Not presented in the form of a question this time, but of duties governments need to fulfil: meeting needs, providing the best environment for businesses to flourish and citizens to be happy, keeping up the pace with innovation in the global arena.
Digital leadership is crucial for a country to stay competitive, and Estonians know it well. Dusk is yet to fall on this 2018, but you readers are aware that we’re not end-of-the-year listicle types. To sum up, what took us one step closer to become a fully integrated digital society, we thought you would enjoy a chat with someone among those who must keep the bigger picture in sight at all times.
Rene Tammist is the Estonian Minister of Entrepreneurship and Information Technology, the political head of the branches of our government leading the path to digitization. From this position, he has a special vantage point to see what challenges lie ahead, as well as how we can make the best out of the experience gained so far to keep our country at the forefront of the race to exploit emerging, groundbreaking technologies.
From the Digital Summit to startups, from open data to EXPO, you can read here our conversation with Minister Tammist. If anyone here is thinking that it couldn’t get any better, well, just wait to see what comes up next.
Rene Tammist, Minister of Entrepreneurship and Information Technology of Estonia
End of 2018, time for accounts and conclusions. How has this year been for our digital society?
We have a lot on the table. For instance, we’re developing government services to be more seamless and to improve the user experience. Estonia’s data embassy programme is on the roll, along with other plans for a hybrid government cloud. Just like every other digitally motivated country in the world, Estonia is also a contender in the Artificial Intelligence race. We have already seen practical usage opportunities in the public sector, our goal is to have at least 50 effective use-cases by 2020 for an improved e-governance.
Ever since we started the digitalization process in Estonia we have focused on prioritizing user-convenience. Personally, I don’t think you should digitalize only for the sake of digitalization.
Governments need to think about what do the citizens actually want and need: user-centricity, ease of access, service-delivery efficiency.
Obviously, people do not wish to spend days on declaring taxes or launching the child benefits application process from the hospital bed. This is why Estonia moved to pre-filled tax declarations since the 2000s, and we are building seamless services to proactively start offering what we already know the citizen might need – for instance, procedures related to giving birth to a baby, buying a car, or registering a company.
The new version of our government’s one-stop shop for e-services – eesti.ee – will also have a life-event and business-event based approach. This means that the citizen can have a comprehensive overview of the steps to be taken in case of specific life actions, such as retiring or becoming unemployed. These processes can be completed in just a few clicks, based on pre-existing information – it would be hassle-free for the user. In order to build a portal that corresponds to the users’ demands, we conducted numerous interviews, had test phases and used different prototypes, so to figure out what the users were missing from the previous version.
How can we further enhance entrepreneurship in our country? Has tech definitively become the go-to sector for our economy?
The solutions emerged from the high-tech sector are definitely a strong driving force for other sectors as well, including industry, tourism, transport, and many more. We want to develop a competitive export-driven economy, so hi-tech developments (including industrial digitalization, and wider use of robotics, artificial intelligence solutions, 5G technology) certainly contribute towards creating a competitive edge on the global market. Avoiding or postponing investments in research and development and modern technology can significantly reduce the competitiveness of entire business sectors and even economies in general.
It’s been another great year for Estonian startups. Are there any plans in sight to support their growth from the government side?
Indeed, Estonian technology firms have made headlines on numerous occasions. There are many reasons for us to be proud of our startups, as they are the current and future engines of the Estonian economy. We have many plans to support their growth even further. First of all, some changes in the Commercial Code will make it easier for foreign founders and investors to open a bank account in Estonia, removing a major roadblock. Secondly, we will witness the effect of ongoing policies, as the Baltic Innovation Fund and EstFund investment initiatives will be in their full effect in 2019, and we expect investment volumes to increase steadily. Simultaneously, we are looking into how to make the runway from startup to scale-up even smoother, which is why we are constantly in contact with the startup community to further facilitate the rapid development of Estonian technology firms.
Two words: open and big. How is Estonia’s current approach to handling data? Foreseeing future trends, what can be improved?
Open and big usually refer to non-personal data. Our main message about machine-generated data is that we need to publish more data, we need to ensure the quality of data, and we need to reap the potential benefits of data use – for both internal decision-making as well as for training AI models. We have the possibility to make more progress with open data, and just last week we launched the Estonian Open Data Portal, a step closer to transforming our Statistics Office into a Data Office and encouraging the use and re-use of data on the national level.
By this point in time, we all know about X-Road. Building upon such e-platforms, the goal is now to open up our e-government’s technical ecosystem even further, which consists of three key ingredients:
- providing standardized APIs of our services, to enable further integrations and lowering costs through re-use;
- focusing more on open data principles and enabling its cross-use;
- sharing the source codes of our core services, to further enhance the community of openness and cooperation.
We also advocate open data policies internationally. The value of data increases when re-used – and when we talk about developing AI, re-using and sharing data becomes inevitable. The great opportunity of our time is that there is more data generated every second. On the other hand, one risk concerns storing data in national silos. The most successful business models of the future will be data- and AI-driven.
Innovation, but also human capital: what skills and knowledge does Estonia need to stay competitive on the global markets?
The share of ICT specialists on the Estonian labour market is approximately 6% of total employment. This number has been growing rapidly during the past five years but the demand of the market remains high. We see a high demand for ICT specialists, particularly in other sectors. Therefore, it is critical to continue with all the measures Estonia has worked out in order to support specialist ICT education on all educational levels.
Another area we must pay attention to is developing work-related digital skills in competence frameworks and standards, vocational education and academic studies, as this has a positive effect on the general labour market and guarantees competitiveness.
We believe that digital skills can be taught as early as elementary school and up-skilling must continue through lifelong learning.
Fast forward to 2020, Dubai EXPO. Why is our participation important for Estonia and how do we benefit from it?
Estonia’s exports to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) amounted to €45.3 MLN in 2015 and €54.5 MLN in 2016. In 2017, exports totalled €67.9 MLN and imports €8.3 MLN. At least 50 Estonian businesses are constantly active in the market there. By taking part in the Dubai EXPO, we will be creating a bridge that could allow us to double our exports to the Gulf region, increasing it by approximately €75 MLN. For the private sector, participating in EXPO is primarily important for establishing business contacts and finding export opportunities, which is why the leading role in organizing Estonia’s participation at the Dubai EXPO is in the hands of private-sector companies. In addition to the national government’s €2 MLN investment, Estonia supports the private sector’s activities in the Gulf region by assigning a permanent representative of Enterprise Estonia (EAS) to the UAE and opening an Estonian embassy in Abu Dhabi.