New challenges post MSc: my first ‘Idea Hack’

By Nick Robinson

A few weeks back (October 28th) I was fortunate enough to take part in my first ‘event’ following the completion of my MSc, as I ventured to Bethnal Green Road in east London – the location of a 3-day Idea Hack, organised by IDENTIT.EE, and centred around e-Residency (the focus of my own dissertation research over the past summer).

For those of you who are yet to encounter this innovative new program, I’ll spare the details here (do head over to my previous blog on the subject); but e-Residency, the world’s very first government-issued transnational digital identity, is steadily beginning to gain in popularity and momentum.

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All photos author’s own

Each evening saw a host of experts from a variety of fields and industry: tech, blockchain, e-identity and e-government. Perhaps differing from your more conventional ‘hackathons’, the ‘Idea Hacks’ provided an opportunity for all attendees to break off into teams and ‘hack’ new potential concepts, solutions and services for the e-Residency program. On the third night, which was the one I attended, we were also fortunate to be in the presence of Taavi Kotka (CIO for the Estonian government and mastermind behind the e-Residency program), Kaspar Korjus (e-Residency Program Manager) and Robin Walker (Identity Assurance and GOV.UK Verify).

It has been a little over 2 months since I completed my dissertation and, in all honesty, e-Residency had been pushed to the back of my mind a little – mainly as I jump into a new challenge of beginning a PhD in the Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Cyber Security, here at Royal Holloway. However, the evening soon peaked my interest in e-Residency once more, and I left reflecting on the months/year ahead and just where future exploration and investigation might lie.

It was great to see e-Residency finally being showcased in the UK too, and to see so many intrigued faces (as well as the sceptical ones), as both Taavi and Kaspar offered a brief insight into the Estonian story and how e-Residency came to life. Sceptics of the program are not hard to find, but Taavi and Kaspar defended questions on its efficacy and overall worth rather well. Their message and strategy was clear: for Estonia to open up its array of digital services to anyone around the world, to enlarge itself (Estonia is currently tethered by a relatively small population, territory and economy), and to increase its economic activity in the process.

NICK OCT15 4 NICK OCT15 6The evening also presented the opportunity to network and meet individuals currently involved with e-Residency – one of those being Taavi Kotka himself. It was a great pleasure to finally meet the mind that inspired my own research, and I believe that many of those in attendance were impressed by Kotka’s brief and frank solution to Estonia’s own dilemmas of territory, population and economic size. I also met Triin Rast, a Politics student at London Met, who will also be completing her undergraduate dissertation on e-Residency in the next year. Finding another student who is interested in your own research area – especially when it is a subject as niche as e-Residency – is certainly an exciting ‘needle in the haystack’ moment; and no doubt, we will be able to swap thoughts, ideas – and potential blog posts – throughout the coming year. Old faces were there too, and I had the opportunity to catch up with Kaspar Korjus, e-Residency Program Manager, as he updated me on current e-Residency news and developments. Kaspar and his team provided me with a wonderful opportunity to spend some time in Tallinn over the summer, and I was able to see some of the e-Residency and e-Estonia teams work first-hand.

The news was fairly positive, and as of a few weeks ago, the program had already amassed over 6000 e-Residents – 1000 more than anticipated by the end of 2015 (a great dashboard is now available where you can trace e-Residency’s latest stats). This may sound quite trivial at first glance, but given the e-Residency team and Estonian government are yet to spend a single penny on promoting and advertising the program, it is a remarkable feat that highlights the programs potential to scale in the future. However, still in its Beta phase, making such predictions on e-Residency’s future is difficult and merely speculative at the moment. Right now though, e-Residency is something that is ‘uniquely Estonian’. Yet, there are many (myself included) who believe that it is only a matter of time before we see other countries beginning to adopt a similar program. Not that this was a problem for Taavi and Kaspar. After all, competition is strongly welcomed, and confidence in their own digital society is unparalleled.

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In my dissertation, I speculated (albeit rather blindly, due to e-Residency’s fairly novel current status) on just what type of services and features e-Residency will deploy next, and the potential impact they would deliver. The Ideas Hack provided an opportunity to discuss just that. Suggestions were made of improving user authentication in the realms of e-commerce via your e-Residency status (say eBay for example), trading registered assets, or forging greater links between diasporas around the world! It was refreshing to see an attempt by the Estonian government to find out what services will actually benefit the e-Residents themselves, rather than simply implement their own ideas and tastes. Next up for the e-Residency and IDENTIT.EE, Ideas Hacks are currently being planned for Berlin and San Francisco.

There have also been great posts by others in attendance who perhaps give you a fresher, alternative ‘gaze’ over the Idea Hack and e-Residency more generally – and from the perspective of those in UK government.

e-Residency ‘launched’ online almost exactly a year ago; and December 1st will mark exactly a year since Edward Lucas was inaugurated as the worlds first e-Resident. In that time, I have watched the program build on its promising start and begin to flourish – whilst also becoming an e-Resident myself (below) – which has been a fascinating journey to trace so far. Dubbed as ‘government as a start-up’, there were no expectations or guarantees over whether e-Residency would make it past year one and perhaps beyond. NICK OCT15 7The program could have disappeared as easily as it had emerged, and in that sense, the program is already a minor success story in the eyes of the Estonian government.

As for me, the hunger to continue researching this novel program is almost certainly back and here to stay.

Nick Robinson is a current PhD student in the CDT for Cyber Security at Royal Holloway, having just completed his MSc in Geopolitics and Security. Stepping across both Geography and ISG departments, Nick’s research interests range from Estonian e-Residency, the use of data embassies, and technology and the media’s role within society more generally. He is also a new member of the editorial team here on the RHUL Geopolitics and Security blog.

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