Lord Ara Darzi
Chair of the Selection Committee of the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity, Director of the Institute of Global Health Innovation at Imperial College London

Ruben Vardanyan and Nune Alekyan present an excellent analysis of the challenge facing Armenia.  The central question, as they express it, is: “How can our ancient nation, which is dispersed all over the world and has only recently regained statehood, restore its vitality and achieve a breakthrough so that it plays a meaningful part in the development of civilization?” 

In answering this question they rightly say that prosperity, security and preservation of Armenia’s national identity must be the priorities. “We want our nation to move from preservation mode to prosperity mode,” they say. A prosperity in which all can share. 

Vardanyan and Alekyan are surely right also to express the hope that the “surge of public energy” unleashed by the Velvet Revolution in April 2018 which propelled Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to power, provides a unique opportunity to bring about meaningful change. It must not be missed. 

Prime Minister Pashinyan faces challenges on many fronts – navigating the tricky relationship with Russia, resolving the festering conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and tackling the poor economic growth and corruption that laid the seeds for his rise to power. 

In my response, however, I want to focus on what I believe to be a key factor in achieving the goal set out by Vardanyan and Alekyan – the digital transformation of Armenia. 

In my 30-year medical career I have overseen advances in digital technology, launched the first digital academy for the NHS in the UK and pioneered digital innovations that are helping to transform the practice of medicine. 

Over the same period we have seen how digital advances have transformed the world for everyone – from New York commuters wanting the quickest route to their destination to Malawian fishermen seeking the best price for their catch. In Armenia, the use of social media was a key factor in mobilising the thousands of supporters who might not otherwise have joined the protests that brought Nikol Pashinyan to power. 

Armenia’s Digital Transformation Agenda 2030, published in November 2017, is vital to its future. The Government plans to reach 100 per cent digitalisation in relations with the business community and 80 per cent in social services by 2030, by which time it expects to save 50 per cent on government administrative expenses. 

As it has stated, digital solutions can increase administrative efficiency, develop transport, improve the environment, save energy, boost public safety, and grow agricultural production. The Digital Transformation Agenda 2030 outlines six key elements: digital government, digital skills, infrastructure, cybersecurity, private sector and institutional basics. 

It needs to progress these without delay. But it also needs to do more to boost the IT sector. 

As well as a cost-saving efficiency, digitisation of Government is an equalising force. It allows for the creation of a borderless country, if everything is digital and location-independent. In Estonia the Government launched a digital “residency” programme which allowed foreigners to log in and use some services, such as banking, as if they were living in the country. Other measures allowed start-ups to put down virtual roots. They were so successful that the e-residency application rate exceeded the birth rate. 

For Armenia, whose population is declining and whose citizens are widely dispersed, with seven of its 10 million population living abroad, the increased connectivity that can be achieved through digital advance could be transformative. It could provide the diaspora with an increased opportunity to reconnect with their roots, open up new avenues for investment, and stimulate innovation. 

As populations become increasingly transient, the idea of nationhood is being redefined. An article in the New Yorker imagined a future in which nationality is determined not so much by where you live as by what you log on to. Once, that would have been thought science fiction. No longer. 

Of the multiple options for Armenia’s future, Vardanyan and Alekyan propose the hub model, as adopted by South Korea and Singapore, with the aim of developing the country by using the contacts and resources of the diaspora to attract capital investment, advanced technology, and highly qualified specialists. 

In this, Armenia can build on one of its great strengths – its tradition of networking, a vital skill in the modern world. But it cannot be achieved without the digital tools that, today, are essential to successful networking for a global mobile population. 

The authors refer to the age of “talentism” and the vital role of education in creating a skilled workforce of individuals with the creative potential to improve their world. As workers become more mobile, competition for their skills will increase. Armenia must speed the development of the necessary digital infrastructure to train and employ the most highly skilled workers. 

This is not about creating an Armenian equivalent of Silicon Valley. Digital technology is often seen as having a value of its own. That is a mistake. It is not the technology that is important but what it enables. 

As a hub with contacts across the world, offering skilled specialists and advanced technologies, Armenia could grow from a small fragmented nation to become the sovereign core of the diaspora whilst helping to maintain the regional balance as a buffer state, thanks to its geographical location. 

For decades Armenians have been united by the memory of the 1915 Genocide, and the pain and suffering it caused. As the authors say, today they need “modern objects of shared pride,” and a sense of optimism about the country’s future. 

Noubar Afeyan has offered a positive vision focused on creating a “global network nation” centred round the hub country of Armenia which would become a locus of power, a generator of ideas and an incubator of innovation. 

Digital transformation is vital to achieving that vision. It must be a priority for the country’s future.


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