Transcript: Global Anecdotes, Episode 1: Hacking a Global Crisis
[Daniel Jean] Hello, welcome to the Global Anecdotes in a Pandemic World podcast, produced by the Canada School of Public Service. I'm your host, Daniel Jean. Whether you're working, commuting, waiting for a call to begin or taking a walk, thank you for tuning in. We've all heard of hackers, the individuals who break into computer systems. But what if we looked at hacking a bit differently? Would it be possible then for us to hack a global pandemic? Today, I'm speaking with Mikk Vainik, head of Accelerate Estonia, a startup minded agile innovation project initiated by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and powered by Tehnopol Startup Incubator and Startup Estonia. Thank you for being with us today, Mikk.
[Mikk Vainik] Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure.
[Daniel Jean] Let's get right into the subject of today. Could you let us know a bit more about what Accelerate Estonia does?
[Mikk Vainik] So the story with Accelerate Estonia started very many years ago, when Estonia launched something you may have heard of, e-residency, which was also a initiative that came from the government's side, where the government needed to do a lot of work before the innovation in the private sector could happen. And basically the case for Accelerate Estonia is similar. We're just trying to find new ways where the government should do some efforts first, either in a process mindset or legislation, so that we could create a new market out of something that is currently a messy problem. And this is what Accelerate Estonia is for. It's a process for figuring out which of these complex problems we can take on and turn into a market opportunities, not just one company, but for dozens of new business models.
[Daniel Jean] I understand that last March, Accelerate Estonia, engaged with partners and the public to tackle some of the COVID-19 crisis challenges. What motivated this engagement, Mikk?
[Mikk Vainik] So when on the 12th of March, it was clear that Estonia is going to declare a state of emergency. Then the minister at the time for entrepreneurship and IT sent out a letter to the whole ministry saying, that we need now to think outside the box and find solutions that help us minimize the effects of this crisis on us. And it was clear that when I have an innovation lab on my hands, then we need to come up with something as well. So I just shouted out to my team that can you think of ways how we can have a say into how this crisis is resolved. And the next morning, a teammate came up with this idea of an online hackathon and because everyone's workday was disrupted anyway, then we decided we're going to set it up in six hours and we will begin the same day. We have a very long history of public-private partnership in Estonia. So it wasn't really difficult to get the private sector on board with that. Some of the prizes and so on. But still, I was amazed to see that in six hours we set up an event for which more than a thousand people digitally showed up and created around 30 projects, of which I think five or seven or so are still in action like six months later.
[Daniel Jean] Like many government organizations where there's a major crisis, this one global, you know, having major impact nationally as well. You were able to rally both with your partner agencies and with the private sector. Can you describe some of the initiatives that came out of Hack The Crisis and what was the impact of some of those?
[Mikk Vainik] So from our Estonian hackathon, there are two kinds of projects. Some were business models, actual companies that could be profitable in the new normal, so to say. But others were more like groups of volunteers putting up a network of health personnel who could help out in hospitals where frontline workers were in need.
Or there was a volunteering network for people to get groceries to risk groups, because they just can't get out of home. Then there was a chat bot that was very quickly adopted by our government office to get more questions answered, because the phone line was really hot and people were not getting answers fast enough. So mostly the solutions came from the field of health. But there were also - there was a lot of innovation around the future of work. Some things around education, medical supplies. There was one company that built the prototype of a breathing machine, a company that is still operating, that created a platform for companies to exchange workforce. There was also some cultural projects on how to give artists an opportunity to have online concerts in a way that they can monetize it as well. So all around, really.
[Daniel Jean] And the fact that Estonia is already so wired, like from the Internet thing standpoint, from some of the examples that you provided, you can see that it created a platform to be able to enable virtual community support in times of crisis. Right?
[Mikk Vainik] Yes, absolutely. I think, yes, we are digital, but we are not also living in Zoom all the time. I mean, so the crisis hit all of us very hard, but we were able to adapt quite fast. And one interesting case more is that we used an Estonian technology platform named Guana to run the online hackathon. And after this height of the crisis, they basically pivoted and rebranded to create a new company that is basically focused on running online hackathons because it seems that this thing is not going away, those online communities. So by accident, we helped to jumpstart a company called Eventornado, which is also a cool side effect of things.
[Daniel Jean] Thank you, Mikk. This is pretty impressive what happened in Estonia. You mentioned in describing what you did in March that it also triggered curiosity abroad outside Estonia. And then you were asked to organize, help organize a global hack in April. What can you tell us about global innovation and government partnership? Is there something that came out of the global hack that you're most proud of?
