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Can the first Estonian CIO help India become the next digital society?

From one million to one billion – that’s the target, at least in demographic terms. But Taavi Kotka, the former CIO of the Government of Estonia, has never looked like someone who’s scared of challenges. With his Proud Engineers and the support of India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, Kotka is now consulting, coaching and cooperating with Reliance Industries to make India the next digital poster country of Asia.

Kotka does not really need introductions. After twelve years as the head of Estonian company Nortal, he then held the post of Chief Information Officer of the Estonian government from 2013 until 2017. As the founder of digital transformation consultancy Proud Engineers, he’s helping Mukesh Ambani turn India into a digital society. Who better than him, then?

Ambani, #13 among Billionaires 2019 according to Forbes and one of Time’s Titans 2019, is the Chairman and Managing Director of Reliance Industries – India’s corporate giant, from oil refining to telecommunications. He’s also an e-resident of Estonia. After setting up the research centre Jio Estonia, with Kotka as its CEO, Ambani is now deploying his expertise to understand what it takes to walk the path of digitalisation.

We spoke to Taavi Kotka to find out what’s in the air, and to hear from his voice if and how India can make it. Don’t be surprised if you see that you already know the answer – it’s “yes”.

Taavi Kotka, Estonia’s first Chief Information Officer

One year of activity and a strong bet on human capital. How does the success story of Estonia reflect in the projects of Jio Estonia and Proud Engineers?

Our team consists of people from different disciplines. Their expertise has been gathered through private and public sector experience during twenty years of digital revolution in Estonia. We are not the company that implements X-Road or the Land Registry. We are more interested in projects where digital change can have a significant impact. Then, if we need additional resources or specific solutions, we will find the right people or companies from the Estonian market.

What are the most salient challenges that countries and organizations face with digitalisation today? Are they that different between each other in this, or there are points of contact?

The Western hemisphere doesn’t feel the pain to move on with their digital reforms, except for the private sector. But it is crucial for a digital society that the foundation, and the reforms, are delivered together by both private and public sectors. For example, solving the question “Who is behind the device?”, or accepting electronic signature widely, or having a digital-only mindset etc.

Countries and large companies understanding the value of combining information from totally different datasets advance rapidly compared to others. Look, for example, at what China is already capable of doing.

Do you think there is a recipe, a paradigmatic path to digitalisation?

Yes, absolutely sure. We have even written an IKEA-like manual for that purpose: “126 steps to creating a digital society”.

You have started working with Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man. Could India become the next, and surely one of the most populous, digital nation? 

India is able to do radical reforms, if needed. The way they built the foundation for a digital society was remarkable. They issued unique identifiers to more than one billion people, ready to use in both the private and public sectors. This was something that the UK, the US, Germany, Australia etc have not been able to achieve.

In this sense, India has advanced rapidly. The pace is now slightly slower, as the supreme court has also asked to put privacy laws in place before accelerating again. The problem is that the Western world talks a lot about similar reforms, but we cannot see any true action happening.

From 1 million people in Estonia to more than 1 billion in India. What difference does that make with regards to such process?

In the digital world, countries have the same size. Look at internet banking in different countries: they are about 90% the same everywhere. The scale is the difference, but Estonians have always been able to deliver solutions for global markets. We are not that concerned about this – what is different is the maturity of society.

In India, many processes are still on paper, electronic signature and digital authentication are not widely used. But at the same time, just to mention one example, financial transactions are happening way faster in India than in Europe.

What is your role in the cooperation with Ambani? In which way your team and skills will operate in India?

Mr. Ambani has a very clear vision of a digital India. To support that, he wanted to create a research and knowledge centre in Estonia to help digital India become a reality. And to see how Reliance Industries as a group of companies, including telecommunications, can support this journey. The role of our team is to design and offer solutions, but also coach and support teams in India.

Other big companies advise on digital development. To make the difference, what do Jio Estonia and Proud Engineers stand out and stand up for?

All our engineers have real-life experience with those kinds of reforms. We’ve been put to test in the midst of the action, so we know what pain it takes to make change happen. We also know what might be the failures and fallbacks before achieving success. And mind you, this type of experience doesn’t only include technology, but also how society should be motivated.

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