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

By Sean Nolan

Women in GovTech Special Report 2021.

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

I work as a Senior Project Manager at the Observatory of Public Sector Innovation at the OECD. I lead the Anticipatory Innovation Governance programme and in 2021, I was also one of the co-founders of a cross-directorate initiative – Mission Action Lab.

In my daily work, technology is both an input and an output: on the one hand, I need to understand technology to help countries worldwide to think ahead about what transformations they and their citizens face; and on the other hand, I need to harness technology in proactive ways to make urgent, deep transitions happen.

For example, in Ireland we are currently building an anticipatory capacity programme across the public service. Our aim is to understand what type of knowledge senior leaders, policymakers and experts need to have to engage with uncertainty around technological and other types of change, but still be able to make proactive decisions, make effective decisions in their roles.

In these areas, we touch upon AI, green tech, digitalisation, but not only from the perspective of citizens today, but also future generations.

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

There were so many great projects, but the highlight of 2021 for me was Finland. The Finnish Government has come on a wild journey with us and accepted to be the test case to build up the anticipatory innovation governance model.

Over the year we have interviewed, workshopped and debated about what the biggest barriers to undertake foresight and exploratory innovation in government are and how to make it happen in practice. You can read our initial assessment here.

More excitingly, we are now together with the European Commission and the Finnish Government going to test and pilot solutions for these issues in the areas of future of work, carbon neutrality, and child policy in the upcoming six months.

What is one unexpected learning from 2021?

It was very surprising that for a moment in August, September 2021 (at least in Europe) there were still leaders that thought that we were going to go back to “normal”, that things were going to continue as is and that they could just stop the change process. I learnt that sometimes inertia and resistance to change really holds even through personal experience. Well, that did not work out. The accelerated technology adoption, hybrid work and the demand for solutions to make it all work are here to stay. We need to figure out how to hold onto the positive effects of change and mitigate the negative side of things.

What’s your favourite memory from the past year?

In May, June we were running virtual prototyping sessions in Slovenia based on future scenarios we had previously co-developed for the public sector. The team involved was in 4-5 different countries at the time and I was sitting with my toes in the sea with my headset and computer at my summerhouse in Estonia. The context alone gave credence to the ideas of a new digitally transformed world and new types of work/life arrangements it can create.

What’s a tool or technique you’re excited to explore in 2022?

This year we dabbled a little in design fiction and as an inspirational exercise ran a design fiction workshop with the global youth. We asked them what governance could look like on a new planet not encumbered by path-dependencies on Earth; if they had had any technological solutions they could imagine available. It was very fun, but too short to take the findings forward and actually make them into tangible ideas.

It would be great to do something like this, but more in-depth, in the upcoming year and possibly take some ideas further in development and build a couple of large-scale experiments. So, if there is someone interested in something like this, do get in touch with OPSI (opsi@oecd.org).

What are your priorities for 2022?

I have three major priorities for 2022: first, deepen the knowledge around specific areas of anticipatory innovation governance and remove barriers (budgetary, competence based, organisational, technological/data-wise etc.) in countries to make it work in practice. Second, make anticipatory innovation tools and techniques accessible and legitimate in the public sector. Third, and arguably the biggest task, build up the Mission Action Lab.

Here we want to really connect anticipation to missions, envision mechanisms to avoid lock-in, and really contribute to the effective implementation of solving the wicked issues of our time. Next year we will invest in mission governance, portfolio management and evaluation.

We have great colleagues from Science, Technology and Innovation Directorate and from Development Co-operation Directorate on board, so, we can look at these issues not only in OECD countries, but beyond, in the field of technology and innovation policy, but also across government silos.

Who are the mentors and heroes that inspire you?

My team are my mentors and heroes. They inspire and motivate me to do better every day, they are not afraid to ask questions and take up new challenges.

What gets you up in the morning?

Two cats that sit by my pillow every morning at 5 am, a good book that I read in the bath before starting up my computer or heading to the metro and a gigantic Santa mug of green tea.