Never mind inventions - There's often no shame in copying


Digital & Data Governance

Picture of Juhan Parts
Juhan Parts

Former Estonian Minister of Economic Affairs and Communications, and former Prime Minister

Keynote addresses at conferences around the EU were permeated last year by rhetoric about why the European public sector has to be more inventive. With Asia, the United States and Latin America all advancing at a mad pace, the message has been that Europe is increasingly lagging behind and losing its global clout.

One can’t help but agree that the situation is bad, though not hopeless. Leaving innovation in the private sector aside for the moment and looking only at public sector innovation, the rest of the world isn’t inventing anything fundamentally new, but rather is copying the best practices of other countries.

After throwing off the yoke of Soviet rule, Estonia found itself light years behind neighbouring Scandinavia, and saw that the best means of catching up was to copy what others were doing well, from legislation to IT. One of the technological pillars of Estonia’s present day information society, the national ID card was developed in Finland. Yet in addition to the technology, Estonians also learnt from the Finns’ implementation mistakes and, unlike their neighbours to the north, were able to get the ID card off the ground in their own country.

Copying others’ best practices is standard in the private sector. Being an innovation locomotive is costly and time-consuming, so it’s much cleverer to be the “smart” first carriage in the train. Although Microsoft presented a touch-screen tablet computer aimed at the masses in 2002, no commercial breakthrough followed this world-changing innovation. That didn’t come until four or five years later, when Apple’s Steve Jobs revolutionised our world by popularising the smart touch-screen device. Today, Apple’s innovation is copied by Samsung, Nokia, Microsoft and the like. They do so without any shame, for what the market demands it gets.

For some reason or other, this best-practice philosophy has been extremely slow to resonate in Europe. Most countries suffer from a hang-up that could be described as “digital chauvinism”. Things aren’t any good unless they carry an “invented here” label. Instead of copying without any false shame and learning from one another, European businesses and policymakers struggle in their respective national corners, appearing in Brussels from time to time only to state the need for more collaboration.

The problem certainly isn’t that Europeans are not innovative:

  • In 2005, the Danes decided that their public sector would no longer accept paper invoices, insisting on electronic invoices only. Research shows that this change, which is hardly technology-wise the most complex, is now saving the Danish state tens of millions of euros every year.
  • Estonians use digital signatures on a daily basis, and it’s estimated to save at least one working week on average per employment-age inhabitant.

This list of examples could go on, and in every EU member state there’s an innovation that the others could (and should!) borrow. A good example of a globally unique cross-border collaborative knowledge project is the one between Estonia and Finland. Estonia has offered Finland a scheme to jointly develop the basic services for each country’s national information system. Finland is now planning to change over to an IT architecture that’s identical to Estonia’s, leading to knowledge exchange and reduced development costs for both countries.

The EU of course needs to keep on promoting innovation, but it’s more important still to focus on the implementation of existing ideas – that means overcoming digital chauvinism and copying without any shame. Because EU member states still differ so widely in terms of their own legislation, citizens’ habits and processes, it’s impossible to pursue centralised solutions or exercises in one-to-one copying, and each country needs to develop its own solutions. But ideas and information gained from hard-won experience can be borrowed and put to good use.

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