Piret Tõnurist, Senior Project Manager, Observatory of Public Sector Innovation, OECD

By Medha Basu

Women in GovTech Special Report 2020.

How do you use technology/policy to improve citizens’ lives? Tell us about your role or organisation.

I am a Senior Project Manager at the Observatory of Public Sector Innovation (OPSI), OECD. I lead the work on anticipatory innovation governance. Our team works with governments around the world on understanding transformative change to shape the future in the present. We are trying to address the impact gap of foresight and futures thinking, so that governments become systemic in creating knowledge about the future and acting on it today.

This means also unpacking one of the core dilemmas of emerging technologies: early in their development, they are easier to steer and control, while their effects are largely unknown; once adopted, and there is plenty of evidence about impacts, it is very difficult to change their design. We want governments to become more proactive about these challenges. This requires not looking at tech alone, but the dual relationship between people and technology – that the latter shapes us and vice versa.

For example, we are working together with the Government of Slovenia on what the future of the public sector will look like. How will digital transformation change organisations, how it will affect talent management or how the public sector addresses citizens’ needs? Predicting the future is impossible, but we can start building up more dynamic visions about the future today and start building capacities towards those visions already. By acting, we change the future in dynamic ways.

What was the most impactful project you worked on this year?

We are working together with some of the most amazing teams from cities, regions and governments that are developing their anticipatory capacity. It is difficult to choose one, but I have really enjoyed working together with the Our Public Service 2030 team from Ireland this year.

As part of the vision for 2030, Ireland has acknowledged that they need to invest more in strategic foresight and anticipation. They have a great leap-frogging mentality: they are open to learning from across the world and designing something better that fits their context. It is great to work with highly motivated people, when it is clear that the work will be implemented with passion. That the mission is not only about investing in technology or foresight, but building long-term capacity across the public sector.

What is one unexpected learning from 2020?

In 2019, I was in an airport almost every week, in 2020 not so much... How we work at the OECD has changed 180 degrees over the last year. We have tried and trialled virtual workshop tools, created hybrid facilitation methods and put together global events like the GovAfterShock. The learning curve has been extremely steep.

Personally, I have been a big supporter of remote work long before the pandemic, but I have actually learnt that some human-to-human interactions cannot be substituted or you have to live with the fact that the content of those interactions will change. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. We have hired new people to the team over 2020 and some of them I have never met in person. It still feels a bit strange. It invariably requires different kinds of on-boarding and socialization tools.

What tool or technique particularly interests you for 2021?

There are two main things I want to explore in 2021: innovation portfolio tools and the anticipatory innovation starter kit. For both, I am mostly interested in seeing them in practice: what empirically works and what does not. We are developing the anticipatory innovation starter kit together with LabX in Portugal and it gives us the chance to test and review a lot of tools that can help governments also work with technology in new ways. But the main aim is to help any team who wants to get started with anticipatory innovation a way to do so. We have a lot of user testing to do in 2021 to get there.

Innovation portfolios are very important for us, because we want to connect anticipation also to main government challenges and missions that they want to achieve. Our challenge for next year is to see how governments can work with different types of innovation at the same time. In Latvia, we are building technology ecosystems together with the Investment and Development Agency of Latvia (LIAA) and it is a great opportunity to see innovation portfolio tools in action in fields as diverse as smart cities, smart energy, biomedicine, smart materials etc.

What are your priorities for 2021?

My top priority for 2021 is to keep the team healthy and happy. We can do amazing things, but to stay productive we should not lose ourselves in the work, because there is more demand than ever for anticipation.

Next, I would like to get governments to dare a bit more – think about their role in emerging technology proactively and give them better working methods that they can address uncertainty, biases about the future in more productive ways. Making governments more inclusive in this process is important to us.

What advice would you give to women looking to start a career in GovTech?

When I started out in the field of innovation and technology governance 17 years ago, I was the only woman in male-dominated teams. That is not the case anymore. There is a community here that will support, champion and cheer diversity! You do not have to mould yourself into any expectation that the tech industry may have: your own unique viewpoint is valued and necessary. If you see something wrong then speak up and we will hear you – also listen to other women and champion them. We need more diversity in tech development in general, because biases that become code are difficult to fix afterwards.

Write a message for your future self.

Do not get too comfortable with the ideas you are developing today, be open to the possibility of being wrong and actively challenge yourself.