Opening Speech by the Prime Minister of Estonia, Kaja Kallas, at Tallinn Digital Summit 2021

07.09.2021 | 10:23

Dear Presidents, Secretary-General, ministers, and distinguished guests.

Those of you who flew here to Tallinn passed through our Lennart Meri Airport. Lennart Meri was a writer, film director and our beloved president, who once said that “a country that is open to the sea can never be small”.
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In the medieval age Tallinn was part of the Hanseatic League and was governed by Lübeck Law. If you walk around our capital today, you still experience this heritage at every step. This was the basis of Trusted Connectivity, at that time.

Today a country’s size matters less than its capacity to innovate. Estonia’s historical perspective and our success in digital governance have led me to be able to welcome you all here today. Thank you to all those who are here in person but also to all those who, for understandable reasons, are joining us online.

Estonia’s digital journey began over 25 years ago, when we brought connectivity into our schools. We based our way of life on trust, openness, and human centric values. Our governance is built on close and candid partnerships. Our society leaves no room for Big Brother. Success and innovation hinge not on strict control but on trust and transparency.

In Estonia, nearly everyone has a digital identity and 99% of government services are available online and accessible 24/7. The backbone of our digital governance system is a secure and open API. With many governments around the world adopting a similar approach, we have witnessed an unprecedented rise in international connectivity. For example, Estonia shares many automated cross-border services with Finland, our dear friends in the north.

From our experience and from global developments, we know that the wild card will be digital global governance and the capacity to deliver and share a common digital public infrastructure. For example, the decisions for a common eID across the EU and the creation of data spaces (for example in health) are already picking up speed.

We are already delivering services in a very different way than we used to. Digital governance experience has globally matured to a point where it is shared more easily across borders. We need to harmonize principles of taxonomy, promote open, standard-based re-usability and share knowhow and capacity.

As we grow accustomed to the opportunities that the digital transformation of our economies and societies brings, we must also face its challenges—what will the world of tomorrow look like and what values will underpin it?

We find ourselves amidst another industrial revolution with unprecedented implications on the ways we conduct business, interact, and lead our lives. While the steam engine took decades to become adopted at a massive scale, the cycle of innovation has essentially become momentary. Just 15 years ago, the idea of a taxi being just a few taps of the screen away seemed almost inconceivable—yet the Bolts and the Ubers of this world have made the stuff of imagination commonplace. We can only imagine how things like shared self-driving vehicles together with affordable renewable energy will shape our understanding of mobility.

COVID-19 is the first global pandemic of the Information Age. It has rapidly accelerated the digitalization of services, the delivery of goods, and our means of communication. This has created a unique window of opportunity. Common battles against common enemies have a peculiar way of creating a shared sense of identity, community, and responsibility. But the pandemic has also revealed that many essential tools for functioning in the modern world are lacking. Take, for instance, vaccination certificates—it’s great that International Air Transport Association has recognised the EU way, but we still don’t have a global approach.

Novel avenues of connection—most notably 5G and broadband internet—are the lifeline of the modern world. However, as countries increase their interdependencies through connectivity, we must ask ourselves: who is in possession of our connectivity infrastructure and what geostrategic implications does this have?

All good things eventually come to an end. The combined geopolitical weight of the democracies is in decline, and we are witnessing a shift in the economic balance of power in the global system. Year after year, democratic countries keep losing ground to autocracies in terms of GDP – and will likely be overtaken. The international order—based on openness, fair competition, and transparency—is under duress and needs to adapt promptly. We must take action to ward off the lure of illiberalism and protectionism.

In the face of newfound global challenges, we need to deliver something different. Climate change leaves little room for business as usual. So how do we leverage the new industrial revolution and build back a better world that is more connected, more sustainable, and more sovereign?   

Dear participants,

Language shapes our perceptions and conceptions of reality. The first step in responding to our common challenges and building back a better world is to reconceptualize what “infrastructure” in the 21st century means.

Infrastructure is no longer simply about bricks and mortar, roads, railways, and bridges. Today infrastructure means “digital connections,” for digital components have become an inseparable part of constructing, operating, and maintaining physical infrastructure.

Digital components are also the main drivers of new goods, services, and business models that have yielded immense gains in productivity across the world. And it is (largely) innovation by private companies and entrepreneurs in democratic countries that we can thank for our continuously rising standard of living.

Such innovations are fostered by trust, both in technology and in our political and legal systems that determine how technology operates. Our shared democratic values—openness, transparency, and the protection of individual rights—form the ideological basis of Trusted Connectivity. Trusted Connectivity is a framework for democratic countries that governs issues such as data protection and cybersecurity, standards for the free flow of data and for sustainable investment practices.

Trusted Connectivity is rooted in the idea that we need a framework for financing international infrastructure projects based on a common set of values. To achieve this, we must protect data and allow it to move freely. Effective data and cyber security create trust. And trust is an important to attracting private sector investments. So, the role of the public sector in democratic countries is to set the rules of the game: to cultivate trust and to facilitate innovation.

A simple, transparent, and hassle-free financing framework allows us to harness the power of the private sector. The first steps have already been taken—the Three Seas Initiative and its Investment Fund are examples of the principles of Trusted Connectivity already in practice. What we need now is to broaden our horizons.

But what can we do about it? We must decide how to solve the problem. I propose:

First, democratic countries must forge connectivity partnerships among each other and with emerging economies, guided by the principles of Trusted Connectivity. The European Union, the G7, and the Indo-Pacific Quad nations have to take charge in these efforts. The EU and the US must use Trade and Technology Council to foster policy alignment on international data transfers and data flows. Similar venues should be employed by other democratic countries.

Second, these partnerships should be employed to improve existing and establish new mechanisms for financing cross-border infrastructure projects that prioritize digital and cybersecurity components.

Third, we should better advertise various existing public and private investments based on our common values by adopting a shared framework—such as Trusted Connectivity.

Fourth, we need a brand to certify that the principles of Trusted Connectivity have been followed. Luckily, such a branding tool is already in the process of being developed at the OECD—the Blue Dot Network. The BDN would be a testament to the highest quality and the highest standards of a particular infrastructure project.

Fifth, there is a need for an organisation that maintains such tools. The governance of this institution must be simple, adoptable, and thus future proof. So, we need to find optimal synergy in a hyperlocal format: connecting and opening more traditional mechanisms to new distributed ecosystems of innovators. Developing, agreeing on and deploying such a framework will be one of the most important action items for this decade.

I have invited you here today because I believe in working together in solving common problems. I have outlined some fundamentals that I hope it will lead to productive conversations today and to a tomorrow that is more free, prosperous, and sustainable.

I welcome you and I am humbled that all of those that are physically here. And thankful for all of you joining us online.

Estonia is here and willing to contribute to these discussions and if needed can help as an honest broker between different stakeholders.

Thank you and I wish you an excellent Tallinn Digital Summit!

Communication Unit

üksus