Greenland and Estonia mark new collaborative partnership “Pitu”: a possible pathway to digitising independence?

At a recent conference held in Nuuk, Greenland, a new agreement/partnership was announced between the Greenlandic government and Estonian company Cybernetica that may signal a crucial progression in the digitisation (and thus, maybe, independence) of Greenland in the coming years ahead. 

The agreement will see Cybernetica – a leader in e-government solutions – develop and implement a version of Estonia’s ‘X-Road’ system in Greenland, as a part of Greenland’s own progressive digitisation agenda. Coined ‘Pitu’, the new platform will provide a secure, efficient data exchange layer for government services, opening up “several new opportunities” for the use of e-services in Greenland for both its government and citizens. The move marks yet another government looking to utilise the potential of the X-Road concept and Estonian model, after Finland, Azerbaijan, Namibia and the Faroe Islands all implemented similar systems in recent years.

All roads lead to the X-Road

Estonia is renowned for its leadership and influence in e-government solutions, with its moniker ‘e-Estonia’, and position as digital vanguard, often lauded across the world. Today, citizens are able to access numerous digital services across its vast ecosystem – easily, securely and transparently via its pioneering eID system – and can enjoy benefits such as voting online and filling in tax returns in just a matter of minutes.

X-Road is often understood as the backbone of today’s e-Estonia, enabling all of its data to be securely exchanged between a plethora of different information systems, institutions and databases, both in the public and private sector. Very much the brainchild of the Estonian government and Cybernetica during the 1990s – at a time where resources were limited and Estonia looked to break free of its Soviet legacy – X-Road was initially built as a way of uniting various state registries and databases, but soon found value in providing its services for businesses and citizens too. Today, by allowing all of Estonia’s e-services to link up and operate in harmony across a seamless, decentralised network (see below), X-Road has become the all-important tool for driving down inefficiencies in public administration and for offering a one-stop shop to citizens for the majority of their daily needs.

XROADESTONIA

(The widely used depiction of the Estonian X-Road architecture – adapted from Cybernetica source: www.news.err.ee)

For Estonia, its digital prowess and success is very much something to be proud of, with its story and narrative becoming something that its government are very keen to express and offer to the rest of the world. And they do it well.

Estonian diplomats or government delegations quite often traverse the globe to convey this success story – with Estonian technology companies and think-tanks like Cybernetica and the e-Governance Academy also playing a crucial role in exporting the e-Estonia ‘brand’. This public-private nexus that exists between government, academia and the private sector in Estonia provides another interesting dynamic to this story, all seemingly working together to perform what might be described as – to borrow from the Danish Tech Ambassador – ‘TechPlomacy’. It was of no surprise, then, that Cybernetica, e-Governance Academy and the Estonian government were all present in discussions in Nuuk as future plans for cooperation were discussed in greater detail.

Digitising Independence: a means to an end?

The new platform Pitu will help enable and improve similar digital solutions in Greenland. Pitu is the Greenlandic word for the link between a sled dog’s harness and the sled itself – a simple but crucial device that allows the driver to steer and navigate safely. The choice of this metaphor by the Greenlandic government speaks for itself. Today, although still a part of the Kingdom of Denmark, Greenland has been enjoying increasing political independence over the past decades. Progressing digitisation may be playing an increasingly contributory role in this process, providing a possibility to surmount the geographical distances that dictate some of the country’s biggest socio-technical challenges in terms of connectivity and providing equal opportunities for all citizens across Greenland. Introducing, for instance, e-education or e-health solutions could help Greenland to become more self-sustaining, offering better and equal access to public services and democratic decision-making.

DSC_0250

(Telecommunications antenna outside Nuuk – authors own image)

However, before following in the footsteps of a self-branded e-nation, the Arctic island still needs to address some of its infrastructural deficits. Providing all of the settlements that lie spread out along the coastlines with a stable and affordable Internet connection has posed a major challenge in Greenland’s aim to build a “digital society”. The local climate and topography, but also financial and maintenance matters, have long put the project on ice. To improve connectivity beyond the reach of the submarine Internet cable Greenland Connect, the state-owned telecommunication company TelePost has been carrying out pioneering work over the past summer months. The company has been upgrading the first 89 of 119 base stations/ radio masts along the Western coast of Greenland with new equipment, introducing 4G technology to further parts of the island.

New Nordic collaboration

The extension of its digital infrastructure, together with the introduction of Pitu, might not turn Greenland into the next digital forerunner overnight. Yet, the collaboration with Estonian company Cybernetica signifies an important step for Greenland in distancing itself from the image of a remote and isolated Arctic island, instead placing itself at the heart of a burgeoning wave of digital transformation already taking place across Europe (mainly amongst Nordic countries). What’s more, the decision to work (albeit not directly) with the Estonian government, may mark Pitu as an important, decisive moment in Greenland’s navigation towards greater independence and democracy – it is rather telling that the Danish government, recently ranked the world’s best e-government, are seemingly not involved in the project.

On the contrary, however, the decision to opt with Estonia may just come down to the Estonians own astute brand and ‘business case’ offered by its government, alongside the cooperation of companies and think-tanks such as Cybernetica and the e-Governance Academy. Estonia prides itself on ‘showing the world’ its successes and offering a helping hand to those just starting their own pathway to digitisation – the decision to partner and collaborate with Greenland becoming yet another case in point. Further, the partnership may go some way in strengthening Estonia’s identity as a ‘New Nordic’ country – an important cultural and sociopolitical shift following the regaining of independence in 1991.

The project is currently in its pilot stage (until December 2018), before agreements are made on a final solution. Nevertheless, for two researchers, where this development sees our two research areas colliding, we await any future developments in this area with great interest and intrigue.

 


Nick Robinson is a current visiting PhD researcher at Ragnar Nurkse Department of Innovation and Governance at Tallinn University of Technology (TTÜ). Nick is also a part of the CDT for Cyber Security at Royal Holloway, completing his MSc in Geopolitics and Security in 2015. Nick’s research is primarily grounded in Estonia, focusing on the multitude of digital technologies its government have started to employ since the regaining of independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Exploring initiatives such as Estonian e-Residency, the government’s use of blockchain technology, and now the utilisation of ‘data embassies’, Nick’s work aims to develop a greater understanding of the impact these technologies have on our traditional conceptualisations of the nation-state, border and embassy. He is a member of the editorial team here on the RHUL Geopolitics and Security blog.

Nicola Wendt is a second-year PhD student and part of the interdisciplinary Magna Carta Doctoral Centre for Individual Freedom, funded by the Leverhulme Trust. Having a strong interest in Indigenous Rights and Arctic Geopolitics, her PhD project focuses on political identity formation in the digital public sphere of Greenland. Using Community Based Participatory Action Research Methods, Nicola’s research investigates the intersection of the digital and the social, looking at how technology-induced transitions are negotiated against a backdrop of historic and contemporary inequalities. She is a member of the editorial team here on the RHUL Geopolitics and Security blog.

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