Digital transformation is not for just brands

Posted 16 October 2015.

​By Andrew Hawley, Managing Director, Touchcast and member of CAANZ Executive board

​If Estonia was a New Zealand brand, it might well be one of our best local examples of a customer-centric digital experience. I’d never thought much about Estonia beyond it being the home of Skype… and the world’s first nationwide charging infrastructure for EV cars; 163 charging stations dotted every 50km is impressive!

So I was bewildered when a colleague proclaimed that Wellington City should follow in the footsteps of this tiny country. What does Wellington have in common with Estonia I asked him? Or digital for that matter, you may ask.

It wasn’t that the former Soviet Republic’s population was small (1.4m), nor was its lack of geographic size (17,462 sq mi), though there are parallels with Wellington’s compact geography and population relative to its Australasian city counterparts. And it wasn’t that both places continue to live, evolve and prosper despite the constant threat of disaster; Estonia keenly aware of the potential for Russian invasion, and Wellington, ever-preparing for the slightly more unpredictable earthquake. It turns out it was Estonia’s ability to use these factors to create something unique and world-class.

In an open letter to the Herald, the Mayor of Wellington recently invited Aucklanders to relocate south. A short trip back to 1991 could provide some valuable insight for that city, or any other region looking to differentiate itself to attract residents, businesses and/or tourism.

In addition to global events such as the premiere of Terminator 2 and the death of Dr Seuss, 1991 saw the official dissolution of the Soviet Union. Estonia wrenched itself free of the hammer and sickle only to land amid a sophisticated band of well-heeled neighbours; Norway’s prosperity founded on oil, Finland’s with technology and Sweden had developed an internationally iconic design language. How could Estonia keep up with the Joneses and stand out from its competing neighbours? Aware of its predicament, the country used its size and agility to create something utterly unique that would not only future –proof its society, but at the same time revolutionize archaic central and local government systems to deliver something completely citizen-centric and environmentally sustainable… transformation of all its services from analogue to digital on a scale and pace that would scare most organisations.

Nowadays nearly every interaction an Estonian resident has with local council, utility service, and central government – is digitised. And not as a collection of separate monolithic websites; rather a seamless stream of services, from user-managed medical records, paperless council and parliament, electoral voting to education high-school education, and a host of integrated private services, all accessed by a unique ID number for each and every Estonian from anywhere, anytime across a reliable hi-speed network, country-wide. In its bid to attract international business, non-citizens can even apply to be a virtual ‘e’ resident of the country, and experience how fast and easy Estonian infrastructure and systems are.
Aside from the convenience digital services give to Estonian residents, ‘e’stonia is backed up in several countries, so that if Putin decides to encroach, the country can keep running, albeit virtually.

Estonia was, and is, ahead of the digital game. To understand what Estonia has achieved as a digital society beyond founding Skype, is worth a visit.

Meanwhile, Wellington is in the process of finding itself again; hopefully something unique will surface designed to attract and retain residents, businesses and tourists. Wellington began culinary and café revolution in New Zealand but the rest of the country has caught up. The ‘coolest little capital’ won’t cut it either, being somewhat subjective and faddish.
Wellington has long been labeled New Zealand’s capital of creativity and digital, thanks to the enormous talent of individuals within the film, IT and creative sectors, the companies they founded, and their stubborn love for Wellington, despite its dynamic weather and recent rudderless trajectory.

How will Wellington’s leadership in creative and IT continue? It could start being less passive in ensuring those current creative and digital companies never want to leave. There’s no doubt it will get harder to retain them as other cities recognize their value, and act aggressively. But our capital city could think bigger and use its leadership in digital to emulate Estonia’s achievement. Like Estonia, Wellington’s size (and talent) means pulling off something audacious like ‘e-Wellington’ should be doable. Or it should be when you consider what Peter Jackson and Richard Taylor have achieved. Wellington could wield its creative and digital talent to create the Australasia’s first truly connected resident-centric city; bus rides, voting for councilors (and their big decisions in real-time, without the need for paper-based referendums) car parking, managing and paying rates and utilities could be done via an app or chip card from anywhere, within seconds. With bank integration residents could purchase goods and services in and around Wellington with other features added over time; a city-wide loyalty scheme, library, event and pool access; the possibilities are endless.

Like Estonia, Wellington could invite expats to become virtual residents, attracting notable people from around the globe that fondly remember the city. This could form the basis of an advocacy program for residential, business and tourism attraction.

A Wellington ID would help mitigate against any quake which may one-day cause chaos. Resident and city data would be backed-up, ready to take over from redundancy servers in a catastrophic event.

Wellington’s Council and its creative and digital partners could license the service to other New Zealand centers and offshore; a sizable revenue generation scheme to compliment parking fines.

Wellington’s compactness and enormous but narrow talent pool should make anything possible. If the city is going to stand for something beyond great food and wine, it is in the enviable position to do something about it on a scale and a speed that other cities can only dream of.

Wellington needs substance more than lip-service above-the-line ad-campaigns to stand out as a global creative and digital heavy-weight. Fortunately digital technology can deliver transformational substance, so like Estonia, Wellington could use its size and agility to bring together a hybrid team comprising council, residents and businesses, and use the city itself as the canvas to demonstrate that it is undeniably the ‘Creative and Digital Capital’ by being Australasia’s truly connected resident-centric e-city. And if Wellington doesn’t, another New Zealand centre might wield the limitless potential of digital to truly transform its residential, business and tourism experiences to positive effect.