Building smarter cities

  • 2012-04-18
  • Interview by Emi Pastor

Like any expert in new technologies, Jarmo Tuisk, head of the Technology and Innovation Division at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications in Estonia, is listened to very carefully when he speaks. His opinions matter. Apart from his current responsibilities in the public sector, and other activities in the private and investigative sectors, Tuisk is also founder and strategic advisor of the Foundation Electro-mobile in Estonia. This non-profit organization is dedicated to the development of electric transportation, in the expectation of leading a successful implementation of electric cars. He participated in the conference ‘Energy Politics and Climate Protection,’ organized by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung foundation, in Riga in February. Under the headline ‘Innovative approaches to city mobility in the Baltics,’ Tuisk explained the energy advantages of the cars. His talk was the icing on the cake after one intensive day in which terms such as energy conservation, renewables and environmental care were the clear protagonists. After his discussion Tuisk spoke with The Baltic Times.

What are the main approaches to city mobility in Estonia?
I think that we have to go into the problems of the city mobility, and I think that it is quite universal that we actually need cleaner air, because it’s good for public health. So you have to see what can be done. And I think that the electric vehicle has so far demonstrated a really good solution for keeping our cities both clear from air pollution, and as well from noise pollution. That’s definitively an important thing for why we use electric vehicles: to achieve many goals, not just getting urban air [clean], but also to improve our energy independence as well.

Have these achievements improved the life of citizens?
At the moment it is too early to say. We are just starting. Let’s see and wait and monitor how it improves. We have theoretical ideas and then models, but let’s see.

Estonia has always had a remarkable tradition in information technology. What is the country doing to remain a world leader in technology and improve their standing?
Of course we always need to look where we can use technology to improve the life and the competitiveness of the country. So right now, for example, if we think about the electrical vehicle program, Estonian companies are actually doing the software development. So that is really one way of seeing how one software company can transfer and do different things in different areas. This is our approach. Seeing our strengths and investigating where you can use this kind of knowledge in different areas.

How does New Technologies of Information and Communication promote an economic and sustainable growth in cities in the 21st century?
Basically, just to explain it in a very simple manner, computers can do tedious tasks, the tasks people are not supposed to do. It makes it easier to use computers to perform certain tasks which otherwise regular people have to do. So we free up our resources. There are only 1.3 million people in Estonia and we need to take good care of these people, and if we can put computers to work then let computers do the work and people should do something else. 

It is said that it is impossible in Tallinn to find a cafe or bar without the Internet. Do you think that there is any danger that Estonians can lose the human touch?
No, I don’t think so. I think people talk more when [they] sit and take coffee and use Internet. But, anyway, the other dangers that come when you have such a high penetration of Internet, is the so-called ‘cyber threats,’ when Estonia went through the so-called cyber war with Russian activists and they broke down our banks for, let’s say, a couple of hours. So we have seen the downside of that. Therefore, cyber security issues are really important for us as well. We need to develop both sides. Enabling people to use various services in IT plus we need to give them security on the Internet.

In Estonia it is already possible to get some e-services like financial transfers, electronic payments and so on. The country is also a pioneer of e-voting. What do you think is the next step?
If we think about innovation and IT, it’s energy efficiency in general. This is a theme where I see ICT has great potential. We already have talked about ICT, electrical vehicle charging infrastructure, but there are other options: smart houses, smart city lighting controls… There are a number of possibilities where IT can help us save energy, and if you save energy, you are getting richer at the end of the day.

In your presentation you have said that 400 electric cars will be coming to Estonia next summer…
In total we expect to have roughly 1,000 by the end of next year: the 500 are coming to the government sector and the other 500 go to the private sector.

Talking about electrical cars. There are some myths around them. I am talking about some bad perceptions, like they are slow, they are expensive …
Yes, definitively. There is a vast variety of perception about the electric car. Some very skeptical. Let’s say, they are too small, they are just for a close distance, [they don’t go] very far, they are very expensive, what happens with the battery… And these questions are very relevant questions. But, on the other hand, there are pioneering people, very innovative people who really would like to try something new, and therefore we give a chance to these kinds of people, the pioneers, who really try to test these new technologies. Because if you talk about innovation, you cannot transform, or teleport, from one point to another… You have steps in the middle you have to follow.

How long do you think that it could take to address these types of problems?
Ten years, probably. Because if you look at the evolution of mobile phones, it took 10 years, going from that size [large gesture], to that size [small gesture].

Do you think that Estonia should specialize in one sector of innovation or is better for the country to be diversified in different fields?
We cannot afford to diversify too much. So, probably we need to specialize and ICT is one of our strengths.

Should national governments finance electro-mobility programs in these times of economic crisis? Is it a necessary, or unnecessary, expense in these times?
In any time one should ask from himself or herself what is the consequence of one’s choice. Some choices bear short-term positive feedback, and some choices have long term-effects. Electric cars are long term investments, but a necessary one. If you don’t invest today, there is no positive feedback in 10 years’ time. One could ask – what is the benefit of being a first-mover? I say it’s about future competitiveness. First movers have a better chance to develop competitive advantages in this market. We have witnessed this in Estonia, in the IT sector, and we are committed to do it again in the electro-mobility field. So I strongly believe that after 10 years, there will be a bunch of interesting and very promising companies in Estonia who provide solutions for the future of transportation.

Regarding innovation in Estonia, you said that e-mobility is a good field to specialize in. How would you explain, in easy terms, what an e-city is and what advantages can be seen in a small country or city like Estonia and Tallinn?
Briefly, you just need to accept the truth about oil and the future of the oil industry – the era of cheap oil is simply over. Now think about it, how much more would you like to pay in order to be able to travel around a tiny country like Estonia? Is it worth paying more? If not, what are the alternatives? Electro-mobility, in the long term, is a clear alternative. Based on renewable energy sources produced locally you enhance your country’s energy security, local economy and environmental situation. What else, in fact, would you wish for your country and your children?