[Mikk Vainik] Two things come to mind. One of them is an Estonian company that, through that global hack, managed to get clients, or managed to scale across borders because they built this supply management tool for medical supplies, which they have already, I don't know if sold, but at least demoed to different nations who all have the same problem, really. And also to bigger organizations. The name is MASC, with a C at the end. And another beautiful takeaway was that this group of people behind the global hack, we knew each other before, but now we're even closer.
[Daniel Jean] OK. And in the way you described the role of Accelerate Estonia and the way you describe all your partners, both within government and with the private sector in Estonia to tackle COVID-19, it's quite clear that you're probably one of the countries that is the most advanced in what we would call a you know, private-public partnerships. In your view, what role should the government play in these sort of partnerships in order to maximize on innovation?
[Mikk Vainik] In the midst of the crisis, we were asked to stop running so many hackathons, because government can only absorb only so much innovation that it has workforce for. So I think we did go a little bit crazy with that. But when you think of it, then the services that the government provides are the ones that are either commercially not viable or are basically too risky for the private sector to take on by themselves. The government needs to be a risk taker, because that's the very reason those services were given to the government, to take those risks instead of the private sector and give back a good service. So if you take it from that angle, then there is no excuse. Innovation needs to happen. But the flip side of that coin is that there is no competition and therefore there is no incentive to really build top notch services. And the other downside is that the risk reward system doesn't really support innovating throughout government, because if it goes well, then the public is happy with the service. But if it goes wrong, most of the blame goes toward some particular government official. And that is something where we tried to build a process where we empower those policymakers, that the risk is okay if you do it, if you do those experiments, knowing the problem that you actually want to solve.
[Daniel Jean] Thank you, and what should we expect from the private sector partners?
[Mikk Vainik] I think it's key to keep that dialogue very honest and straightforward. So if the government says, hey, we're gonna be innovative in, I don't know, environmental issues or social issues, then it needs to make clear it knows the playing field it is entering. So if you want to communicate with innovators and the private sector side, you need to be honest about what they're - what's going to be there down the line. Are there going to be procurements, grants, stuff like that available or it's just a dialogue? So if the offer from the public sector is relatively clear, then the private sector should be empowered to move fast, break some things, maybe show where the law should be adjusted a little bit and just, you know, jump at the opportunity, because especially when you talk about startups, what they most need from government is a first use case, that their technology, our process, our business model has some value. That is something we have seen a lot in Estonian cyber defense industry that wants to get this first proof of concept done together with the government. These can lead to very massive scale up. One example of a company in Estonia, who did a proof of concept with the minister of defense of around, around I don't know, a hundred thousand. And a couple of years later, there is technology attracted investment. More than 10 million. So that's what needs to happen.
[Daniel Jean] And that's probably a good segue way for my next question: So Mikk startups are great, but the challenge is often to scale up. What is your best advice on scaling up, drawing both from your experience, but also your initiative on COVID-19?
[Mikk Vainik] I'm not sure government can do much about the ability to scale a company, because the choice of scaling this is a business decision based on market realities. So before taking on this role and Accelerate Estonia, I worked a few years on the Estonian startup ecosystem and we kept quite a long, lot of time wondering whether we should have a specific programs to help, not just startups, but also scale ups. And there was this study by OECD saying that basically whatever the government does, the percentage of startups that grow into scale ups will be between three to eight percent. So, yes, you can, you know, make more money available, more scale up stage investments you can make available. But the choice of scaling is not anymore a emotional choice, but rather what the actual table tells you.
[Daniel Jean] So it'd be a bit like an ecology of support around coming for the government, but to help the energy of the private sector be successful in that scaling up.
[Mikk Vainik] Yes, because in the scale up phase, I don't think the scale ups really want to - public servants to tell them what to do. But if they're still in the early stages, they don't really know how to get into an incubator or get the funding. This is where public sector can help to cultivate the ecosystem and make sure that there are private funds available, maybe backed up by public funds, that there are those incubators and co-workers spaces available if needed, then give them some initial financial support. But I don't believe in a very fixed state, also because Estonia is a very small economy and we need to be lean, but we really can't go about telling scaleups how they should do their business.
[Daniel Jean] Mikk, we've been very impressed how Estonia is a global leader in innovation. What have been the key drivers for Estonia to be so successful? What is your advice for Canadian public servants who want to lead with innovation in mind?
