the private sector are paralleled by very similar ones in the public sector. The new Development Plan of Digital Society prepared by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communication, published this month, now defines sustainability as one of the criteria for the development of IT solutions. 

“On the one hand, Estonia is renowned for its digital public sector, and the international community is observing keenly what we are doing in the realm of sustainability transition,” Mr. Tammo, Head of Trade and Innovation Centre at Enterprise Estonia (EAS), explains the background. “On the other hand, our IT companies are also inquiring about the visions and guidelines of the state. Noblesse oblige, as the French say.”

A man with glasses and an arm tattoo facing the camera
Mihkel Tammo. Photo credit: Rene Riisalu. 

The Development Plan engulfs both activities of the public sector and the support for the private sector. For its hands-on work with government agencies, Mr. Tammo has defined three practical target groups: the public sector itself, its support for products and services, and the digital community. The “Basic” scenario foresees updating existing processes to correspond to green standards. Still, they also have a more ambitious “Basic+” scenario, which aims at developing new services specially designed for pushing Green Transition even further. In practical terms, what Mr. Tammo does at EAS, is very similar to the aims that Mr. Männi is working on at ITL. 

“We start with charting the environmental footprint of the ICT in the public sector. This includes an analysis of whether the public service model will hold in the context of Green Transition. Making sustainability education part of all our training programs, be it for civil servants or entrepreneurs, is step two. Step three is pushing the ambition of the public sector in Estonia in such ways that it will become the leader in sustainability transition, and start pushing companies with our examples and vision,” Mr. Männi states. 

Strong links between public and private sectors

The similarity in the aims of both government and business fields creates a robust platform for future developments that boost Green Transition. In that vein, according to Margit Martinson, Deputy Secretary-General at the Ministry of the Environment, Estonia plans to make all environmental data gathered and stored by public organizations available for the private sector. This allows companies to develop new products and services that can consider the environment better.

“We hope that Estonia will be a test-ground for developing new environmentally conscious IT solutions,” Ms. Martinson suggests. “For the public sector, this allows considering weather data, for example, not as a cost item, but as a resource and input for companies.” 

Mr. Tammo, too, suggests the links should be made stronger. Besides his work at the Enterprise Estonia, Mr. Tammo is a member of the advisory board in Rohetiiger (Estonian for Green Tiger), an NGO which boosts Green Transition among Estonian companies through pilots, schooling, and networking. 

“Digitalisation is continuously the foundation of green transition,” Mr. Tammo is confident. “Digitalisation not only increases efficiency; it allows us to rethink certain processes from the start. I think there is a great opportunity for business and government sectors to work together in this. Think eclectic cars, for example. As we need infrastructure for their loading, storing, and even traffic control, they are inseparably connected to IT solutions and approaches that combine both sectors. And in doing so, we need to pass the test of sustainability.”

Convergence of bottom-up and top-down responses to sustainability transition injects hope that this is not only doable but also achievable, and Estonia can provide a working example soon.

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Written by
Peeter Vihma

social scientist at the university of helsinki and the estonian university of life sciences

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