Welcome to the sixth Tallinn Digital Summit!
This year’s Digital Summit is special – we are meeting back-to-back with the Open Government Partnership Global Summit, which brings together thousands of representatives of governments, enterprise and civil society from over 80 countries.
This week is a celebration of two values Estonians hold deeply: freedom and an embrace of technology.
Estonia’s story is one that should inspire optimism. More than 30 years ago, after half a century of Soviet occupation and atrocities, Estonia restored its independence. We had to rebuild everything from scratch. We started from zero or even sub-zero as the Soviet Union had normalized corruption, there was no rule of law, and there was no market economy.
Digitalisation became a powerful engine to rebuild our economy and society. We did not have the resources to invent technologies, but we were bold enough to adopt emerging technologies. To learn, to fail, and to try again. We have built a thriving innovation economy that tops the charts for digital government, cybersecurity and internet freedom.
But worryingly, the global state of democracy is in decline. According to Freedom House, the Economist and others, the number of free and democratic countries is at the lowest point since the 1990s. Throughout history, democracy has always been under attack, history has seen authoritarians destroy democracies, often by destroying individual rights and excusing it with „protecting” security and economy. And right now, in Ukraine, we continue to witness democracy being under attack from the outside – for the Kremlin, democratic governance in Europe is a threat that it tries to destroy.
There are many prophets of doom telling us that the digital era will accelerate the decline. Deep fakes and filter bubbles erode the trust and functioning of free societies. Mass surveillance enables authoritarians to better control their own people and economies, while launching cyber attacks and information warfare on free societies and stealing the intellectual property key to the next generation’s prosperity and security. In the last year, remarkable leaps in the capability of artificial intelligence have created a whole new set of risk scenarios.
Nevertheless, I believe there is a strong case to be made for optimism. I would like to offer a recipe for how technology can reinforce and support democracy and openness.
First of all, we should never forget that openness is our greatest weapon and our best shield. In the digital age, openness transcends mere transparency. At its core, openness represents getting rid of barriers that hinder the flow of information, ideas, and innovation.
Technology supports open societies in organizing and collaborating, whether in the form of open source investigations of war crimes conducted by Bellingcat, the inspiring example of Poles opening their homes to Ukrainian refugees, coordinated over an open platform, or to build global movements like World Cleanup Day started by Estonians in 2008 which today is one of the biggest civic movements of our time.
Economic and societal openness reinforce each other. We don’t have to undertake the impossible balancing act authoritarian regimes face: allowing enough economic openness to foster growth without losing political control.
Here in Europe, I worry about a different balancing act – that we will overregulate new technologies and business models with the aim of protecting our citizens but instead slow down many of the benefits that technologies offer.
Technological openness is an asset in its own right. Open data provides a common source of truth, helping us combat corruption and fake news. Open-source software will help us ensure that access to AI is widely available and give us the tools to check its risks. And transparency and control over the use of personal data will help maintain our citizens’ trust in our digital ecosystems.
However, openness alone is not enough. We need responsiveness. Governments cannot be passive observers of technological progress. Democracies need to deliver goods for their citizens, we need to show we are responsive to their needs and the challenges of our times. Digital government – bringing 100% of public services online, as Estonia has managed to do – is only the starting point. Government needs to adapt the tools of startups and tech companies – constant iteration, an obsession with user experience, decisions based on data, learning from and reusing what others have already built.
In Estonia, we are building a personalized state that proactively offers each person and business the services they need, delivered when and how they need them, in as few steps as possible. But the personalized state is about more than just good design and convenience. Personalized medicine is helping us target life-saving medical interventions. Personalized curricula are helping to tailor education to the needs of each pupil. We are building a real-time economy with fully automated reporting and permitting for businesses.
We cannot do it without an embrace of AI. To name just a few examples, we are using AI to detect fraud, automate the payment of agricultural subsidies, and provide better job placements for the unemployed. And we are working on new services based on large language models like ChatGPT to make government more transparent and empower citizens. I believe that it is this active uptake of AI – using the tools and understanding how they work – that best prepares us for the risks of AI.
This brings us to the third ingredient for success in the digital era: resilience.
Integrating cyber-warfare into regular warfare is now established practice. Cyberspace is not a sideshow, but the front line. In Ukraine, Russian cyber attacks – though largely unsuccessful – preceded the so-called conventional warfare. Russia has continued to target data centers and communications infrastructure.
To mitigate potential threats, we must all focus on increasing our resilience. We need to adapt to the rapidly changing security environment. Estonia nearly doubled its annual cyber security budget last year, alongside to the commitment to spend at least 3% of GDP on defence overall. We invite other countries to do the same.
Ukraine’s experience at defending itself against aggression is also showing us how openness and responsiveness reinforce resilience. Ukraine has been able to enlist volunteers from across the world, for everything from donations to cyber defence. Ukraine has out-innovated Russia, fielding entirely new weapons systems while enlisting data and connectivity to improve the effectiveness of existing weapons. And Ukraine is showing us all how it is possible to keep the state running and deliver services online even during a full-scale war.
Openness, responsiveness, resilience – all of these are areas where democracies can use technology to win every time. But there is a crucial, fourth ingredient: and that is collaboration. Take it from the leader of a small country on the front line of the free world – we need to do this together.
First and foremost, right now, that means supporting Ukraine until victory – with weapons, financing, know-how – but also bringing Ukraine into the collaborative formats we have, NATO, the European Union and others.
We must all be active students. Estonia is not alone in re-imagining government for the digital age. I am proud that we have digital front-runners from every continent in the room, many of whom have called on Estonian expertise and technology in their digital transformation.
Collaboration is not just between governments but also with the private sector. Ukraine is a living example of this. Companies like Palantir, Google, Mandiant and many others have been crucial to Ukraine. And the contribution of Estonian companies has not been less important – our e-Governance Academy together with CybExer Technologies has set up a cyber lab for the Ukrainian Armed Forces, while Cybernetica has supported the operation of Ukraine’s data exchange platform Trembita. Private investment is also crucial to Ukraine now and after victory – here, I am again proud of Estonian companies like Nortal, who have been investing in Ukraine from the early days of the Russian aggression.
A recurring theme of this summit is the idea that geopolitics and values matter when it comes to technology and investment. Whether we are talking about 5G networks, chips or e-government software, we cannot be blind to the trustworthiness both of our supplier and its home country.
Instead, we need trusted connectivity. We must aim to build as broad and open a coalition of open countries throughout the world. In particular, we cannot afford to build a fortress Europe that cuts us off from innovation in North America, Asia and elsewhere.
If we can look at the challenges we face with optimism and if we can do so together, I am confident that the future of free and open democracies is bright.