Before Russian military forces invaded Ukraine, the Eastern European country was implementing a digital transformation of its government services, said Diana Rakus, head of the Expert Group on Attracting Investments to IT within Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation. Rakus spoke with Smart Cities Dive at the SXSW conference in Austin, Texas.
Despite the turmoil and bloodshed the country is facing as the war continues, Rakus said the ministry still holds the same vision: establishing Ukraine as the IT hub of Europe, making access to government services easier for all Ukrainians and attracting tech talent from around the world. Rakus said Ukrainians won’t give up.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
SMART CITIES DIVE: Before the war, what kind of work did the ministry take on regarding the smart cities space and digital transformation?
DIANA RAKUS: Our ministry, we’re pretty young. We’re only two years old, and our main goal was and is and will remain the same: to digitize our economy and to make Ukraine the IT hub of, at least, Europe, and if we can, the whole world. Our Ukrainian IT specialists are well-known around the whole world, so we have this space to succeed in this sphere.
In our ministry, we have several spheres of work and several goals. The first one is to digitize 100% of governmental services online. As for now, we have our main project, called Diia, which means ‘action’ in English. Under this brand, we launched several projects. First of all, [these are] online services. We have a special website where there are almost 80 e-services for all citizens, starting from registration of their business [and] ending with the registration of their child’s birth. We also have a Diia application. In our application, we also have all our digital documents: I have my ID card there, I have my driver’s license there, and [a] vaccination certificate.
We also got broadband in our country, and we are raising e-literacy among Ukrainian citizens. And, of course, the sphere of our work is the development of [the] IT industry in Ukraine. For example, last month, we launched a special program for IT companies. It’s called Diia City — it’s like a special legal framework for IT companies in Ukraine and provides opportunities for them to develop, because we propose to them very comfortable business conditions, low tax rates and opportunities for investment attractions. These are our main scopes of work for our ministry.
That’s a lot of work. Was all this at the center of Ukraine’s smart cities efforts that were happening around the country?
Ukraine is a very large territory. A lot of work on digitizing cities is decentralized. And the mayors of different cities do a really great job in this sphere. For example, Kyiv also has its own application where you can pay for the parking, know every single thing about traffic in the city, or find something interesting for you and your family, for example, where you can spend your free time… Citizens throughout the country shouldn’t feel any discomfort when communicating with [the] state both at the local and/or national levels.
What do you think drove Ukraine to embrace a lot of these new innovations and this new online world?
We have a very great talent pool of IT specialists in our country… The second thing [is] that our government does understand the opportunities that technologies give in the modern world, so [a] focus was made on them.
Our minister [Ukraine Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov] is only 31 years old, and he came from business. I personally also came from business, and a lot of the team are young, motivated people who understand that technology can change the world, and this is our tool to succeed and to become the leaders in this sphere. We understood that we felt that could be our key to the world, and that’s why we decided to… make Ukraine successful in this sphere.
In terms of your online innovation efforts, have you seen an impact?
Yeah, of course. There are a lot of results we can be proud of. We have already succeeded in these spheres, and even now that the war is happening. We use all… [of this technology and innovation] to fight and to win in this war. We’ve even created a separate IT army, and they work days and nights just to protect all of the things we have done.
The government and your office were focused on all of the transformations that you mentioned and all those cool initiatives. Now it seems like you guys are focused on the state of war and survival. How have your operations and your office changed and this work changed?
We try to get used to it and to find opportunities in this situation. For example, when COVID happened, it was also like a jump for us. Of course, people were locked at home, and they had to find other ways to communicate with the government. That’s why they started using their smartphones. That situation helped us to convince people that technologies can be used for the same thing now.
People see that using all these innovative things can be even more useful and can have more results than traditional weapons, therefore using technologies for cyber defense and raising informational awareness is of great importance.
Do you have a vision for the future of your office?
We don’t give up. We really had ambitious plans to be the IT hub for Europe, and we’ll do our best to succeed in this sphere. As for now, our first goal is to win this war. And then we’ll continue to do all these things that we’re good at.
Do you guys have a message for the rest of the world?
Last month, we had a Diia summit. It was a conference where we presented our results and plans for the next year. And my colleague said that our IT specialists are very well-known around the world. Of course, they know how to use all these technologies. Our goal is [not for international companies to] hire these specialists, but international specialists will come to [work for] Ukrainian companies because if they are Ukrainian, they are successful ones…
Don’t give up, and believe in what you do.