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Estonia is arguably Europe’s leading digital society. In 2007, it was the first country to allow online voting in a general election. With one of the world’s fastest broadband networks, the country is a hotbed for startups and technology innovation.

Kaja Kallas MEP has been instrumental to Estonia’s growth and progress, spearheading initiatives at home and in Brussels where she is an respected voice on all things digital.

Kaja talks to us about e-government, platforms and shares her policymaking tips for thinking and being more digital.

Kaja Kallas

Earlier this year an overwhelming majority of MEPs approved your report ‘Towards a Digital Single Market Act’ and this week the European Commission has outlined its strategy for digitising Europe. What are the crucial next steps? What are your immediate priorities?

I was happy with the outcome as my main priority was for the European Parliament to give a strong signal that we support digital innovation, innovative ideas and business models, and we understand that this obliges us to adapt and come up with new rules.

The immediate challenges will be to keep this pro-innovation stance when we work on the legislative proposals, but also to deliver as quickly as possible. As I have pointed out before, the Digital Single Market is all about time. If we are not fast enough, Member States will come up with their own rules, set up national restrictions and this will create even more confusion. From an economic point of view, for example, companies are not willing to invest in ‘big data’ or cloud computing, because they don’t know what kind of rules the EU will adopt. There is no legal certainty.

We’re seeing the creation of digital ministers and digital economy units. What do you think are the pros and cons are of having a centralised digital economy unit?

I think the question shouldn’t be about centralised digital units. It should, instead, be about having a more horizontal view, as digitalisation takes place in all spheres of the society as well as all policy areas. Therefore, there should be a person in charge of digital issues in every ministry.

What can ministers do to become and think ‘more digital’?

The first thing is that we need to understand how technologies work, and not only see the risks behind innovative technologies, but rather the opportunities and growth they provide. People are already using these technologies and we can’t turn back the revolution – so we need do define the real problems and start acting to solve them.

You’ve been quite vocal recently about platforms. What do you think is at the root of this anxiety?

It is mainly about the domination of the US and the feeling that big online platforms are not respecting the rules.

What should policymakers do to create the right environment for digital platforms – large and small?

For digital services it is important that there are many platforms available and that these are diverse enough for consumers to have meaningful choices. We should try to make the conditions right so that consumers can easily switch between platforms and the liability of the platforms is also clear.

Many nations, recently Australia and Cyprus, have looked to Estonia for guidance on becoming an e-government. What was key to implementing this?

There are some historical and cultural reasons that made us innovative and urged us to develop an e-government. The development of the e-government was mainly marked by the setting up of the X-road system in 2001, which is the IT architecture at the heart of it, and which lead to the development of more and more online services throughout the years.

Why is e-government important for entrepreneurs?

E-government systems make entrepreneurs’ lives easier by reducing their administrative burden. It provides digital services so that entrepreneurs can do everything online from setting up a company to filing taxes.

On the other hand, by using open sources and open data, many entrepreneurs can build their businesses based on data provided by local governments, for example.

“How do you research the future? It is not research, but just a prediction then.”

Readie spoke to policymakers across the 28 member states and the majority stated that the lack of robust and comparable research to understand the consequences of digitalisation was an issue. Have you encountered this challenge personally in your work?

How do you research the future? It is not research, but just a prediction then. You can only research something that is already there. Of course, it is easier to make decisions when there are studies available but my experience is that for every study there is a counter-study, eventually the decision-makers have to have the courage to decide.

Where are the research gaps? What questions would you put to researchers to help you achieve a digital single market?

Digitalisation is a very broad topic. It requires a full understanding of how technologies work, how people use them, but also how much the behaviours of people have changed due to their use of these technologies. We are therefore always learning in this field.

The main research gaps are in the changes of consumer behaviour. How do we consume digital content, how do we buy online and use ICT technologies, how do consumers perceive ‘consumer empowerment’, what are the issues around consumer protection laws – do consumers even need to be protected?

Everyone is excited about digital startups and scale-ups. Estonia is widely heralded as one of the world’s most progressive digital societies. What do you think is key to this innovation?

The key is to look into the future, rather than be stuck in the past. It also takes political courage to decide to go on with reforms.

“We should not try to replicate Silicon Valley in Europe.”

Is there a particular initiative or programme that other European governments could adopt to foster business growth?

We should not try to replicate Silicon Valley in Europe, what we should do is to build on our strengths instead. There are many good examples of pro-digital and pro-innovation public services in Europe. I would like Europe to learn from Estonia as regards the IT architecture that allowed us to implement the e-identity and digital signatures, the base for all Estonia’s public digital services (digital prescriptions, e-voting etc). Studies have shown that if all EU Member States used e-signatures, it would save a whole working week per year. Not to mention the additional growths in GDP.

Have you got a favourite disrupter or scaleup?

I don’t have a favourite. Every scaleup is a good thing as it brings innovation and competition to the market for the benefit of consumers. I just wish we could make Europe a better place for more startups to scale up and disrupt the markets globally so that the lives of people would be better.