As organisations and nations alike prepare for the new normal, Ott Vatter, Estonia’s e-Residency MD, argues investment in technology is paramount
The unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 outbreak left the world reeling as people were asked to limit their social interactions and physical contact to a minimum and a new ‘normal’ began to take hold. While these changes have been unsettling for many people in lockdown, technology has given us a ray of sunlight, helping us to work and maintain relationships. Our ability to catalyse the growth in the role of tech in our day-to-day lives, and to utilise digital solutions like never before has been a defining factor in this global experiment. For many governments around the world, this shift in norms was an important wake-up call that will impact decisions at the highest level on funding and support for technological solutions. It is for this reason, investment in technology is critical.
Now, more than ever, technology can provide the foundations needed to drive economic growth for countries worldwide, as we move beyond the crisis. In the United Kingdom, there have been calls on the British government by the think tank TechUK to re-adjust priorities in tech investment pre-date coronavirus’ presence in the region. From the Estonian experience, we are aware that governments must be mindful of over-ambition with new budgets.
Although many have thriving tech sectors, promises to boost investment in technology – especially the newest tech – will not necessarily address existing limitations in infrastructure that could cause problems further down the line. This crisis provides a mandate for change that needs to be addressed from the ground up.
E-Residency recently carried out a survey of 1,500 business owners, freelancers and e-Residents, and found that almost half (46 per cent) have successfully pivoted their business or found new opportunities since the start of the pandemic. Some 48 per cent said it’s business as usual. How small companies have stayed resilient and determined during the crisis should be studied and remembered by governments of the future. Pivoting business models and adjustments to products and services during the pandemic has been an effective route to survival for start-ups and this was noted in feedback from the survey.
The British government even committed to a £500 million Future Fund to support continued growth and innovation in sectors as diverse as technology, life sciences and the creative industries. That investment in technology will reap rewards in the near and distant future.
During this crisis, numerous Estonian start-ups such as Ampler Bikes, who have seen a huge spike in the sale of their e-bikes, and Viveo Health, who has offered its telemedicine platform for virtual doctor-patient consultations for free, have seen their businesses expand. During the ‘Global Hack’, which was hosted by Estonia, we saw the success of companies such as Serw, a company that saw the pandemic as an opportunity to launch their video platform to help empower freelancers and professionals to sell their services and help during and beyond this crisis at a time when physical closeness was not possible. We have also seen wider trends where entire industries such as telecoms and e-learning have seen dramatic increases in reliance on their services.
Adapting during these difficult times has not been easy even for established institutions such as the European Parliament, who’s MEPs would have benefitted greatly from digital authorisation tools to allow them to work and sign documents remotely to provide signatures and authorisations digitally. Working borderlessly and digitally has not been trialed on such a scale before, and the hurdles faced by Both regional and cross-border governmental institutions serves to further highlight what an achievement it has been for SME’s to do so.
The unpredictable nature of the virus, the shift to remote working and the challenges associated with social distancing measures have driven innovation, opening the world’s eyes to unique solutions being developed by companies around the world.
The Estonian Model
In Estonia, 99 per cent of government services are done online, and the same percentage of citizens own a digital ID card. Hundreds of millions in revenue has been generated through e-Residency (which provides Estonian e-services to non-resident entrepreneurs) and only now are we in a position to properly commit to developing our more optimistic strategies (including artificial intelligence). Estonia is living proof that committing budget and time to digital services, and investing in technology, including a digital ID programme for nationals and the e-Residency programme for foreigners, facilitates faster time to market for new products, allows citizens to start companies more easily, and encourages a more stable and resilient business ecosystem – one that is desperately needed in recent times.
With its strong digital foundations, Estonia has developed a flourishing startup environment and a culture of innovation in business, academia, and civil society. Estonia’s digital ecosystem is thus not purely made up of government actors; in fact, the government actively encourages and incentivises the private sector to move into or create markets for products and services it cannot or is unable to offer. Throughout the crisis, these private actors have worked with the government to solve challenges and create solutions, ensuring a multistakeholder response.
While the Estonian public sector was ready for the remote working shift, many other countries were forced to adapt remote working tools without relevant prior experience. Development of flexible and remote tools should now be a key focus for governments. The world of work will look very different in the years following the pandemic; a Gartner survey recently revealed that while 30 per cent of employees worked remotely at least part of the time before the coronavirus pandemic, 81 per cent or more are currently working remotely and 41% are likely to do so at least some of the time once a return to normal working is permitted.
It has long been our ethos in Estonia that remote and borderless working is beneficial to all parties involved, and we hope that we can serve as a useful case study for nations around the world who look to adopt this ethos as we move past the pandemic. We truly believe that technology must be a priority for leaders around the world if we want to be better prepared for future unknowns.
It is high time that governments look to tech firms as a means of support and crisis prevention. Leaders around the world must recognise the valid contributions of companies at this time of uncertainty. When looking to invest, small companies and start-ups must be supported and borderless collaboration should be championed. Greater cooperation between countries and a re-alignment of priorities can help us to better prepare for future scenarios in which we may find ourselves once again in unchartered territory.
Although this experience has been extremely difficult for everyone, we must take away the positives when moving forward. It is the job of those in government and at the heads of organisations that can shift a global perspective in such a way that we are better prepared for the future. As we move forward and adapt to the ‘new normal’, the need for further innovation will continue. It is, however, important to recognise that the single most influential thing that governments can do is to embed technological solutions into the very makeup of nations. This serves as a key measure for preparing, and maybe even preventing, future crises.
In a world where cyber-warfare is on the rise, and where the pandemic has altered the way we evaluate the fragility of human life, there is a vital need for technology as a means of security in both the virtual and real worlds.