image: Estonia panel at aql

Estonia panel brings digital experts to aql HQ

Experts from Estonia and the North of England came together today for a wide-ranging discussion at aql HQ as part of Leeds Digital Festival.

Chaired by Helen Oldham, Director of NorthInvest, the panel explored how cities can create an environment for prosperity, how data can help solve legacy issues that affect governments, and what the UK can learn from Estonia’s world-leading work in digital government.

aql founder and CEO Prof. Adam Beaumont delivered the keynote introduction. He was joined by Andres Kitter, Head of Retail Banking, LHV Bank; Tarmo Schmidt, Chief Revenue Officer, Mobi Lab; Andy Davidson, Head of Customer Banking, Yorkshire Bank; and Lorna Armitage, an information security specialist and lecturer in computer science at the University of Bradford.

Beaumont, speaking about the challenges of increased automation and AI for society, noted: “We are becoming a data-driven society and part of that means systems are getting smarter and more human. They’re capable, alongside robotics, to start to replace the things humans do. We’ve just launched the first iteration of our autonomous vehicle, and the next iteration will be an autonomous streetsweeper, and there are multiple challenges that face us as we start to disrupt in these spaces. Now, disruption’s not a bad thing, but we need to build society up ahead of that commoditisation. The biggest challenge is mindset.”

He spoke about his role as a trustee of the Eden Project and a new initiative being rolled out in California to help address these challenges – a centre which “brings in the leadership of global scale-ups and helps realign their moral compass. As we start to commoditise society, we really need those with the most resource – which are those billion-dollar unicorn scale-ups – to deploy some of that wealth and resource to help solve some of those societal problems which stop people getting on in life, stop people getting access to a proper education. We need to build society up ahead of that technology commoditisation curve so that people get better jobs. The less-skilled jobs do go to the robots, but we’re helping society up at the same time.”

Andy Davidson, Head of Customer Banking at Yorkshire Bank, spoke about the challenges Yorkshire Bank faced in transforming itself in the face of technological change and of the need to better educate customers about both the opportunities and cybersecurity threats in the sector. “The banking industry has been somewhat fearful of the fintech industry. But we see an opportunity to partner to develop new products and services,” added Davidson.

Tarmo Schmidt of Mobi Lab, an Estonian firm working in VR and AR, talked about the need for simplicity in terms of both a company’s vision and in the processes and bureaucracy to which a young business has to adhere. He spoke about using data to help companies understand the needs and requirements of their direct customers so they can serve their customers more efficiently, noting, “a lot of money is thrown away at the moment.”

There was much discussion about, and interest in, Estonia’s e-identity and e-residency schemes. “Estonia is widely considered to be the most digitally-advanced place on Earth” said Oldham, and there’s much the UK can learn as we move forward, and data takes on a greater role in shaping our society. Kitter and Schmidt explained how a data-driven approach is driving change on an individual town level in sectors such as public transportation. They also talked about how the global success of companies like Skype, which was founded in Estonia, has helped kickstart a virtuous cycle of inward investment, startup formation and government support.

On the subject of what needs to be done to get more women into the tech sector, and into key areas such as cybersecurity in particular, Armitage explained, “we’ve got to start changing the narrative in the culture,” to make these careers more attractive to girls from a young age. The panel spoke about the need to look at skills rather than a particular degree – or even a degree at all – with Beaumont singling out complex problem-solving as one of the keys to success in the field.

Kitter and Schmidt are in Leeds as part of a delegation of Estonian government officials and business leaders. Tomorrow, Wednesday 18 April, will see the Estonian Ambassador officially open the Estonian Consulate to the North of England and the Isle of Man at aql HQ, with Beaumont being named Honorary Consul of Estonia in Leeds.