You were the man behind the idea of creating Accelerate Estonia in the first place when you worked as the Undersecretary of Economic Development. Let’s jump back to this day – what made you think of building such a kind of governmental innovation lab and why did you see the need for this new initiative?
As an Undersecretary for Economic Development, my job, as well as my passion, was to make Estonia a prosperous innovative country. Estonia has so many great success-stories, but I thought we need to build more prosperity on those foundations. I believe that being a relatively small country by size provides us tons of advantages as well.
First, our only real market is the global market, because we do not have the luxury of limiting ourselves to our domestic market – thus you can scale fast, and we hope that as everyone (at the top) knows everyone well, this could make us more agile. However, our public sector is thin, just a handful of people who need to make everything happen. I was often approached by numerous very original and sexy ideas on how to use innovation to make everybody’s life better? Ministers’ and top civil servants’ attention span, sadly, is very limited, as daily obligations and mainstream policies take most of your time. New ideas that could have a huge potential, but also risk failure due to getting less attention than they should. With Accelerate Estonia I wanted to overcome this fear of failure in the public sector. Create a filter that picks ideas that have the greatest potential and help those ideas and teams get running. By doing less we can do more.
Viljar, you are the Ambassador of Estonia to the United Kingdom and also the Chairman of the Board of Accelerate Estonia? What is your secret to finding time for all of that?
As I brought it out before – you need to find focus. Always do less but do it better. Everyone should think at least once a month, what I am doing, why I am doing it, what is my target etc? It is like going through your mailbox every morning – do you approach the mails first on a first out (or last in first out) basis? Or perhaps you go through all of your inbox and start with the most important one, that actually serves your purpose? In the UK I need to cover all the areas with my team, from hardcore defense to culture and sport. I know what my priorities are, I always focus on those tasks, even if some areas could be impacted because of that. If you have let’s say 20 priorities, but you have time only for 8, then concentrate only on those 8. This is (and should be) the same also in the public sector, whatever people think.
You have worked and lived in many various countries. What makes the Estonian business ecosystem stand out?
I think Estonia and Estonians have gained enough confidence over the time that your size and location has actually become irrelevant. To claim that we are special, and need to follow a certain path is very dangerous and wrong. This usually leads to protectionism and protectionism has never worked. We have succeeded, because we have had the courage to test new ideas. But this is also risky as we are facing legacy issues as well. We still need to be open and learn from others too. Our secret weapon should be the skill to implement ideas that others can not, or are afraid to. Therefore even ideas that can be imported should be tested, nothing wrong with that.
Do you feel that the openness of the public sector to work with private entities in Estonia is somehow different than in other places you have lived?
Yes, I believe that access to top level executives in Estonia is a very important part of our success story. Coming back to why Accelerate Estonia was needed. As our politicians, ministers, and top civil servants are accessible and exposed to all good and crazy ideas then they need a tool to make them really stand out and work. As our talent pool is limited we cannot win all the battles (as innovation is a time sensitive global race) we need to pick the best ones carefully, and once we have then execute. Otherwise you would just be another country, which is nothing bad but nothing special either.
Estonia is one of the leading countries in terms of digitalisation of the public sector. If you could make a guess, what will be the next success story of Estonia? Where could Estonia be a front-runner?
I think the invisible government is a good initiative, a government that will use AI which predicts your next moves. Very similar to what e-commerce platforms like Amazon do when you are suggested what you could buy next. The difference with e-government though is that we do not tell you what you could do next but what you must do next anyway. Have things by default opted in and leave the freedom for people to opt them out if one feels the need.
Interaction between a resident and a government is a necessity in all the countries, thus making it simple. But if you ask what could be our next moonshot idea where the government plays a crucial role – then it could be to widespread innovation. Personal medicine is the future, critical mass is the key. In Estonia eID took off better than in many other countries because we made eID compulsory. We created a critical mass, but in return people wanted guaranteed security and convenient e-services. The government had to deliver! Same with the gene card, make it compulsory, combine statical gene data with dynamic health data and provide useful results to improve our health and quality of life. Are there any risks? Clearly – many, but that is a challenge we can overcome, like we did with eID.
Accelerate Estonia is open for new wicked problems needing to be fixed and is looking for teams and companies with new innovative ideas to solve them. What would be your encouragement to apply to Estonian national innovation lab today?
A wish to disrupt and profit should remain as useful instincts. Sometimes you need the government to interfere before your idea can enter the market. Test us out! How many options in the world do you have where we can provide you time in front of the whole government? Dragon’s Den with PM leading the pack!
You have advised a lot of experimental teams in Accelerate Estonia. What has been your biggest personal highlight/lesson from this time?
My biggest highlight has definitely been that Estonia has so many highly motivated and bright people with great ideas. Biggest lesson perhaps – do not look over your shoulder looking for somebody who can do things for you, you are your own master, do it yourself and then help also comes. The trickiest part is to simplify your idea to just a few pages. Try to think how you would present your idea in 4-5 slides to people who have no idea what you will tell them. Do not presume anything.
What kind of mindset and drive are you looking for from the next teams joining Accelerate Estonia?
I want to see teams with a focus and an eye on a bigger target, the globe, when joining Accelerate Estonia. The idea presented must be scalable. If you beat the e-Residency in its scope and ambition? If yes, then apply!
Viljar Lubi is a long-term diplomat who currently serves as an ambassador in London. He has previously held diplomatic positions in India, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar. He spent five years as the Business Secretary at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, where he considered himself a forward-looking and productive individual. He believes that Estonia cannot pioneer all the new ideas, but they can focus on a few and achieve success.