The capitals of Estonia and Canada are 6,300 kilometres apart, but their digital objectives are similar: to build a trustworthy and efficient society.

But, how do they manage and meet user expectations? Is trust central to every decision? Are we underselling the potential inherent in digital evolution?

Those objectives were discussed both in-person in Vancouver and online globally, in a one-day gathering titled: The Data Effect: How to Build a Digital Society, sponsored by event organizer CityAge and the government of Estonia.

The conversation began with aspirations and successes of the Baltic nation’s government, but spring-boarded into the possibilities for Canada, with academics, entrepreneurs and innovators from such groups as Communitech, Innovate BC and the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University, weighing in on the potentials.

Setting the stage was Luukas Ilves, Government Chief Information Officer for Estonia, speaking remotely from that country’s capital, Tallinn, who told the gathering that Estonia is acknowledged as the world’s best digital government, after digitizing its public services. Not only does the shift save the national government two per cent of its GDP annually, it has earned the nation the nickname of e-Estonia.

But, said Ilves, “we can’t stand still.” User expectations are growing, with citizens comparing their government services not to what other countries are doing, but what the private sector is doing. “How do we do digital well in an era of high user expectations?”

Ilves suggested that “user centricity” be as important to governments as it is to the private sector. And if a government does put the ordinary citizen at the centre of its tech strategy, then two approaches are essential: proactive services, where government uses citizen data to determine what is needed next, rather than waiting for citizens to come forward; and life-event-related services, where government strives to offer one-stop solutions. He gave the example of the birth of a child, where the new parents must use multiple e-services to register a name, to complete hospital records, to apply for daycare. Those services should be handled with one click.

If the world’s governments are going to embrace the digitized future, they will need a lot more tech talent, said Chris Albinson, CEO and President of Communitech, and he told the morning audience that Canada can assume a major role in making that happen. 

He said tech success is built on trust, people, ambition and capital, proposing that Canada’s international position as a trusted partner attracts “amazing humans from around the planet.”

He proposed a “trust flywheel” with trust at the centre of every decision being made by public- or private-sector innovators. 

As for people, Albinson said the audience members know well that immigrants can be drivers of tech innovation, citing Shopify CEO Tobias Lütke, the German-born immigrant who built his company into a billion-dollar enterprise faster than any company before or since.

But the United States’ status as a global tech leader has been shaken by politics and limits on immigration that are choking off the supply of tech knowledge and subsequent investment. Albinson said Canada welcomes five times the number of skilled immigrants as a percentage of its population than the U.S. does. Thanks to Canadian immigration targets, this country is going to have one of the most diverse populations in the world, passing the United States (often stereotyped as the melting pot for all peoples) this year, he said.

There is no lack of ambition, he said, saying that many Canadian founders see the Shopify example as a roadmap for success in Canada and globally. 

And capital? He compared capital to water, saying the market is watching where the money is flowing, and more American investors and pension funds are turning to Canada.

Key to it all, said Albinson, is trust in those who are using the data. Ethics have to be baked into technological innovations to ensure their success.

In a panel on “How to Integrate data to build the future,” Ujwal Kayande, Dean of the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University emphasized the “tech for good” mantra, noting that while large organizations and governments may have the resources to ensure the adoption of ethical tech, new or small companies or agencies may not. Schools such as his need to support capability-building in such groups. And he suggested to the audience that while many speak of the challenges facing tech innovation from “legacy systems,” the real problem is “legacy mindsets.” 

Panel member Kirsten Sutton, Chief Technology and Information Officer for the Vancouver credit union Vancity, asked the audience to toss out the phrase “digital transformation” as it “undersells” the potential that digital change offers. Transformation, she said, is not just about doing things faster, it’s about how the citizenry can benefit from the changes.

Sandra Horvath, Senior Director of Strategy and Engagement North America’s Digital Banking for fintech giant FIS, offered that banking isn’t just for banks anymore. The ecosystem is opening up to allow transactions in various venues, citing Shopify, for example, which offers small business loans.

And Ats Aldre, CEO of IT consultancy Nortal Estonia, which had considerable involvement in the country’s digital evolution, noted that Estonia was not as burdened with legacy tech systems or mindsets as are some nations. But building trust into the system remains essential, and must be continually monitored. “It’s not a single project that you do and then it’s done – improvement is necessary."