Technology and Trust

A couple of weeks ago, along with the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) co-founder, Robert Bell, I had the opportunity to be in a two-day discussion with the leaders of Tallinn, Estonia — via Zoom, of course. As part of ICF’s annual selection process for the most intelligent community of the year, the focus was on how and why they became an intelligent community.

They are doing many interesting things with technology both for e-government as well as more generally for the quality of life of their residents. One of their accomplishments, in particular, has laid the foundation for a few others — the strong digital identities (and associated digital signatures) that the Estonian government provides to their citizens. Among other things, this enables paperless city government transactions and interactions, online elections, COVID contact warnings along with protection/tracking of the use of personal data.

Most of the rest of the world, including the US, does not have strong, government-issued digital identities. The substitutes for that don’t come close — showing a driver’s license at a store in the US or using some third party logon.

Digital identities have also enabled an E-Residency program for non-Estonians, now used by more than 70,000 people around the world.

As they describe it, in this “new digital nation … E-Residency enables digital entrepreneurs to start and manage an EU-based company online … [with] a government-issued digital identity and status that provides access to Estonia’s transparent digital business environment”

This has also encouraged local economic growth because, as they say, “E-Residency allows digital entrepreneurs to manage business from anywhere, entirely online … to choose from a variety of trusted service providers that offer easy solutions for remote business administration.” The Tallinn city leaders also attribute the strength of a local innovation and startup ecosystem to this gathering of talent from around the world.

All this would be a great story, unusual in practice, although not unheard of in discussions among technologists — including this one. As impressive as that is, it was not what stood out most strongly in the discussion which was Tallinn’s unconventional perspective on the important issue of trust.

Trust among people is a well-known foundation for society and government in general. It is also essential for those who wish to lead change, especially the kind of changes that result from the innovations we are creating in this century.

I often hear various solutions to the problem of establishing trust through the use of better technology — in other words, the belief that technology can build trust.

In Tallinn’s successful experience with technology, cause-and-effect go more in the opposite direction. In Tallinn, successful technology is built on trust among people that had existed and is continually maintained regardless of technology.

While well-thought out good technology can also enhance trust to an extent, in Tallinn, trust comes first.

This is an important lesson to keep in mind for technologists who are going about changing the world and for government leaders who look on technology as some kind of magic wand.

More than once in our discussions, Tallinn’s leaders restated an old idea that preceded the birth of computers: few things are harder to earn and easier to lose than trust.

© 2020 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

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