When we talk about how to build up a digital society, the focus usually lies on the national rather than the more local, municipal level. Partially that’s because Estonia has a quite strongly centralised government that leaves comparably little room for service innovation and development on the local level.
But it’s arguably also the case that, by default, we’d ideally like to see an entire country digitalise, and not just one part of it. Recently, I went to Switzerland to see firsthand how digitalisation can also succeed in small communities.
My trip took me to the picturesque region of Viamala within the Canton of Graubünden, where I met up with two people on a mission, Petra Arends-Paltzer, and Marcin Zielinski. They have joined forces to help Switzerland digitalise in ways both big and small. On the macro level, I should mention that they organized the 2021 edition of the Davos Digital Forum just last week, which attracted tech giants like Google and political stakeholders alike. As for the micro-level…, that’s what this article is about!
Putting heads together
In truth, different parts of any given country face different challenges that can be solved with digital solutions. Villages, particularly if they are nestled along the beautiful Swiss Alps, have trouble keeping old and attracting new talent, which directly impacts healthcare, infrastructure, education, and much more. Petra and Marcin came up with the Smart Village concept that united a handful of municipalities in the quest for digital solutions to tackle these challenges.
Over two weeks, the pair set up four topical workshops that focused on e-Health, e-Mobility, e-Governance, and e-Education, respectively. The first couple of hours of each workshop were spent mapping the current challenges and opportunities with stakeholders that worked within the different sectors – from medics and bus drivers to local politicians and app developers. Following these assessments, we had set some time aside to look at the current state of affairs in Estonia.
First, I would give a general overview of innovation in the respective sector. Afterward, Estonian companies took to the stage to share how their solutions fit into what the Swiss municipalities were trying to do. I was genuinely delighted to see the Swiss side’s degree of curiosity and interest and their readiness to implement tried-and-tested Estonian technology into their lives.
In the sphere of mobility, the autonomous last-mile shuttles made by AuveTech sparked the locals’ imagination for how kids could make their way to school between the different mountain villages. Regarding e-health, the placement of public defibrillators could be perfected through the analysis of mobile phone location data as provided by Positium. E-Government initiatives also struck a nerve with the Swiss, although many depend on clear, nationwide policies regarding digital identities, data exchange, and cybersecurity. Now, time will tell which projects get accepted and funded.
As I packed my bags in the Canton’s capital Chur, I felt incredibly motivated by what I had seen. People may have different political preferences, values, experiences, and expectations. But their eyes all sparkle with excitement when you show them how smooth, friendly, easy, and fast digital services can be. When we fight our daily battles over policies, service design, and programming aspects, we shouldn’t lose track of that fundamental truth.