Day 2: From Vision to Small Actionable Steps

The second day of the 6th e-Governance Conference started with a bang. We now have a new record number of registered attendees, as over 1000 people are participating in our sessions and Expo area. Holding this year’s edition online gives us the chance to reach such a wide audience, spanning across 134 countries. The more, the merrier – so thanks to all of you watching and interacting with us.

After an introductory overview of what is – or should be – a digital society, today we focused on how to achieve the targets usually listed in policy and strategy papers. Those very same documents, up to a certain extent, might turn out to be obstacles on our path of digital transformation. Vision is great, but translating it into small actionable steps could be the true game-changer.

Let’s take a look at the highlights from today’s sessions featuring Kersti Kaljulaid, David Rowan and Siim Sikkut. All the while, in parallel, high-level government representatives outlined country experiences from Canada, Ukraine, Brazil, Portugal, Costa Rica, Aruba, and many more.

The Current Crisis as an Opportunity to Respond, Recover, Thrive

President of the Republic of Estonia Kersti Kaljulaid, opening today’s session of the e-Governance Conference, focused on the teachings we can learn from the Covid-19 crisis. If there’s a bright side to it, is that we have finally come to realize that we can seek solutions to common problems in the digital world. Social distancing has been a reality in most parts of the world in this first half of 2020. This should take us to rethink what presence, and being present, actually mean.

A more reflective take on this point can, indeed, shed a light on what we actually value in life. If we were to choose, would we rather be physically present at a population management office, or at a gathering with our friends and family? When boring, routine tasks are moved to the digital world, we make time for the things and people we actually love and care for. But while this new normality has been consolidating in Estonia in the past fifteen years, in many other countries the crisis plays the role of an eye-opening moment.

President Kaljulaid encouraged conference attendees to allow those technologies that helped us survive this crisis to become permanent options in governance. Now we know that digital systems can rival physical presence, at least when it comes to public services. In this “now or never moment“, as she called it, we shall be bold and not look back. Only in this way we can create a digital society, and use this opportunity to respond and recover from the crisis, as well as thrive after it.



David Rowan and His 20-Country Quest for Real Innovation

Our keynote speaker for today has tech talks in his blood. David Rowan is the former editor of Wired UK, and also author, journalist, investor. Armed with the determination to go beyond what he calls bullshit innovation, he embarked on a journey to discover what real innovation is and means around the world.

Starting from a banking sector example, Rowan showed us how tech companies are trying to attack established markets by picking apart functions, tasks, goals of traditional key players. In doing this, they take risks, but try also to dominate the next opportunity. Due to these dynamics, we are forced to think in a more agile way, experiment more, learn to take bigger risks ourselves too. And what would be the first lesson? That innovation is not about cool and hip words, but according to Rowan “thinking what is the real problem here, and how can we solve it with fresh tools, fresh thinking, and a diverse group of people.”

David Rowan is against the innovation theatre, as he names it. Ticking boxes while nothing changes in practice does not work. What has worked, instead, is any of the 16 approaches to innovation and transformation that he analyzed from experiences in Finland, Peru, and other parts of the world. Governments need to be aware of the cultural shift that is taking place in society with digital development. In the US, for example, people’s daily average time spent consuming digital media passed from 2.7 hours in 2008 to 6.3 hours in 2018.

Where to start, then? From what Rowan identifies as the 5 Ps, explained in the tweet below: People, Purpose, Process, Protection, Preparedness. Digital transformation is here, whether we want to see it or not. These five points can guide our adaptive strategy, both for the public and private sectors.



Live Discussion – Digital Leaps Start with Small Steps

In a live session moderated by Linnar Viik, David Rowan was joined by Estonia’s Government CIO, Siim Sikkut, to take stock of digital development as it stands today. Talking about such transformations implies discussing also democracy, culture, politics and historical perspectives, to understand the trends at play that could determine the success or failure of a transformative venture.

On this last point, we got used to seeing a certain flexibility in the private sector towards risk, maybe even more openness to the practice of taking them. As Siim Sikkut highlighted, that is something that happened in Estonia as well – and that, up to a large extent, contributed to the making of our own digital society. Despite questions on whether we have come to experience what failure is throughout the stages of our development process, Sikkut always says that yes, we have failed too. And mostly, that happened when we tried to make things too grand, or big. Digital transformation does not take place overnight, but step-by-step, adjusting to unexpected setbacks, and practising innovation in this way. It is a process of trial and error where resilience, instead, is key.

The beauty of the process of innovation, in this sense, is exactly about trying, taking a risk, failing, and having a go at a different path. A similar attitude is also what could allow countries to get past established legacies in governance – both technical and cultural. As Sikkut says, almost all boils down to the willingness to get past habits, as he calls them. Rowan’s remark on the point is true, Estonia was facilitated in this by not having a massive existing legacy to deal with before embarking on the digital journey. But it is Linnar Viik to point out that this legacy, indeed, is all man-made and not laws of nature. It is yet to be seen whether the global emergency we are going through, in this sense, will bring long-standing cultural changes towards more digital in governments too.




The e-Governance Conference is an annual event aimed at international digital development cooperation. It has been organised by the e-Governance Academy (eGA) in cooperation with the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 2015. This year, it takes place online. The event provides participants with a unique opportunity to discuss governments’ current challenges in helping citizens to manage their lives and businesses online. 

The conference is supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Swedish Government, the U-LEAD with Europe program, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, the City of Tallinn, Intel, Google and Microsoft.