Science|Business: Tallinna Tehnikaülikooli põhjamaine ambitsioon
Väljaandes Science|Business ilmunud intervjuus räägib TTÜ rektor Jaak Aaviksoo e-Eesti arengust ning Tehnikaülikooli tulevikuplaanidest.
Tallinn University of Technology sets out its ‘Nordic ambition’
Not content with helping his country throw off Soviet shackles and lay the ground for the tech revolution dubbed ‘E-stonia’, Jaak Aaviksoo is returning to school to help steer a new generation into doing it all over again
The newly-elected rector of Tallinn University of Technology (TUT) is casting his gaze towards the wealthy Nordic countries.
“I want to build partnerships with leading technical universities in the North. You may call it our Nordic ambition," said Jaak Aaviksoo, a veteran of Estonia’s academic and political scene these past 20 years.
His intent does not come as a big surprise – ever since casting off the shackles of the Soviet Union in 1991, Estonians have sought a sprinkling of Scandinavian stardust.
The last 24 years has witnessed a country in a hurry, with envy the main motivator, says Aaviksoo. “Finland had Nokia, Sweden had Ericsson, and we were desperate for a success story of our own.”
Even today, with Estonia’s reputation as a tech-star long since established, working with the best technology-driven universities in Finland and Sweden – Aaviksoo lists Aalto University along with Chalmers and KTH – is a high priority.
More so than its Baltic cousins, Lithuania and Latvia, tech-happy Northern countries are the company Estonia tries hard to keep.
There is a strong cultural connection to build on, said Aaviksoo. “We share a lot with them. There’s the [so-called] Protestant work ethic, the long winter nights, and a sense of humility."
Although it remains slightly in the shadows of its Nordic neighbours, and of the capital city’s other big institute, the University of Tartu (UT), TUT but has become a lot more dynamic in recent years, said Aaviksoo. It’s seen to be ‘having a moment’, with surveys showing it’s the current popular choice for 17 and 18 year olds.
There is also fresh political support for the country’s only technical university. During Aaviksoo’s inauguration in May, Estonia’s President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said, “I don't know any countries successfully competing in the 21st century without a good technical education."
Returning to a changed land
Like Estonia’s unlikely arrival onto the tech map, Aaviksoo’s personal trajectory is anything but straightforward.
He’s gone from academia to politics to academia to politics and finally back to academia again. Asked about his new role, he simply says, “I never thought I’d return. But I gave in, so to speak."
Trained as a physicist, he was director of the UT’s Institute of Experimental Physics and Technology and its first pro-rector in the early 90s.
After deciding to run for office in the 1995 election, he went on to hold three cabinet positions stretched over 20 years: first as minister for culture and education, from 1995-1996, then as minister of defence, 2007-2011, and finally as minister of education, 2011–2014. In the intervening years of 1998 to 2006, he had his second spell at UT, this time as rector.
The changes in the education landscape since 2006, his last stint in university, are notable.
Aaviksoo’s return to TUT coincides with admission levels which are up 11 per cent, with the majority of enrolling students looking to do something in IT.
Natural science subjects, traditionally a strong area in Estonia, are no longer at the top of young peoples’ minds. The country has been breaking new ground in telecoms and electronics industries for years meaning there are plenty of jobs for programmers, whom the country produces in large numbers because of an early focus on coding in schools.
In government, Aaviksoo found himself shoulder to shoulder with vigorous advocates for technology.
Politicians in the 90s, a cadre of people who often talked more like engineers and techies than anything else, saw computers as a vital way to quickly compensate for the ailing physical infrastructure left behind after Soviet rule. Legacy technology was not an obstacle, so they were handed a carte blanche.
Two decades ago, only half the population had a phone line, delivered by a system which dated back to 1938. Today, the country is saturated with free Wi-Fi.
Aaviksoo’s decisive contribution to the wiring of what has been called "E-stonia" was in 1995, when he directed a nationwide initiative to bring all schools online.
He says the strength of the government, today arguably the world’s most digitised bureaucracy, was its eagerness to tackle some big issues early on. “In the early 90s, we created a legal environment to solve problems debated today in other countries,” he said.
Arguments over digital signatures and ID cards – every Estonian citizen now carries an identity card with a chip that makes it possible to sign documents electronically – were already won back in 2002, Aaviksoo adds.
The country has won a lot of praise for its pioneering e-government network called X-road, which allows people to file taxes within five minutes using pre-filled forms, manage their banking, easily register businesses, apply for child benefits, pay for parking tickets, vote, or receive a medical prescription, all in a matter of minutes and from a single website.
Its highly decentralised network of government servers, designed by a Tallinn-based company called Cybernetica, prevent most abuses inherent in centralised systems, it is claimed. Neighbouring Finland is now working on adopting the ground-breaking system.
In another country, these ideas might invoke accusations of the Big Brother kind.
But the ID system has a feature even privacy advocates would find hard not to admire: anyone can see who has visited their data, and they can challenge any suspicious behaviour.
Citizens can choose which doctor will see their medical records – the kind of idea that might go down well in a country struggling with some of the ethical issues related to health data projects.
Because Estonian doctors only issue prescriptions electronically, experiments in e-health “can be tried and corrected rather fast,” said Aaviksoo.
Alongside the highs of being at the centre of a changing Estonia, Aaviksoo has also experienced the lows. As minister of defence in 2007 he watched on, helplessly, as cyber-attackers bombarded dozens of Estonian banks, government websites and newspapers, in a month-long campaign that also threatened to disable emergency services. The siege was afterwards described by many commentators as the first instance of cyber-warfare.
Still a gap
The tiny Baltic state has been better than most when it comes to scrubbing its past and transitioning to a market economy.
In the last 20 years, the country has grown quite prosperous, with per capita GDP increasing six-fold to about €21,000.
Aaviksoo does not have a clear answer for why his country advanced so much faster than its Baltic cousins.
“Looking back at the nearly-25 years since we achieved independence, I think what has motivated us most is the ambition to catch up; to compensate for the last 50 years," he suggests.
A small, tight-knit population helps. “We’re a tiny country of 1.3 million people, which is like a small part of London. Informal networks work efficiently.”
Consensus-driven politics, which means a president can generally rely not only on the support of his own party, but often several others, means Estonia can pass laws five times quicker than somewhere like the UK, he claims.
Although it punches well above its weight, the country still faces some battles. For one, it is out of the way, meaning attracting foreign talent is difficult. “If you compare salaries in Estonia with those 100 kilometres north in Finland, you feel the gap is still big enough,” said Aaviksoo.
Estonia’s big tech breakthroughs in the past few years, Skype, online gaming powerhouse PlayTech, and peer-to-peer lender TransferWise, are not headquartered in the country. Skype is incorporated in Luxembourg and the US – although it still maintains its R&D centre in Tallinn, PlayTech on the Isle of Man and TransferWise in London.
“Some people I know show signs of tiredness; they think it’s such a long way to go to close the gap – not me, personally, but you see signs of frustration from time to time,” he said. “What I’ve learned, and I really believe this, is that if people really want something, almost impossible things can happen.”
Author: Éanna Kelly
Source: Science|Business, 24 September 2015