Interviews and press conferences
Startups can re-invent the post-pandemic world, says Armenian president
President Armen Sarkissian talks tech startups, reinventing the world and his idea for a club of small nations.
By John Thornhill, the Innovation Editor at the Financial Times.
Armen Sarkissian is an unusual president. For a start, he’s one of the very few heads of state who has a deep understanding of technology and is a distinguished scientist, bringing a different perspective to global challenges. Although the role of president is largely ceremonial in Armenia, he helps connect his country’s 3m people with the 8m diaspora Armenians scattered around the world.
In Soviet days, Sarkissian was a theoretical physicist, who won the prestigious Lenin prize and pursued research at Cambridge University alongside Stephen Hawking. He was also the co-developer of Wordtris-Tetris, the popular computer game. When Armenia regained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Sarkissian became his country’s first ambassador to the UK — and several other European countries. He has also been an international business adviser and has served as his country’s prime minister.
In this interview with Sifted, Sarkissian calls for the creation of a club of small, successful states to pioneer innovative policies. Armenia likes to call itself a startup nation and Sarkissian says all countries now need to adopt an agile, tech-savvy mentality.
He also argues:
• The Covid-19 crisis has accelerated the future
• Governments need to help create new jobs, rather than defend old industries
• E-governance can reshape the way countries operate
• Startups have a vital role to play in promoting innovation
• We should not lose our focus on combating climate change
• The crisis will encourage the development of distance healthcare, as well as distance learning
Armenia, like Israel, is sometimes described as a ‘Startup Nation‘. How has Armenia responded to the pandemic? How will the world change as a result of this crisis?
The situation is unique in a sense that it is not about the nature of this virus but rather about the conditions in which it is developing. The world has become more dynamic, unpredictable. Viral changes are happening in all areas of human activity — from politics to simple human relations. The coronavirus crisis has only accelerated these transformations because it instilled a sense of urgency across all aspects of our lives, forcing us to question our behaviours and beliefs. In that sense, the worldwide spread of Covid-19 is not the cause but rather a result of the profound changes taking place in the world. That is why it is critical to look into the underlying trends.
We can see that each country has chosen its own method to fight the virus, which means that the outcomes will vary, especially when borders and travel reopen. Overall, I hope that this crisis will become a catalyst for re-assessment of priorities in science and healthcare, pushing for closer integration of the two fields. Unfortunately, one area which will be dramatically affected will be employment, as some jobs may disappear as economies reopen. Therefore, it becomes even more pertinent for governments to focus on what their new economies and new jobs would look like, rather than trying to resuscitate expiring industries. The acute need for a flexible workforce will force us to review educational and vocational training. These critical issues must be solved quickly and they will in turn boost cooperation amongst three areas: science, education and labour.
Moreover, there is a risk that the global crisis in the area of healthcare will distract from climate change as a key topic of the political agenda. The two are somewhat inversely linked as the lower use of fossil fuels has shown over the last two months. The rush for countries to restart their economies may adversely affect the climate, as ecology-related regulation will most probably be eased or sacrificed altogether.
There is an extremely fine line between public health and public well-being that Armenia and, on a larger scale, the whole world are attempting to navigate. In this unprecedented situation, our focus should be on the vulnerable strata of society — the people who do not have the privilege of earning a steady income. Our sincere support and constant unfailing solidarity with them, among other groups affected by uncertainty, will be an integral precondition of rehabilitation.
What role can startups play in the post-crisis economy?
Startups will continue to play a critical role in the post-pandemic world. The unfortunate reality is that every country will face high unemployment. Companies will be under pressure to stay afloat and cut costs further as they try to adjust to the new ways of living, consuming and working. As we saw after the 2008 crisis, people will be willing to take more risks and start new companies because they may not be able to return to their old jobs.
