Tallinn University Has a New Rector

TLU Rector Elections

Professor Tiit Land was elected to be the next Rector of Tallinn University (TLU) just a few hours ago, winning the close race with just by 7 votes (52:45).

I was part of the electoral body as a side effect of sitting on TLU’s Council (kuratoorium) since last November – by invitation of the current Rector Rein Raud with whom we were discussing some IT education related co-operation projects for years before. Not much did come of those at the time, but what I learned about his vision for and approach to building out what is the youngest and size-wise third university was intriguing enough to consider this invitation to participate an honor.

My involvement with TLU could look a bit surprising. After all it is definitely not the powerhouse of ICT education and research in Estonia with its ventures narrowly in computer science being quite inwardly focussed on using IT in Education. I am heavily involved in the Estonian IT education reform through sitting on the board of Estonian ICT Association with a focus on the workforce topics and that way also representing the industry in pushing the IT Academy initiative. Tartu University and Tallinn Technical University (the country’s #1 and #2 size-wise), along with Estonian IT College are the ones who need to drive and role-model that change, and they are in adequate dialogue with the industry too.

Where TLU comes in for me is the first part of the “man VS machine” formula of making any modern system work. As rector Raud loves to re-iterate, the number one employer of anthropologists in the world is Google. You just can not build perfect software before understanding how humans are built. How they behave, interact with each other and across cultures. It matters not only to systems built, but also to the teams building them – the practical examples of Skype’s Estonian engineers early experiences in dealing with Asian hardware partners over past 7 years can prove that all the knowledge in TLU’s oriental studies should be leveraged much further than just language studies.

When I look at the progress at TLU’s Baltic Film and Media School, the doctoral study topics of some of my friends at TLU, such as Daniel (researching virtuality) and Tarmo (superheroes) or my own wife’s masters-ventures that started from her research into the phenomenon of children’s blogs, it is clear that the school has come far from its narrowly pedagogy-oriented roots. I think Rein deserves a lot of credit for taking the school where it is.

My time invested to advising TLU could also have something to do with overall temptation to tinker with startups, disruptors and underdogs – which TLU could often be viewed as in local education market. However, I consider the notion of competition between higher education institutions in Estonia sheer nonsense – there is too little of everything (students, teachers, funding) here for that to succeed in the global, even regional marketplace. In order to win this game, to attract the best students and teachers and produce the best graduates and researches both Estonia and the world need, Estonian universities need to work together.

I hope the professor Land’s international background will be of help and I appreciated the co-operation oriented parts of his election program to bring TLU even closer with the other large schools in Estonia and abroad, complementing each-other with their strength. It is not either-or between Tartu and Tallinn, or technical and humanitarian schools. It is about making the best use of the diversity we get by combining the knowledge in all of them.

Interviewed by TigerPrises/ArcticStartup

Talked to Toivo Tänavsuu last week on what’s happening at Skype, how is the labour market looking and how do we relate to the broader technology startup scene in Estonia. The video inteview was publised on TigerPrises and ArcticStartup.

Interview with Sten Tamkivi from Skype from Toivo Tänavsuu on Vimeo.

President’s Speech on Innovation

President's opening address
Last week’s [Baltic Dynamics 2008](http://www.teaduspark.ee/?q=/eng/BD) conference was opened by an address by the [President of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves](http://president.ee/en/), speaking on Innovation. As the full text did not make it to the president.ee website’s [speeches section](http://president.ee/en/duties/speeches.php) yet, I pinged his office and they kindly provided me a full copy in a few hours. Transparent government in action, love it.
As I think this is one of the best condensed summaries of the major issues — such as investments, education, attracting labour — Estonia and Europe are facing developing as technology hotbeds, I am re-publishing the whole text for your reading pleasure. Really worth your time.

**Welcome address of the President of Estonia
at the opening of (innovation) conference ‘Baltic Dynamics’
Dorpat SPA Hotel, Tartu, 4 September 2008**
Ladies and Gentlemen, dear friends,
I am glad to speak here at the opening of the 13th ‘Baltic Dynamics’ conference, an increasingly international meeting, as it should be the case in the field of innovation.
This time the conference takes place at amidst a global economic slowdown, a situation that is frankly unfamiliar for many in Estonia. According to some (admittedly somewhat dire) predictions, this may become the most severe global downturn over the last decade. In terms of our domestic economies, all three Baltic countries stand on the threshold of a paradigm shift; the motor of rapid growth — a competitive advantage based on cheap labor seems to be over. As indeed we have all hoped it would be, for a rise in wages and quality of life is, after all what convergence is all about. But this also creates a new challenge: further development of our economies can come only from higher value added products and services. In this sense innovation is naturally the key to shifting from slowdown to growth.
We must ourselves – how did we reach the state of affairs where we are now? Our economic development has been very rapid, but not always enough forward-looking. The recent slowdown in our economy is – at least to a certain extent – caused by overinvestment in sectors that have provided high yields in the short term (such as real estate) and which are prone to move in correlation with fluctuations of domestic demand. That said, it does not mean that some investments are less necessary than the others, but in the longer term a very small economy cannot rely solely on the domestic market. Indeed, even the second and third largest economies in the world, Japan and Germany cannot rely solely on domestic demand either.