[Mikk Vainik] Well, the story started in 1991 when we regained independence. And I think we were kind of lucky because that time coincided with the time when the Internet actually started spreading very rapidly and we basically didn't have the money to do anything else but to look at new technologies. Of course, it took some years to get that legislation in place and actually build the technologies, but we were lucky to have good people in key roles. The Prime Minister at the time, the President at the time, the Minister for Education, they were all aligned with looking at new technologies. What we also had was, we had quite the workforce from the universities who were able to write code and think of concepts that we could come up with. From there already it was ingrained into our DNA that the way to build a modern government is by having a lot public-private partnerships and doing both steps from from both sides. And the next important moment was in the beginning of 2000, 2001 when the passports that were issued in 1991, Estonian passports, they were running out of time and it was decided that everyone who updates their passport also gets a digital I.D. card. And people needed to do that. It wasn't an option. Everyone was kind of dissatisfied with that. Why do I need that? I don't need the card, I have a passport. You're spending all this money on these stupid cards? But it soon became clear that these cards enable very good encryption. Very good defense against cyber attacks. Therefore, Estonian banks and Estonian telecom companies told their clients that to do the more, to do more things online you need to use these cards. So we've tricked or helped the private sector to use the Estonian I.D. card first. And only then did the Estonian citizens begin demanding that more services should be able online through that card. And the rest is history. We just then were able to digitalize basically every public service that we have, but it starts with leadership. And leadership gives you the first use case, it's the first success. And that is very useful in telling the narrative of why this public sector innovation is important. And then it should be very difficult to stop that wave of innovation.
[Daniel Jean] Very impressive, Mikk. If you'll allow me to go back to the fantastic contribution you made to the Estonian response to COVID-19, in your view, what was more important? Was that preparation or innovation and agility?
[Mikk Vainik] Agility for sure, especially because we set it up in six hours. But on the other hand, the organization we used for that Garage48, which has run physical hackathons for 10 years already. They already knew, kind of what the processes that they needed to set up. It was just that many of the elements had not been tested online and we didn't know how mentoring sessions or I don't know, networking could actually look like in such a setting. But in that context, this fast decision, let's do it. Let's use the partners that are already aligned with us and let's rapidly reach out to the media and get some people in high positions to support it, to get this energy going. Those agile decisions and keeping the core team to four or five people. That was also very critical, that we didn't - the core team making those decisions were small, but the community around that, getting the mentors and the prizes in, that pool of people is bigger, of course.
[Daniel Jean] So agility is very important, but an agile response may be even more effective if you've trained to be agile before. That's what, kind of you're saying, right? To use a bit of an athletic analogy.
[Mikk Vainik] Yes. And I need to also mention that that kind of effort that we did with the hack the crisis movement, it didn't really need almost any budget. I mean, for prizes for Estonian hackathon, yes, we did need to write off a few cheques that were below the procurement threshold. But when a country is hit by this enormous crisis, then people don't ask for paycheques. They want to be a part of that movement. And that is the key driver, not the costs that might be coming with it.
[Daniel Jean] Very, very good. Thank you for sharing your experience and thoughts on Estonia's public service agility and innovation, Mikk. And maybe talking about agility, to conclude our chat why don't we test you on rapid fire questions?
[Daniel Jean] Are you IOS or Android?
[Mikk Vainik] IOS.
[Daniel Jean] Are you an early riser or a night owl?
[Mikk Vainik] Night owl.
[Daniel Jean] And when it comes to Estonian culture, when it comes to music, do you prefer the bands Vanilla Ninja or Curly?
[Mikk Vainik] Curly.
[Daniel Jean] You're more in the folk side, right? When it comes to Estonian literature, do you prefer the author Rein Raud or Indrek Hargla?
[Mikk Vainik] Indrek Hargla for sure.
[Daniel Jean] You're most in science fiction. Okay. And when it comes to sport, popular sports in Estonia, basketball or soccer, football in Europe?
[Mikk Vainik] Soccer for sure.
[Daniel Jean] And finally, when it comes to food, do you prefer the national Estonian dish verivorst, which is blood sausages, or do you prefer jöuluhani, which is roast goose.
[Mikk Vainik] Instead of both of them I prefer maple syrup.
[Daniel Jean] Oh, that sounds very good and it's very Canadian. It's been a real pleasure to have you for this podcast, thank you, Mikk. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today.
[Mikk Vainik] Thank you for having me.
[Daniel Jean] Thank you for taking time to listen in. If you've enjoyed the episode, be sure to tell others about it and share it on your social media. Until next time, take care and stay safe and healthy.