Tallinn University of Technology

Now is the time to invent the technology for the future information society. This technology is very much more than e-government, Internet voting, and electronic identity cards. The coming decade will separate the innovators from the followers, writes professor Dirk Draheim.

Dirk Draheim professor
Professor Dirk Draheim

By Dirk Draheim, Full Professor of Information Society Technology at TalTech

And again, Estonia is in pole position. Because, in Estonia exists a splendid and unique team spirit between politics, industry, and academics when it comes to IT innovations. However, we are at a point where hard engineering endeavours and great new business ideas are no longer enough. The discussion on what is needed and what is possible needs to begin, and needs to be wider. I am convinced that it is the genuine responsibility of the Estonian Universities to provide the required out-of-the-box thinking.

Estonia is doing great when it comes to digitalization. Everybody knows that. It is said so continuously in the international media. And Estonia is doing great in marketing its e-success story: we have an e-Estonia web page and an e-Estonia showroom. But it is much more than a show, not just a rumble in the media. Estonia has clearly identifiable digital assets, and these are officially appreciated by international experts. Just as an example, the two most recent UN e-Government Surveys 2018 and 2020 clearly describe Estonia as a technological leader. 

In the 2018 survey, the case of Estonia defines the e-government category “Government as an API” (API = Application Programming Interface). Then, the survey 2020 concludes that “Estonia is considered one of the fastest rising countries for digital transformation in the world.” And indeed, e-Estonia is unique. Its eID cards (electronic identification cards) and eID solutions are in widespread use, as nowhere else in the world. The country’s administration is fully online, with thousands of e-services offered to the citizens, truly an e-administration. And Estonia´s Internet voting again impresses experts all around the globe. The “Government as an API” is the key to this success story. The fundament of this approach is Estonia’s well-known data exchange layer X-Road, a sophisticated network solution that enables millions of e-service transactions per day. It is already twenty years ago now that a small group of visionaries from politics, industry, and the Universities gave birth to the idea of X-Road and turned it into reality; today, X-Road is praised for its brilliance and modernity.

Unfortunately, leadership is always challenged. Others learn and the pace increases. Silently, in the last decade, many countries have built their own data exchange layers with a similar purpose and functionality as X-Road. However, these solutions are usually not open, i.e. they are not available to others; and international media do not pay attention to them. X-Road, on the other hand, is the original solution, and is openly available; actually, it has been deployed by many countries so far. Still, as with every innovative technology, the innovative edge of X-Road gets smaller and smaller, day by day..

But what comes next?

In January 2021, the GAIA-X Association was founded in Brussels, Belgium. The self-declared target of GAIA-X is nothing less than to build the next generation of data infrastructure for Europe. Among the 22 founding members of GAIA-X are tech giants such as Orange, SAP, EDF, Atos, Amadeus, Safran, Bosch, BMW, Siemens, and Telekom (only those ten have a combined annual revenue of more than 500 Billion Euro, which is ten times more than the Estonian gross domestic product). From the beginning, GAIA-X had the political support of the European Commission. So, GAIA-X is ambitious. Will it take off? I doubt that: too large, too many vested interests. Do we have to look it? Yes, obviously, we have to from a strategic viewpoint. Is GAIA-X just a kind of next-level X-Road? The national data exchange layer X-Road, on the hand, and the European data infrastructure GAIA-X, on the other hand? Such an explanation would be too simple.

First, X-Road is also capable of cross-nation data exchange, i.e. it can be used as federated solution. But the difference is in the addressed key problem, which, in the case of GAIA-X, is the long-lasting cloud computing dilemma. Already in September 2020, in her State of the Union Address, EU Parliament President von der Leyen said: “And it is why we will build a European cloud as part of NextGenerationEU - based on Gaia-X.”

A problem for the European economy is the dominance of cloud offerings by non-European super tech giants such as Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Alibaba. This has been understood more and more in the last decade, in particular, against the background of European data sovereignty. Think alone of the struck down of the Safe Harbor framework in October 2015 and its follower, the EU-US Privacy Shield, in July 2020 by the European Court of Justice.  So, an initiative to create strong European cloud offerings surely make sense. But guess what: already in March 2021, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Alibaba joined the GAIA-X Association. 

What can learn from GAIA-X? In designing the future information society technologies, we must be willing to leave well trodden paths. It is surely not enough to pick buzzwords from the IT mainstream, such as “data science” or “artificial intelligence” and to enrich our technologies with a few respective gimmicks.

What is needed is a master plan. For that, first, we need to understand the key barriers of the information society. The cloud computing dilemma is one of them, but there are many others. They all have to do with the unsystematic rank growth of digitalization: social media filter bubbles, inefficient business-to-business communications, predatory e-commerce platforms, just to name a few.

In the future, we need to shape these areas, not just observe. In all of these endeavours, we need out-of-the-box thinking. The creation of X-Road was an example of such extraordinary out-of-the-box thinking.

And I am convinced that it can happen again, here, in e-Estonia.