Read the rest of this entry »

Tallink Taxi – Service Matters

Just this week a new cab company launched in Tallinn. I’ve been quite happy with the one I (infrequently) use, but last night just thought I’d give them a try. And was in awe.

New bright yellow car, filled with shiny new gadgets, a big screen GPS, etc. Well, that’s what you get when you buy a whole fleet in 2008 and everyone else on the market has been around for 10 years plus.

But what was really special was the service. How often have you heard lines like these in a cab, anywhere in the world?

  • Sir, would you fancy listening to radio on the way this evening?
  • What would be your radio station preference?
  • How are you doing on cash? Just let me know if you need to stop by an ATM, but we do accept credit cards too, of course.
  • I haven’t been to your area often, so to aid my service with next customers, which would you say would be the most convenient ATM to stop by on the way there, if anyone needed to?
  • Thanks for riding with me, hope to see you again soon!

It was so different, polite and genuinely caring that I’m almost a little bit afraid to call 1921 again – maybe it was just this one guy… But I sincerely hope this meant that a newcomer to what seems to be a crowded market actually nailed what will make a difference.

Estonian – the Most Insignificant Language?

Some while ago an online media outlet ran a poll, asking the readers where do they think Estonian language falls among the languages of this world by “usefulness”. Many Estonian-speakers do tend to think that a million speakers means… nothing. That the language is on the verge of going distinct. About 2/3rds of answers ranked the language to the bottom third of worlds’ 6000 languages.

There was a linguistics forum in April that surfaced some interesting data of the contrary, which I thought are worth sharing… in English as well:

  • By the speaker count, Estonian ranks at 274th place out of 6000
  • Higher education is available in just 100 languages in the world (including Estonian). 30 in Europe and just 3 out of the hundreds of African languages.
  • There are about 200 countries in the world, where state language is the same as majority of population’s mother tongue.
  • Estonian ranks among top 30 IT-languages. For example, Microsoft products have been localized to 35 (Skype is available in 28), including Estonian.
  • Human to computer speech synthesis exists for 25 languages, Estonian included.

(source: Sirje Kiin at Eesti Ekspress)

So, we’re well alive and kicking in that weird and complicated tongue. Good to know, even when the reality of globalizing world has brought the dire need for becoming an English bilingual to communicate and ultimately succeed. I will keep blogging in both.

Teeme Ära: I’m so proud of my colleagues

Estonia inherited a mass of rubbish after it regained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 but it has only added to the problem since. 50,000 people, more than 3% of Estonian population of 1.3 million were out this Saturday to clean the forest, roadsides and other public areas from illegal waste. Volunteers had mapped over 10 656 garbage dumping sites all over the country by the beginning of April. This weekend 207 temporary collecting stations were put up to gather the waste collected by the volunteers.

6000 tons of illegal waste has already been registered to been collected during the initiative, more specific numbers are yet to come in the following weeks. The initiative aims to recycle up to 80% of the collected waste, making it first massive recycling project in Estonia. The usual amount of garbage recycled in Estonia is 10%, so this is eight times more than the average.

This is a quick summary of Teeme Ära 2008.

As only suitable for Skype, a number of our best brains helped the initative as volunteers to develop all geomapping and logistics software to keep the tens of thousands of moving parts under control. I am just in awe for what they did over the nights and weekends of their spare time, besides building the infamous software that lets people all over the world talk for free.

And to show that we are also not afraid to get our hands really dirty, there was an even longer list of Skypers who went into the woods. See here for the before and after pictures of the junk pile assigned to Skype.

See some more coverage in English:

Thank you, all friends and colleagues involved!

And congratulations, Rainer & the team for pulling this through.

Possibility of Innovation In a (not The) Valley

Thomas L. Friedman wrote in the Herald Tribune a few years ago a column that acknowledged, and probably injected a lot of self confidence to innovators outside of the usual suspect American hightech hubs. Written from an angle of criticism towards the American high school system, I found his text much more useful read upside down – thinking about how the more remote areas previously known for their cheap labour and mass quantity low tech production are winning share on the global innovation arena. “In a flat world people can now innovate without having to emigrate,” as Friedman put it in rhyme.

