Twenty years ago, Kaimar Karu lead a web development agency at a time when 80% of internet users used Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, internet speeds were measured in kilobytes, people used computers to access the Internet, and the dominant coding language was PHP.
Yet at that time, Karu encouraged his dev team to code in Python, today’s coding language of choice in the epoch of AI and Machine Learning. Why? Because, in his view, Python was better.
“We delivered projects using Python at a time where everybody was using PHP, so we were outliers who used different languages simply because we thought it worked best. Throughout my career I have had the opportunity to work with amazing, forward-looking people who have rarely settled for the status quo. Now look at the world, Python is everywhere,” Karu said.
Today, as the Minister of Foreign Trade and Information Technology for the Republic of Estonia, he’s leading ICT strategy for his country from earth to space, yet he’s typically Estonian about it.
“When I describe my role, I’d jokingly say it’s everything from post box to space. Which is kind of what it is as I’m in charge of Estonian post and the Estonian space program, among other things,” he remarked.
In the middle of a global pandemic, it’s this type of self-effacing mindset, backed by a capacity to think like an outlier and make pragmatic decisions in real-time that has to be one of the reasons Estonia is emotionally weathering the COVID-19 pandemic better than most EU countries.
“We’re a small country and I believe that our real competitive advantage is pragmatism and lack of patience for everything stupid. Estonians have proven to live by a ‘can do’ attitude. We aren’t afraid of taking risks, experimenting, building on what works and abandoning what doesn’t.”
Arguably, Estonia’s inherent pragmatism and appetite for risk and innovation is a result of the fact their country literally had to start from scratch after regaining independence in 1991. How they then moved from independence to become the world’s most digitized government is legendary.
“Estonia’s world-leading position in tech is built on luck and hard work. We were lucky, in a sense, to have the need to build our economy, our government, our collaboration models from scratch after regaining independence. This created a context where everything was possible – and we took this opportunity to build something that no-one else thought was possible,” he said.
Today, most services offered by Estonia’s government are made available electronically via a national Digital I.D. that empowers people to vote, access health data, manage tax, police records and prescriptions online. But they’re not stopping there. Next on the to-do list are projects such as migrating most government services to voice under the #KrattAI framework, as well as exploring ongoing innovation in the education and the environmental sectors.
Through Minister Karu’s eyes, necessity is the mother of invention.
“We started by building a foundation where we could build everything else. Then, we just did what felt right and it seems to have worked and still does. So far, the choice of focus has been organic, whenever there’s a need, innovation will happen. Today, during the crisis, everything will shift, and everything will change, and innovation must happen in a very rapid way because it requires significant changes in our everyday lives,” he said.
Estonia’s short but proud history of innovation built through public private partnerships makes it the perfect home to launch a global initiative to develop solutions and strategies to directly address the COVID-19 crisis via The Global Hack that’s being led in partnership between Accelerate Estonian, the innovation unit in Karu’s ministry, and Garage48, with additional financial support from the European Commission.
The global hackathon is a platform and a movement that gathers the brightest minds over the world from the public and private sectors, which is the key way that it differs from other hacks – that this crisis unquestionably needs strong cooperation between the public and private sector.
When asked about some of the expected outcomes he’d like to see from The Global Hack, Minister Karu is cautiously optimistic.
“We are quite likely to find quite a few amazing ideas coming from this, I expect the teams are likely to come up with completely novel solutions, because many of the old ways don’t work anymore, and today’s world does need bravery and novelty. The opportunity to gather great minds from around the world to work together on most critical challenges and find questions to acute questions is simply invaluable. By combining potential solutions with governmental and legislative support, we are in a good position to act fast” he said.
The tech community initiative – “The Global Hack“ online hackathon – will run from 09-12 April and is expected to attract over 1 million participants from across the world.