Governments should do everything they can to encourage this form of risk-taking because these are the companies which can help us to innovate and live and work more productively in the post-pandemic world. Whether this is by creating tax incentive schemes for investors to allocate more capital into these startups or supporting the ecosystem within each country to ensure that the right legal, educational, technological environments exist, these policies are important to provide employment for the jobless but also to enable us to shift faster from the old economy to new economy.
How can we reimagine our healthcare and education systems to make them more adaptable? How can we incentivise preventive medicine? How effective can distance learning become?
The pandemic reflects a global systematic under-preparation of healthcare systems to deal with a potential pandemic, despite constant warnings over the last 20 years. Technology can help us create not only distant learning but also distant healthcare. We focus too much on the cure instead of prevention. The pandemic is a clear manifestation of this notion. Technology, through the use of artificial intelligence and distant engagement, can help people maintain higher standards of hygiene, healthcare and education without implementing higher costs on the taxpayer. But we need to encourage the private sector to develop these technological solutions. Upfront investments and incentives by states to create the right ecosystems for innovation will ensure a longer-term reduction of costs, while increasing the levels of education and healthcare.
As someone who has worked on one of the first educational games — Wordtris-Tetris, I believe educational games will play a more prominent part in the future, rather than the traditional classroom systems.
I have also used this opportunity to conduct several online lectures myself. And while this was completely different from being in the same room with the students, it was a very rewarding experience. Technology empowers us to conquer distance and other barriers, and we have to use it to our advantage to ensure that no pandemic or other event can disrupt the continuity of education for students of all ages. We have an opportunity to use technology to provide education to those who did not have access to it before and I believe the pandemic will accelerate that process.
Earlier this year, during your visit to Israel you came up with the idea to establish an international club for small states. Can you tell us more about this?
I had this idea of establishing a club of small states for quite some time. Recently, I discussed it with a number of leaders, who, I thought, would be interested in bringing this idea to life. Among them — the Emir of Qatar, Crown Prince of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, the prime minister of Singapore, and the presidents of Rwanda and Montenegro to name a few. I spoke publicly about this idea during my visit to Israel. It looks like things are coming together, and I will be launching the Club officially soon.
It is a good time to be a small state since the spread of democratic norms-based international institutions, combined with increased interdependency and openness of global markets, allows small states like Armenia not only to prosper but also to influence the evolving multipolar world order. At the same time, unconventional challenges like the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic are an added reason for many small states to seek effective cooperation. I believe that small states acting as collective power can make a palpable difference in making the world safer and more prosperous and harmonious.
One of the missions of the Club is to identify innovative approaches to collective actions and international initiatives by small states. We are entering a new era for the global economy, being shaped by three driving forces: digitalisation, and the new industrial revolution; the sustainable development imperative; and economic multipolarity and state nationalism. The Club can become a generator of novel development strategies and growth models for small states as we confront this new era.
You are one of the very few heads of state who is a scientist. What role will science play in helping us emerge from the Covid-19 crisis? What are the most effective means of developing a vaccine? How can technology mitigate the effects of the pandemic?
Science will play a critical role because it will provide empirical assessments of the virus and its effects. This is more important today than any other time because of the information overload our societies are experiencing. It is very difficult for people to take the right steps if they are receiving mixed messages from the government, their social groups, their friends or the organisations which employ them.
Therefore, following scientific advice is critical to saving lives and also restarting economies in the right way. We can now safely deduce that we do not need a blanket lockdown in every country but can ring-fence demographic groups, sectors of industry or employees who are most at risk. Only science can provide the right guidance and we should be following the experts.
The most effective means of developing the vaccine is by open collaboration. There are so many unknowns still about the virus and we are discovering new things about it every day. To create an effective cure we must collaborate closely not only on a private-public level but on a global level. This is the responsibility of governments worldwide to ensure this open collaboration and put pressure on private institutions to do the same.
