Taking inspiration from Estonia, can Glasgow deliver a technological revolution?

The decision by the Estonian Government, upon regaining its independence in 1991, to graciously refuse the offer of technological assistance from neighbouring countries – in favour of starting from scratch – was a brave one, and it has been proven to have been the correct choice.

Estonia took its leap into the e-world at the advent of a new digital time and it has forged ahead to remain a global pioneer. Estonia possessed a vision that no one, not even in Silicon Valley had – in fact thought they were mad to propose – of a country building democracy and its infrastructure online, in a way that anchored participation and preserved that cherished Estonian trait of introversion. And now the world is knocking on its door, with many people becoming e-citizens of Estonia! That was remarkable foresight, an example of genuine national leadership.

In Glasgow, perhaps more than anywhere else on these islands, we have been hampered by the legacy of our industrial past. But cities the world over are changing and as a European competitor city with global aspirations Glasgow has to be part of this change. We are, from a slow start, more and more driven by digital technology, which increasingly shapes the way we do business and determines how we interact with each other, socially, economically and culturally.

The city government of which I am deputy leader is committed to keeping Glasgow at the forefront of the smart cities agenda as test bed for using smart, innovative, data led and connected solutions wherever possible to meet the challenges that the city faces. Drawing from our practical experience of delivering the UK’s first Future Cities Demonstrator, we will launch next month a brand new Digital Glasgow strategy setting ambitions targets for the future.

We’re not averse to investing to improve, of spending to save. The Estonian government presents digitisation as a cost-saving efficiency and an equalising force. For a city government in Glasgow with an inclusion agenda during a time of continuing austerity, digitisation is both a means and an end in itself.

So, as part of our first budget, we explored ways to use technology to make Glasgow cleaner, brighter and lighter. From intelligent street-furniture such as smart bins and the retrofitting of 3,500 street light columns across the City centre we’re using technology wherever possible as a catalyst to delivering both financial savings and improving public services.

We are also providing over 50,000 iPads to school children across the city to make better use of digital media to deliver the curriculum, and provide opportunities for children to develop new digital skills and interest in digital careers. This investment represents the largest roll-out of iPads to school children anywhere in the world.

At the other end of the educational spectrum we are home to more than 130,000 students, including many young creatives who have a reputation for self-organising and who base themselves in Glasgow when their studies are complete. My concern is that we are failing to properly connect with those at the vanguard of one of our new economies. Do we really understand the needs of our fledgling digital sector?

In place of leadership, I see a public agenda terrified of IT failures and I see, in the building where I work, the heart of political power in Glasgow, a ridiculous adherence to a culture of paper. We can do so much better.

To help address that question, the city government has a digital champion, Councillor Angus Millar, whose role is to engage with that growing community, so we can better nurture and promote our innovators. And by investing in facilities such as our accelerator programme for high growth businesses in the Tontine building; the first of our £1.3bn City Deal projects to be delivered.

So, while we are inspired by Estonian tech success stories like Skype, we also want to share in its social success, particularly when it comes to building a digital nation based on inclusion. Because in Glasgow too many of our citizens are still digitally excluded. We’ve committed more than £2m to support a new digital inclusion plan for Glasgow, with a particular focus of supporting our most at risk and vulnerable citizens.

The unrelenting digitisation of our day-to-day lives doesn’t look to slowing anytime soon. So, I look to Estonia and ask…just how far do we need to go to catch up? I’ve heard it said that because Estonia is a relatively small country with population of 1.3million that all their advances have been rather easy to achieve.

Well, from looking in from the outside, I don’t see easy, what I see is drive and determination, I see priority and innovation. I see that against all the odds, Estonia’s leaders – indeed its independence generation – realised that the ascendancy of democracies is not guaranteed; they didn’t have time to waste. The need was too pressing; the goal too precious.

And then looking back to Glasgow, and I see a city region with the same population as Estonia, with a pressing need for our communities to be digitised, as much as a right as it is a need.

In place of leadership, I see a public agenda terrified of IT failures and I see, in the building where I work, the heart of political power in Glasgow, a ridiculous adherence to a culture of paper. We can do so much better. If Glasgow and Scotland wish to create a similar vision – of open platforms, inter-connectivity and decentralisation – then what are the commitments to investment in infrastructure and capabilities required to make it happen?

The future is a place of opportunity for Glasgow, for Scotland and Estonia. We have lots to learn and lots of opportunities to build on to deliver a technological revolution so that Scotland, like Estonia can become a world class digital nation.

David McDonald is the Scottish National Party Councillor for Greater Pollok Ward and deputy leader of Glasgow City Council. This is an edited extract from a presentation to the Estonia e-Government event in Glasgow last Friday.