What does a digital success of a country depend on? How did Estonia turn into innovation hub? What does Poland require to follow in Estonia’s footsteps? We are talking with professor Linnar Viik, father of Estonian technological success.
Looking back – how do you assess the Estonian digitization process? Was it carried out properly?
Prof. Linnar Viik: Estonia took advantage of the 1990s by developing continuously and creating public and private partnerships. We have managed to focus more on introducing and applying emerging technologies quickly (especially technologies connected with computer infrastructure and internet), and less on developing enormous plans and complex strategies. The real innovators must choose between many alternative scenarios and quickly learn on their own mistakes. We did not do everything properly. It’s not because of the fact that we did not manage to implement something, but also because not all innovations we’re proud of today were planned. In fact, you do not plan innovation but recognize it when the time is right and an opportunity occurs.
What was the most difficult in Estonian digitization process?
I would say that the so-called wicked problems known from management theories. There are many social, cultural, economic and regulatory aspects which are more important than technological issues, and they decide whether the digitization process is successful or not. In a nutshell, predicting society needs and people reaction on new digital solutions is in most countries undervalued. Also Estonia used to be among these countries.
Poland is ranked 46th in the Global Innovation Index. Estonia (23rd), Latvia (33rd), Hungary (35th), Bulgaria (39th) or Moldavia (44th) achieved higher positions. Why innovations are such a big issue for Poland?
First of all, I would not worry about reports which create aggregate indexes. They always reflect past and meritocracy. I strongly believe that each country and nation need their own path. The same applies to innovation policy and activities. However, I was surprised with the attitude of many Polish investors and entrepreneurs towards the size and depth of the domestic market. There are too many startups and companies which feel very secure addressing the needs of Polish consumers. They give little attention to meeting global needs. This is a mistake of being too local.
Estonia is nearly 30 times smaller than Poland. With such a difference in size, do you think that there is a point in comparing these two countries and look for similar paths of technological growth?
Technology is based on a formula which cannot be entirely understood and has its own global trends. Our task is to find opportunities and threats for these trends and respond to them. Strengthen positive effects and limit negative influences. And size is not that important. Technology is the same in every country. Differences stem from the wicked problems where social and cultural aspects are more significant. Unfortunately, they mostly decide why some countries enjoy digitization sooner than others.
Poland and Estonia are similar in some way – similar history, both Baltic countries – but culturally they are completely different. How does it affect the pace of digital growth?
Culture is important. Actually, it is one of the most essential ingredients for successful digitization.
What is the phenomenon of companies like Skype (Estonian messenger is considered to be one of the first European unicorns, start-up company valued at over $1 billion – ed.)? What is the secret behind its success?
I recommend you the book from 2013 called “Billionaire on Skype – How Janus Friis made Billions Selling Skype. Twice!” After reading it, you will find out that there was no secret ingredient for success but courage to take risk and skills of hackers who challenged existing structures and business models.
Prof. Linnar Viik is a co-founder and CEO of Pocopay – the company providing digital banking services. He has been a board member of European Institute of Innovation and Technology and Nordic Investment Bank for many years. Above all, he is recognized as a father of Estonian digital success. In 90s, he actively participated in Estonian digitization process. He contributed to the fact that each Estonian resident has internet access, computers are in every school, and the right to internet access is guaranteed by the constitution, etc.