Global Innovation Networks, Part I: Learning from Estonia, "The Digital Republic"

This piece is our first in a series exploring opportunities for Austin to participate in global innovation networks that can supercharge our smart cities scene. The next post in the series will address the “Social Impact Blockchain”.

Estonia, as you may know, is one of the leading digital societies on earth. We came across the work of the Estonia Smart Cities Cluster (centered in Tartu), and were impressed by the thoughtfulness of their approach and the scope and specificity of their projects. Gerttu Pilsas, project manager, was kind enough to share her experience with us, and we were lucky enough to be joined by Austin City Data Architect, Ted Lehr, who helped drive a fascinating conversation.

Gerttu Pilsas, Project Manager at Estonian Smart City Cluster

Gerttu Pilsas, Project Manager at Estonian Smart City Cluster

Dr. Ted Lehr, Data Architect for the City of Austin, Texas

Dr. Ted Lehr, Data Architect for the City of Austin, Texas


SmartAustin: What is the history of your personal involvement in the Estonia Smart City cluster? What inspired you to join? What was the stage of development at the time and what were your first steps to move the Cluster forward?

Gerttu Pilsas: I was inspired to be part of smart city community because I think that the most impactful tech deployments are taking place in cities. The cluster, itself, started six months before I joined. The idea behind the cluster was older, and the history goes back a couple of years. Several companies and cities, plus some research institutions, were behind the idea and they were trying to solve a procurement problem. At the time I joined, only a few meetings had taken place and we had to create much more concrete plans.


SA: How did the cluster determine its areas of focus (government, infrastructure, mobility)?

These were jointly determined, but also based on patterns that emerged after getting some pilots going. We’ve found that our local businesses and public partners are strong in these areas. The way the process works is that the city identifies challenges, then invites companies from inside and outside of the cluster to see if they can address the ideas. The companies develop more specific ideas and then selected ideas turn into pilots.

Of course, we have never said that we won’t focus on other areas! Healthcare and social welfare may be next.


Ted Lehr: What are the rules you determined, for managing these engagements? I’m sure there are plenty of regulations that you have to consider.

GP: Yes, of course. The cluster acts as a middleman. At first, companies did not know how to work with the city government. Also, the city government did not know what the companies had to offer. Now, companies understand better how these things work. Companies also learned to work together through this process. For instance, 2-3 companies might work together to fulfill a city’s needs. What’s also interesting, by the way, is that these partnerships, between companies, sometimes give them the strength to expand internationally. Many Estonian companies are quite innovative, but small, and having partners helps them to succeed and grow.


TL: That’s a solid outcome and I’m glad to hear about it. I’m curious, though, when a municipality issues challenge, are there open meetings? Can anyone in the public participate?

GP: We tend to start with our own partners. But if there’s something that they cannot address, we try to find new companies, from different areas, to make the solution as useful as possible. So, the approach can vary. But we do look to find solutions wherever they might come from.


SA: Tell us more about your business model and why you think it is working, as well as what makes Tartu the right location for you.

GP: Some funding comes from EU, and membership fees are also collected.  Our value is in the ‘middleman’ role we play between businesses and cities, but also between each of these and the national government. National ministries know us well and get in touch with us if they have offers. And we even help with international expansion. For instance, we’ve helped with connections to Barcelonia, Helsinki, and so on. As I said, partner companies have pointed out that cluster cooperation leads to joint international projects between companies since it can increase trust for that big challenge.

Tartu, specifically, is a great location, since they really believe in what we are doing and are even working on establishing a smart cities department.


SA: We see that you sent a delegation to the United States. What was the outcome? What partnerships are being explored here?

A key factor for Estonia’s success is an openness to innovation and a willingness to test new solutions. We understand that we can learn from other cities, especially for deployments at larger scale than we typically see here.

I was actually the one who organized the US trip. Our main focus was on public procurement and market entry. We went to Washington DC, where we attended a World Bank seminar on public procurement, and to New York, where we attended a similar workshop at the UN. We learned how Estonian companies could participant in procurement processes for third-party countries. We also met with the New York City government, and found out that New York has a digital marketplace for posting challenges, and that companies from all over the world can apply.

We also visited Salisbury, Maryland, which is a ‘friend’ or ‘sister’ city to Tartu.


SA: Given your expertise, what are the opportunities you see for improving procurement?

GP: The State of Estonia is developing innovative procurement rules. Buying at the lowest price is not always so innovative. This is the most frustrating thing for some of our companies. We try to focus on price, but also on functionality and future potential. But there’s always a risk that someone will come with a lower price, and not so good quality.


SA: Which solutions and/or pilots developed/deployed in the cluster have been the most promising and/or impactful?

GP: First, let me say that we always work closely with our citizens, and that is so important for our success. We heard, for instance, a lot of requests around improving real-time public transportation information systems. The company could have gone off and developed a complex app, with all the bells and whistles. At first, they were not really interested in the slow citizen feedback process. But they learned that citizens just wanted a few simple things.

We started by putting NFC tags and QR stickers on each bus stop. And, since people don’t have much to do there, they would access them, and open a survey. We learned that people mostly just want to know, “Where is the bus?" and "when is it coming?” Also, they can download the app and get info about their favorite bus lines, even if they are not standing by that particular bus route. It was a very simple project but it went very well and is very popular.

We are growing from there to more complicated mobility projects. We now trying to model the city’s entire public transportation network, and we are using more data than ever before to do that. The city transportation network is from the 1990s and is not meeting needs of citizens. Because the city has grown, its working and living spaces have moved. We are trying to look at where the transportation lines could and should go. We are using electronic data, from mobile devices, to show how people are actually moving.

We would welcome an Austin delegation interested in investigating and observing what we are doing in Estonia. And, specifically, we would love to see you at this year’s Smart City for the Citizens Conference, being held in May in Tartu. This year's program will mostly focus on urban mobility, which I understand is a very hot topic in Austin. We will look at how to use data for planning public transport in the cities, which are the best intelligent transport system practices in the world, how to engage citizens in urban planning and inform them about temporary changes, and more.