We are searching for wicked problems and turning them into new spaces for innovation. It is a platform for all Estonian ministries, the public and the private sector, experts and entrepreneurs to join forces and build the future that we deserve. We are untapping new markets with a powerful but lean private-public collaboration.
The grand challenges modern societies face - aging population, environmental and climate issues, information wars, etc - have no silver bullet to solve them. But in Estonia we have found ourselves in a fortunate situation where the government can take on startup-like ventures to push the edge of what governments are capable of. We have already introduced to the world the concept of erasing digital borders between countries by introducing e-Residency (https://e-resident.gov.ee/). With Accelerate Estonia, we will push further to unveil complex problems that our society faces and undertake missions to solve them. We are a governmental manufactory for moonshots, blue oceans, mission-based policies, ... you name it.
There is no lack of private sector enthusiasm in asking the government to innovate faster. Every month, if not more often, our political elite and top level civil service will meet aspiring entrepreneurs who will argue that they know how to create a prosperous future for the whole country. They may say that our next competitive edge may be in becoming a regional crypto-kingdom, or a paradise of ecological production, or that the real solutions to climate change will be bred here in Estonia. Unfortunately, most of these efforts are clueless of what is actually needed. Fortunately, some of them may be on to something.
How might a government find out which missions to follow and which to ignore? There should be some way to make these choices. That is what Accelerate Estonia is founded for - building a filter that would help validate where government can help with radical innovation and where not. We cannot pick every mission, but we need to get smart about which fights are worth picking so we can prosper and find economically sustainable policies to tackle our major societal issues.
Here is how it works:
1. Through interviews and public events, we identify which ministries are open to rapid innovation. We only work with those that are.
2. With these ministries, we define the complex problems that need to be solved and which don't have a solution yet.
3. Then we create a call for innovators that offer possible out-of-the-box solutions to these complex issues.
4. In a competitive atmosphere, we figure out which of these innovators deserve a proper investment for validation and implementation.
5. For these few that are chosen, we offer a curated acceleration of their idea with access to government, a credit line of up to 100 000 euros, a pool of mentors and a brand that justifies their cause.
6. It is then up to the innovators and their public sector champions (top level civil servants) to prove they can push the edge of government where it has never reached before.
7. For those that make it, there will be follow-up investments available either from public or private sources, or as a combination of the two.
As objectives, we have identified that for the first 3 years, we just need enough cases - a portfolio of innovations - that could provide the breakthroughs. From there onwards, we expect economic output as well as solutions to pressing issues. For example, we are currently jump-starting circular economy in Estonia, but the aim of creating a billion-dollar circular economy market is only viable around 2025. We are helping with digitalising the logistics sector, but a billion euros in savings will only compound by 2025. We have planted the seeds, but the crops will take time to grow. And we do not expect every project to be successful.
It is natural for government innovation labs to be in testing mode for 2-3 years before institutionalisation. That is our logic, too. We are making use of close partners that the government already has - an incubator, startups, ecosystem players. We should not institutionalise the approach until we know what works and what does not. But scaling is in the vision - the projects we choose must first have impact in Estonia and thereafter regionally or globally.
Accelerate Estonia has been built on a lot of previous accomplishments. The edge of government is already quite far along in Estonia, but we are pushing it further. In addition to eResidency - a governmental platform that has enabled more the creation of more than 10 000 companies and created more than 30 million euros in tax returns - Estonia already has the best tax code in OECD. We have almost all of our public services digitally available. According to Index Ventures - https://techcrunch.com/2018/11/27/30-european-startup-ceos-call-for-better-stock-option-policies/ - our regulation is most favourable for attracting tech talent. Our startup sector is growing 30% every year (https://startupestonia.ee/blog/recap-of-2019-in-the-estonian-startup-sector). In short, there is a strong virtuous cycle here that can be accelerated further to help solve grand challenges.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
Democratic governments often find themselves in a paradox — we are supposed to tackle complex issues that the private sector can’t solve, but we are usually only equipped to solve issues within our siloes. Accelerate Estonia is lending a solution from the corporate world - bringing in entrepreneurs-in-residence to understand and solve for complex issues. But we are only offering the solution in situations where know that the organisations are capable of innovation.
In such a way, we bypass the lack of innovation capacity by enabling innovation-friendly government organisations with partners that are willing to shake the status quo. And we offer these stakeholders - government organisations and their entrepreneurs-in-residence - with a well curated acceleration programme that will take them from problem exploration to a validated investment decision.
