“I’ve never been afraid of technology”: Toomas Hendrik Ilves

R + D + i

The journalist, diplomat and twice President of the Republic of Estonia (2006 to 2016), has been promoting the development of IT in his small country since they regained his independence. Educated in the United States, Hendrik Lives held various diplomatic positions before being elected as President of Estonia. He has been called the “architect” of the country “with the digitally-savvy country on Earth”.

In 2016, he received the Digital Freedom Award in recognition for his promotion of digital freedom and for raising awareness of the opportunities and challenges that the technological revolution can bring. For a few years now, Hendrik Lives has been writing and talking extensively about integration, transatlantic relations, electronic government, cybersecurity and other related topics. Extremely accessible and open to dialogue, the Estonian politician gave the City of Knowledge Foundation a few minutes of his time during a recent visit to Panama, to talk a little about how he began to turn his small country into the most technological society in the world, how he became a fan of technology and the importance of closing the gap between technology and ethics.

“An Interview With The Architect of the Most Digitally Savvy Country on Earth” by Peter High, Forbes Magazine, 23 April, 2018. Education has been defined as a pillar of competitiveness for Panama and we are facing the challenge of achieving quality education at all levels, how did your education influence the man you are today? I can think of two defining moments: the first happened when I was 14 years old and was in the ninth grade in New Jersey, United States.

I had a math teacher who was doing her Ph.D. in Mathematics Education at the time and she had the “crazy” idea, in 1969, to teach us how to program. We were a small group and after 4 or 5, months we basically learned how to program in “Basic.” The funny thing about all this is that although most of my colleagues were not interested in computers, most of them continued studies in that area and it was then, at age 14, was where they got hooked. Although I did not follow that path strictly speaking, one of the key lessons I got from that time is that I was never afraid of IT. I’m not a geek, but somehow, I always saw it as something else that one could naturally do.

The second key moment in my education that has influenced me greatly, I owe it to the amount and type of courses required for the degree in Political Philosophy at Columbia University. For all these reasons I am very interested in these three subjects: democracy, theory of government and information technology. The intersection of these themes – technology, democracy and ethics – has a lot of relevance today … I think we are facing a problem that was first described by the British novelist and scientist C.P. Snow, who wrote an essay in 1959 entitled “The Two Cultures.”

Basically, he explains how people in the humanities field often know nothing about science and vice versa. However, he was a person who knew how to bridge that gap. From the point of view of another person who also crosses that bridge, I see what is happening now and I feel that one of the biggest issues we face is that people in technology do not usually think about the ethics or the implications of what make. This gap was evidenced very clearly in the recent hearings in the US Senate with Mark Zuckerberg [from Facebook]…  The truth is that we won’t be able to come up with solutions to face all these issues that have arisen in recent years – election manipulation, fake news, trolls – unless people in technology start thinking about the ethical side of things and that people, let’s say, on the government side understand what technology is about.

How does one begin closing that gap?

In general, I would say that everyone should learn to use a computer, learn to program, etc., so that in the future we will have responsible politicians and legislators who know what we are talking about. Conversely, people who follow the technological path must know about ethics and humanities.

How did you translate all this into your digitalization policy?

When my country gained independence, it was extremely poor, and, in retrospect, I believe the experience of learning to program at age 14 inspired me to develop the first digitization program in the country. Then, when I analyzed how Estonia, small and recently independent, compared to other developed countries that had been building big infrastructures, superhighways, etc. for 50 years, I realized that the technological level was the one in which we were on an even playing field of. Hence the proposal that all schools in Estonia be equipped with computer labs and that they become connected. I managed to convince the Minister of Education and that’s how the program was born. By 1997-1998, all schools were online.

What was the impact of that first program in schools?

Well, Estonia has the highest rate of “unicorns” per capita, for example. We have one for every 300,000 people. We have a lot of startups, four of them are “unicorns.” We invented Skype. I think all this is not a coincidence. When I spoke with these people, many told me: “I was on your program 20 years ago, I was a child, but now here I am, still doing this.”

Finally, how do you think that technology and digitalization can help Panama’s transparency?

I think that many of the situations where situations lack of transparency can occur are “discretionary”; that is, there is a decision to be made by a person. Think, for example, of speeding tickets. In Estonia, the only way a person can be fined is if the speed infraction is checked by a radar connected to a computer. There is no way to “avoid” this fine. A policeman stops you but does not have a discretionary role in whether you are fined, pay said-fine or not. In that sense, transparency can be improved by reducing the human factor and I think that many situations of this kind would become much more efficient. In addition, it is important to keep in mind that digital development is not the responsibility of a single entity. For this change to work, the participation of civil society and the private sector must also be available.

The government, for its part, must be willing to assume these risks. It cannot be something that permeates from the bottom up, but the other way around. “

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