Now in one of the recent issues of FastCompany, Richard Florida took a look back and found that the innovation world has not gone flat afterall. Highly recommended read as a whole, but I picked out a few interesting facts for myself:

  • Of the roughly 170,000 patents granted in 2003 in the United States–which gets applications for nearly all major inventions worldwide–nearly 80% went to Americans, Japanese, and Germans. The next 10 most innovative countries–the usual suspects in Europe, plus Taiwan, South Korea, Israel, and Canada–produced another 15%. The rest of the world accounted for only 5%, with India and China responsible for just 0.4%.
  • Indian and Chinese entrepreneurs founded or cofounded roughly 30% of all Silicon Valley startups in the late 1990s, generating $20 billion in annual revenue and about 70,000 jobs.
  • There are about 150 million (!) people in highly mobile, global creative class who migrate freely among the world’s leading cities–places such as London, New York, Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco

What Friedman originally called for as producing a comprehensive U.S. response – encompassing immigration, intellectual property law and educational policy – is more valid than ever in this situation… but maybe even more so for the “receding valleys between spikes” as described by Florida. Umm… like Estonia?

On Estonia at The World

To share another recent radio appearance (the previous one in Estonian only, sorry) here is my interview for Marco Werman at PRI’s The World that aired on a network of radio stations across the US in January: MP3, 4.5 minutes. We talked a little about Skype, but more about the factors that have enabled tiny Estonia to introduce a number of tech innovations both inside the country and for the world.

To understand the context for the interview, please listen to (direct MP3 link) Cyrus Farivar‘s report on Enterprise Estonia opening offices in Silicon Valley, featuring also Andrus Viirg and Steve Jürvetson.

PS: on a totally different topic, I got reminded of the above audio files being available by a blog post on The Future of Newsrooms. Interesting reading around journalists’ changing role (information broker VS investigator). I’m afraid this specific post above here creates a crashing meta-referral of “my own thoughts” back to “mainstream media”, El Oso?

Eesti 90 Logotype

Since the first day of this year my daily route from home has been hemmed in by outdoor banners for [Eesti 90](http://www.eesti90.ee/?lang=en) – the year-long calendar of celebrations of the 90th jubilee of the Republic of Estonia.
I like the logo design better by day. The “birth” theme of a stylistic plant is subtle enough to take anywhere between 5 seconds to 2 weeks for a person to realize the embedded 9 & 0 digits. And the aesthetic choice of typography next to it is as cold and Nordic as we are.
Full [brandbook and goodies are available here](http://www.eesti90.ee/?id=10548).
Thank you, [Kaarel Vahtramäe](http://www.velvet.ee/people_eng.php?pid=3&pg=6) @ [Velvet](http://www.velvet.ee/news_eng.php) for winning that logo contest last summer.

Happy Birthday, Mutant Disco!

Mutant Disco 10!
Last night the Von Krahl theater in Tallinn hosted crowds from all over the past ten years to cheer for the tenth birthday of Mutant Disco.
As for many other good things in this category, we have to thank again late John Peel. By becoming a fan of Röövel Ööbik and giving them a lot of BBC One airtime in early nineties, he inevitably helped to build a strong network between the Estonian and UK music circles, with the now inseparable tandem of Raul Saaremets & Chris “Rythm Doctor” Long to start with.
MD has been so much more than another club event here. It has consistently exposed local and international top performances to the scene, shaping our tastes and values. Bringing guys like Bob Jones or Frankie Valentine or Basement Jaxx or Moodymann over to a tiny cold Northern European capital must have been extremely hard for Raul and Chris when they started, but hugely because of their pains of the early years, Estonia has become the vibrant alternative music and culture host it is now. There is a video interview with them available on how they got started (mostly in Estonian): part 1 and part 2.
Over the years, MD has innovated with not just music, but also with consistent branding, their web presence and active online community around md.com forums, creative flyers (first on paper, fully virtual these days), redefining Von Krahl from a theatre to happening, multifaceted event location, etc etc.
But most importantly, Mutant Disco has had an unprecedented effect on building a strong horizontal network inside a certain generation of our small country. Many in their student years gathering to Mutant Discos 10 years ago are now the who’s who stars of business, investment banking, government, law, technology, media and many others making things happen in arts – music, literature, visual arts, cinema, fashion. In the mixed nostalgic-euphoric vibe at the event yesterday, I couldn’t help but wonder what extremely unique value has been created just because of the out of the box mindsets people end up with here. A successful attorney hanging out with music critics or a software developer with his best friends in experimental video think much differently than their colleagues stuck in narrow professional groups of their industry. The experience of belonging to the diverse group of mutants must have released ideas and energy in places we don’t even admit.
Respect, Raul & Chris, and happy birthday again!