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Feature: Four pitfalls of digital innovation

Estonia ranked 9th in the EU's March 2017 Digital Economy and Society Index.
Estonia ranked 9th in the EU's March 2017 Digital Economy and Society Index. Source: (ERR)

We live in what is arguably the world's foremost digital state. Innovation and digitization have been widely used almost synonymously with Estonia. But while the promoters of e-Estonia are only slowly beginning to realize it, the narrative is already wearing thin.

Chief Justice Priit Pikamäe said on Friday that the digitization of the Estonian courts is nothing that would get a lot of recognition internationally (ERR News reported), as replacing paper with digital documents doesn't change the basic workings of the judiciary. It saves money, it saves time, but things are still done the same way.

Instead, Pikamäe suggested, the work of the courts could be integrated with new digital solutions to a different effect, for example to reduce the courts' workload by making looking through files connected to a bankruptcy or tax fraud case more efficient and less time-consuming.

Pikamäe is definitely on to something here: before applauding innovation, we should all get in the habit of having a closer look, because there are at least four traps as well that tend to slow us down rather than to improve things.

Pitfall 1: What exactly have you innovated?

Over the past few years, an Estonian-developed language learning application called Lingvist has made plenty of headlines. Learning apps are a good example to demonstrate that identifying just where innovation is taking place matters quite a lot.

Anyone who ever bought an English course will know that the chief means by which language is taught are filling in gaps, translating and drilling vocabulary, and by listening and repeating words and phrases. This hasn't changed at all since at least the 1960s.

Neither Lingvist nor e.g. Duolingo offer a revolutionary new methodology. The advantage is elsewhere. Today's apps are more easily available, a course is much easier to carry around and use, it comes with reminders, and in the best case even with a native algorithm that picks up how you, the student, tend to learn.

It is important to identify where innovation is happening. Just as digitizing the courts by replacing paper with digital documents doesn't represent a revolution in the way they work, Lingvist hasn't innovated language learning as such, but rather the way lessons are delivered.

Pitfall 2: Disimprovement

Innovation can also mean disimprovement. Some of Estonia's e-government solutions are an example. If you are an Apple user who wants to start a company in the famous 15 minutes or less and you don't have a mobile ID, you're in for an unpleasant surprise.

You'll first insult yourself for anything between 15 and 45 minutes trying to log into the state's entrepreneurs portal. After that, you will either go and get a mobile ID contract from your phone provider, or try again with a borrowed PC. There you're in for the next shock: you'll have to use Internet Explorer. Yes, good old Internet Explorer, because you won't be able to get in using another browser.

While the ability to register a company online represents considerable innovation, the hours you might end up losing on the way there are a clear case of disimprovement. A revolutionary new thing is made available only to immediately be turned into an utter pain in the neck because it is badly executed.

In some instances, for example when dealing with the Tax Board or the Unemployment Insurance Fund, you may find that after nearly losing your mind trying to find your way around the system, you will still have to go to one of their branches and queue. And the queue is likely to be long, as there are fewer public servants now as part of their jobs have been moved online.

Pitfall 3: Contradicting innovation

There is such a thing as contradicting innovation as well. The Estonian mobile ID is an example. Though it does make life a great deal easier by way of making your phone service provider identify you, it is essentially a controversial addition to the e-government services.

That is mainly because it is a paid subscription service offered by private businesses. This in itself isn't a bad thing, but what does seem strange is that to get the e-government solutions to really be as comfortable as they can be, Estonia depends on private companies offering a paid subscription service to residents. That is the state's homework only half-way done, and vast potential for coordination and consolidation left untapped.

Pitfall 4: Innovation becomes dogma

Possibly the most important pitfall of overusing the term innovation is that it tends to lead to the creation of new dogmas. These again can limit development to a considerable degree.

Ironically, it is the dogma of the digital nation that has been hampering Estonia's economic development in other, slightly more worldly areas.

Despite the fact that people in business as well as politics have been pointing out for a good while now that in terms of digital development Estonia is being overtaken left and right, the narrative of the digital pioneer prevails.

Estonia's story as the world's foremost digital nation has done very little for the other areas of the country's economy. And that is an issue, as the latter is and will most likely remain consumer-driven. Consumers can only spend money if they're paid money, which is something that isn't much helped by the fact that digitization usually means a reduction in the number of paid jobs, not an increase.

The country is at a crossroads. Wages are no longer low enough to attract foreign investors that would bring money for the local industry and create jobs. And as it turns out, education isn't a silver bullet either, as for whatever reason the system so far has been incapable of translating its massive advantage at the primary and secondary school level into tangible economic results.

The state and Enterprise Estonia combined spend millions every year on popularizing a narrative based on an almost unchanged innovation that is soon going to be twenty years old. Meanwhile the country's exporters are complaining that the economy outside the digital sphere has been neglected, and is rarely part of the coverage Estonia is getting in the media abroad.

Bottom line: Pikamäe's comment on digitization hits the nail on the head. Not everything that looks like innovation necessarily needs to be, and if things are really supposed to develop, people will need to follow the chief justice's example and start talking about what is really worth advertising and what isn't.

Editor: Aili Vahtla

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