What is the current status of your innovation?
The Accelerate Estonia process is the following:
1. Identify complex problems - DONE. We talked to all of the Estonian ministries and found 4 ministries that are actively interested in the service.
2. Generate ideas and solutions - DONE. We described 100 problems and solutions and filtered them down to 17 that were hacked in a competitive environment. As a result, a board of public and private sector partners chose 4 projects to support.
3. Validate and generate proposals that will tackle the issue - IN PROGRESS. We designed a tailor-made acceleration programme for them.
4. Figure out how to implement the solutions in the public sector - IN PROGRESS. Their current next step is implementation.
5. Evaluating the results - IN PROGRESS. With an agile approach, we know how steps 1-4 should be improved, but we do not yet know better solutions.
6. Diffusing lessons - IN PROGRESS. We are en route to recreate the process so that we can apply a better version of the service.
Collaborations & Partnerships
Freelancers - we used the tender treshold to include freelancers in building the first steps of the process.
Companies and civil society organisations - for each policy area we worked with, the private sector community was brought in to assess the complex problems and offer solutions.
Government officials - we met with every ministry and gave all of them a chance to propose complex issues worth solving in a novel way.
Citizens - the opportunity to offer solutions was also opened to citizens.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
Top level civil servants - the main client group is the people who have complex issues on their table that they are unable to turn into new market opportunities.
Entrepreneurs-in-residence - the secondary group is innovators who are passionate in their profession, willing to give back to the society and willing to design out-of-the-box solutions or moonshots together with Accelerate Estonia.
The private sector - it is crucial that each innovation we pick will serve whole industries.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
The task given for the pilot version of Accelerate Estonia was to prove within 2019-2020 that:
- such a process can be built
- at least 5 ideas can be guided through it
- the process will find a natural place among our policy-making tools.
In all accounts, we are en route to proving the point. There is a lot of interest in the process (the success rate of projects proposed is around 30%), we have 4 ideas running and 4 other just chosen to begin the process, we are on course for successfully applying for funding for 2021 to 2024.
It is too early to measure the economic impacts, but the current projects have been pushed hard to envision a significant change (each *potentially* worth around a billion to the economy by 2025).
In the future, we expect to build a portfolio of projects (at least 15) that would provide at least 3 major breakthroughs where Estonia will have a first mover advantage thanks to a very open collaboration platform.
Challenges and Failures
The first challenge was political - two months into the programme, a new government came into power who has been very sceptical of technology. That meant that the willingness of the private sector to cooperate was lower. By now the waters have cleared.
Secondly, the quality of ideas we got was very variable and some high-level policymakers were demotivated by having mediocre innovation partners. We have redesigned our approach to choosing our partners and the process has been redesigned so that risks are more hedged.
Thirdly, we have good enough projects running, but the issues we are tackling are not as complex or wicked as they could be. So for the next version, we will help the policy owners much more with designing missions that will make a big difference.
Conditions for Success
The most important condition is the readiness of a few high level policymakers and their teams to take on radical innovation. If there is no mission-driven policymaker, then we cannot empower the innovators.
The second important condition is support from the "home ministry" - there is openness to radical innovation from the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications both on the practical and political level.
We were granted a budget that will enable to test with enough ideas and recruit a very professional team to run the acceleration itself.
It is also crucial that the motivation of me (the programme manager) has been built over several years of working closely with the technology ecosystem and a drive to bring on real change to the Estonian public sector. Over the last few years, the network necessary for this innovation was built, and now is the time to turn this asset into something valuable.
No, not yet. We are running the first version and testing a new approach at the same time. We will only learn in a few months if we can replicate this. Having researched and learnt from a number of innovation labs (especially in the UK and Denmark), there are not many efforts to design meaningful missions (= readiness to change the laws if need be, stand for the innovators as much as possible, build them into real champions).
Usually the approach is to solve public sector problems service by service, but that does not lead to disruptive innovation and does not push the edge of government
Firstly, such a project needs a small but cross-functional team - for us, 4 people is quite optimal. Secondly, it needs a high-level person to support it - the programme can not be done without top level support. Thirdly, the approach needs to be agile, so that the details of the programme can be tested and changed rapidly. Fourth - you need permission to make mistakes and learn from them. Fifth - you need to understand that probably you are a pioneer and no one in your government has done something similar. This can be very frightening, but also very motivating.
Last but not least - you need to be humble. If the government has invested into taking risks, then serve them well and without asking for public recognition or similar. It will come in due time, but first you need to deliver on your vision.