Technology, as has frequently been the case throughout history, can be the saviour of sciences during the pandemic. It has already been effective in maintaining civil order because most people who possess TVs, computers, tablets or smartphones can keep connected to their families, work and friends, whilst also being entertained. Imagine if this happened 50 or even 30 years ago — the aftermaths of mental health issues and social unrest would have been catastrophic and the lockdowns would have been less effective. I believe this change in consumer and employee behaviour will continue and, if embraced effectively, can create some unintended benefits on productivity, pollution levels and reconnecting with family and nature.
It is clear that governments, and corporations, will have to put more emphasis on resilience, not just efficiency. How can organisations become more resilient?
Currently, more than ever, governments and businesses stand in need of flexible, transparent and clear communications with their respective stakeholders.
Governmental resilience depends on consistency. The way to ensure consistency is for governments to start embracing technology and implement e-governance to ensure uninterrupted activity while also bringing on board those that may not have been represented previously. Perversely, this pandemic could help governments to become more representative and more democratic, if they take the opportunity to implement e-governance. The countries having seriously invested in e-governmental systems have proven to be more resilient. The cases of Singapore and Rwanda displays how effective the small state can be in this matter. One-seventh of the Singaporean government taskforce was working from home before Covid-19. Consequently, they were equipped to endure and confront an issue of this magnitude without as much disruption. E-governance, among other things, can not only create the environment or the tools required for the sustained activity of governments, business and their respective participants, it can also help facilitate the wider adoption of technological innovation — and encourage more of it.
Armenia is among few countries in the world which has a Ministry of High-Tech industry. It testifies to the importance we attach to the development of technologies. Artificial intelligence has already become a priority on our technological development agenda, and we are striving to make Armenia a world hub when it comes to AI. Toward that end, we encourage and support startups working in this particular area at the state level. As for e-governance, we view it as an essential tool for governing in the 21st century and are taking decisive steps to introduce it in Armenia at all levels of governance.
How is Armenia encouraging the development of startups?
Armenia uses a wide range of tactics to encourage the development of startups — from favourable conditions of taxation to supporting BASTEM education, which implies teaching the students by integrating the four specific disciplines, Business Administration, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, into one interdisciplinary as cohesive learning approach, rather than considering the four disciplines as separate and discrete subjects. In order to create more opportunities for Armenian startups by bringing them closer with global leaders, we have recently launched ATOM (Advanced Tomorrow). This is a Presidential Initiative on Technology and Science Development in Armenia, which aims to bring leading IT companies to Armenia to develop their artificial intelligence, mathematical modelling, machine learning capabilities by ensuring closer collaboration between them and our local institutions, businesses and high-skilled workplace in these respective fields. Together, we will also implement educational programs to create a strong national capability — this is what makes Armenia itself a sort of startup.
Also, we should not forget that Armenia is not only a small state, but a global nation with advancing ambitions. Our compatriots from the diaspora are an important asset and act as ambassadors for Armenian startups and products in the global market.
Armenia is sometimes compared with Israel. Both countries are geographically small but have a global diaspora population. What is the diaspora’s role in Armenia?
In the course of our history, we have been deprived of statehood for many centuries. But Armenians in every corner of the world never gave up their dream of reestablishing an independent Armenian state. Without that goal, which was passed from generation to generation, it would be much more difficult for us to carry out the process of building the sovereign Armenia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
There are four to five times more Armenians living abroad than in Armenia. Almost as many Armenians live in Russia or in the United States as in Armenia. There are as many Armenians in Los Angeles, in France, or in the Middle East as in the capital city of Yerevan.
Considering our geopolitical location, the diaspora is a natural bridge and a link between Armenia and the world, and therefore as in the case of the Jewish diaspora, the Armenian diaspora should play its part in implementing the national interests of Armenia.
Our mission is crystal-clear: to establish a network model of the global nation through a strong statehood with clear understanding of our common interests. I believe that such a type of the diaspora-Armenia synergy may offer much to the world.