How the Austrian Digitalization Agency aims to ‘demystify technology’ for SMEs and citizens
Newly created government organisation aims to help promote the digital economy and work with departmental technology leaders. Its leader Andreas Tschas tells PublicTechnology about his plans
The Austrian Parliament building in the capital Vienna Credit: Filip Maljković/CC BY-SA 2.0
The good news for SMEs in Austria – who constitute 99.7% of the country’s businesses – is that the nation’s economy continued its good run of form in 2018’s third quarter. Austria’s GDP expanded 0.5% in Q3 – more than double the growth rate of the wider eurozone.
In this comparatively sunny climate, smaller businesses outside of the tech sphere might not feel an urgent need to invest in their digital future, believes Andreas Tschas, director of the Austrian government’s Digitalisierungsagentur – anglicised as the Austrian Digitalization Agency (DIA).
But, as John F Kennedy famously pointed out, the best time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining. And the DIA is ready to lend a hand with the repairs.
What I found really interesting is that governmental bodies are really open to share how they did it - and they're proud if you copy them. It's different than in the private sector.
“Small and medium enterprises will be our main focus for the coming months – we want to support and enable them to use technologies to become more competitive, to be ahead of the game,” Tschas tells PublicTechnology. “The economy in Austria – in Europe overall – is growing quite well. And maybe, for example, a carpenter with 15 employees is not thinking about digitalisation… but I think now is the time to think about the next steps. Because, as we know this, the pace of technology is evolving so fast… every company needs to be ahead of the game. And SMEs are the backbone of our economy.”
The DIA sits within the Austrian Research Promotion Agency – a government entity dedicated to funding research and development projects across a range of industries. Tschas says that the digitalisation body has two federal ministries that, effectively, serve as its joint “shareholders”: the Ministry for Transport, Innovation and Technology; and the Ministry for Digital and Economic Affairs.
Embedding the newly created body within an existing government agency – rather than establishing a new and separate entity – will help the DIA focus on its core objectives, Tschas says.
“We wanted to have a quick start,” he adds. “We can tap into the resources of the Research Promotion Agency, like the IT department, the finance department, and the HR department. Because if we needed to build this up [independently], that would have taken a lot of time. Now, we can really focus on our projects.”
Tschas was appointed to lead the DIA having previously co-founded and served as CEO of Pioneers – which runs a database and a series of events across the continent for European tech start-ups, and also operates as a venture capital firm.
As of this month, he leads an eight-strong team at the DIA, and the plan is to grow this to 12 by the beginning of 2019. For the coming months, the priority will be meeting with small businesses across the country to understand their needs, as well as studying the examples of digital government agencies in other nations. Tschas says that he has already visited his peers in Estonia and Singapore.
He adds that the key to the work of his agency will be grouping SMEs into “the right clusters” to provide them with the tools and services that would most help them.
Tschas says: “When you talk about small and medium enterprises, you have one-person companies and you also have companies with up to 250 employees. So, those are a completely different, of course, and then you also have the different sectors – the telecommunications sector, for example, needs to think about different stuff than the retail sector.”
The SMEs Go Digital scheme run by the Singaporean government groups smaller business according to two factors: industry sector; and readiness for digital.
“Depending on which sector they are, and how much digital readiness they have, they provide specific services or suggestions for what they can do,” Tschas says. “In the retail sector, for example, you learn how e-commerce works now or you learn how CRM tools work, or how inventory management works, and how digital services can support you in these tasks.”
He adds: “That is very smart, and now we're in close cooperation with the government in Singapore, learning from them – and they're really open. This is what I found really interesting is that governmental bodies are really open to share how they did it. And they're proud if you copy them – it's different than in the private sector.”
In its early months, the DIA will focus its energies on Austrian SMEs and the country’s digital economy. But it will also lend its backing to work in other areas, such as supporting the use of GovTech and promoting digital education initiatives. The overall goal is to shine a light on how digital and IT can be used in positive ways, thereby lessening people’s apprehension about the possible impact of technologies such as artificial intelligence.
“We can take away a little bit of fear – many people are afraid of the future, especially when it comes to tech,” Tschas says. “The demystification of these technologies is important, and showing all the really cool solutions you can have with AI [for example]. That doesn't mean that you shouldn’t also be aware of the downside, but I think we are now focusing more on the downside of AI. And we want to show really cool examples.”
The economy in Austria.. is growing quite well. And maybe, for example, a carpenter with 15 employees is not thinking about digitalisation… but I think now is the time to think about the next steps. Because, as we know this, the pace of technology is evolving so fast… every company needs to be ahead of the game.
He points to existing instances of artificial intelligence-powered technologies that can be used in breast-cancer screening or in detecting reading difficulties in children.
“We need to bring these examples in front of the curtain and say ‘see – this is possible’,” Tschas says.
The DIA will also work with colleagues across the other ministries of the federal government – each of which has its own chief digital officer, who all meet regularly with the digital agency, both individually and as a collective, Tschas says.
The coming weeks will be dedicated to “listening and understanding”, ahead of a kick-off meeting in February where DIA will present its objectives for the months ahead and how it plans to achieve them. After which, Tschas intends to hit the ground running and begin offering services to SMEs as soon as possible – mirroring the “lean approach” he followed in his previous career in the start-up world.
“This means if we think of a service or a product that helps small and medium enterprises, then we go out and test it,” he says. “It's not that you develop it for months and years, but rather see if it really helps.”
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