Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ conversation with Microsoft’s President Brad Smith in the podcast “Tools and Weapons”

(Dimitris Papamitsos / Greek Prime Minister's Office)

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis participated in the podcast “Tools and Weapons”, as a guest of Microsoft’s President, Brad Smith.

The full discussion of the Prime Minister with Brad Smith follows below:

Brad Smith: I’m Brad Smith, and this is Tools and Weapons. On this podcast, I’m sharing conversations with leaders who are at the intersection of the promise and the peril of the digital age. We’ll explore technology’s role in the world, as we look for new solutions for society’s biggest challenges.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: The perception of the country and the confidence that people have here in Greece in our abilities to do much better, has significantly increased.

Brad Smith: That’s Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Prime Minister of Greece. He and I had the opportunity to sit down and talk together recently in Athens. It’s a fascinating time to go to Greece. Following a decade of recession, the past three years have brought about a strong economic resurgence. Despite strong headwinds and a recession in Europe, Greece’s economy is growing this year by about 6% and digital technology has played an indispensable role. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that Prime Minister Mitsotakis is really a 21st century Prime Minister.

He’s used digital technology to drive not just an economic resurgence, but a digital transformation for the nation, for their growing tech sector, and is focused on how to put technology to work to improve the way everyday citizens get to interact with the government.

In this podcast, we cover Greece’s ambition to digitally preserve ancient cultural sites, and the work it takes to protect one of the oldest and best inventions that Greece has contributed, democracy itself. My conversation with Prime Minister Mitsotakis, up next on Tools And Weapons.

Well, Prime Minister Mitsotakis, it’s wonderful to be here with you in Athens. We’re looking towards the end of 2022. It’s been a momentous year. It’s been a number of very successful years here in Greece. I’d like to start with that. We at Microsoft, I think, had the benefit of realizing perhaps a little bit before some others, just how remarkable the economic resurgence has been here in Greece. You’ve been at the center of it. Can you tell us a little bit about what has brought it together, what you’re seeing here and how you think about the future?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, first of all, thank you, Brad, for giving me the opportunity to have this discussion. Indeed, I remember when we first met almost three years ago and I was pitching our plans for Greece at a time, it was a reasonably tough sell, in the sense that Greece was still coming out of a 10-year crisis. Having received a lot of bad press, some of it justified, some of it unjustified.

We were a new government coming into power, pledging to move Greece to a different growth trajectory and to really implement deep reforms, to create more wealth for our citizens in an equitable manner. And three years later, we are happy. The Greek economy is expected to grow in 2022, close to 6%, and we still expect robust growth in 2023.

Despite all the headwinds, we’ve reduced our debt to GDP ratio significantly faster than any other country. We top the charts when it comes to improving business environment across the world. We’ve been doing really well in terms of implementing reforms that attract foreign capital. We’re doing a lot on digital. I’m sure we’ll discuss this a little bit later. We are leaders when it comes to the energy transition. Our geopolitical role, because of Ukraine and because of the gas crisis, has been enhanced. But I would say that the perception of the country and the confidence that people have here in Greece in our abilities to do much better, has significantly increased.

Brad Smith: It has been remarkable and I think the good news is the secret is out. And you mentioned the role of digital technology. I think you were one of the earlier adopters when it came to prime ministers recognizing that you needed to fuel the digital transformation of the country and the government itself. You adopted, the Parliament supported, in September of 2020, a cloud-first policy. Tell us a little bit about what led to your thinking and, yeah, how you got the country on board.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, it’s interesting because I had the opportunity in a previous capacity, to serve as Minister for Administrative Reform and E-Government. That was back in 2013, 2014. And the time I realized that my portfolio was any government portfolio only in name. I simply did not have the tools to drive through digital transformation of the state, so I thought that if I ever were given the opportunity, we would do differently. So we’ve set up a Ministry of digital transformation with very broad responsibilities that own not just the data, but also the processes, because it’s not just enough to aggregate the data and make the databases talk to each other, we don’t just want to recreate bureaucracy.

So digital transformation needs to go hand-in-hand with an assessment of what processes are unnecessary and redundant. The end result of this has been more than a billion digital interactions between citizens, businesses, and the state, over the past three years. Our site has been a revolution for Greeks who were always accustomed to the idea that they have to show up to interact with the state, even if it were to verify their signature or sign any sort of truthful statement. Now, all of this can be done digitally. We focused a lot on digital health. Also, COVID was an opportunity to do that and I think we’re just scratching the surface of what we can do to deliver a fully digital state. I think it speaks volumes to the younger generation, who are much more digitally literate. But now of course, now we have the next challenges.

We focused a lot on digital health. Also, COVID was an opportunity to do that and I think we’re just scratching the surface of what we can do to deliver a fully digital state. I think it speaks volumes to the younger generation, who are much more digitally literate. But now of course, now we have the next challenges.

Brad Smith: When I came here to Athens in October, 2020, when we announced together that Microsoft would build huge data centers here in Greece, we also announced a skilling program to reach a 100,000 people, including people in government, we’re more than a third of the way there. How do you think about the skilling challenges, for say, digital technology here in Greece?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: First of all, it’s a completely different ballpark from traditional education and we always thought that you’d go through high school, you go to university, you spend four or five years, get your degree. The whole skilling business works in a completely different manner. It’s much more compact, much more focused on results, on certification, making sure that people actually get the skills that the marketplace is asking for. And of course, we just cannot design it in a vacuum. We have to talk to our customers, and our customers are the people who want to acquire the skills and the companies who will hire these people. So there needs to be a much stronger interconnection between what we do and what the marketplace is really asking for.

The good thing is, we have a lot of money available from European funds to do this. We have lots of talented people, I think, eager to strengthen their skills.

For example, we have lots of STEM graduates. If in the past you wanted to get a degree in math in Greece, or in chemistry, or in physics, you probably wanted to do this to go and teach physics at a school. But now, there are only that many jobs to teach physics at a public school but you have a STEM background. So how do you take these people who understand something about STEM and add on top of those people, those layers of skills, that can make them marketable into a fast-changing environment? Or how do you take, for example, a small business that has no clue about digital marketing and teach them those elements that will actually allow them to make a difference?

So it needs to be really carefully tailored. There’s no single solution. And of course, I think we’ve also discussed about, we talk about digital skills, but there will also be a need for sustainability. Skills, which is, I know something that you focus a lot on and Greece being a country that is in the Mediterranean, where we see climate change happening already. This is not something you can just look at. We’ll make our contribution of course, when it comes to our nationally defined contributions, but we want to do something that punches above our weight in terms of contributing to this global debate.

Brad Smith: At the height of the pandemic, the solution that emerged as the tech sector’s favorite for COVID was frankly pretty complicated. It was the notion that you’d get these apps on everybody’s phone and it would keep track of who you came into contact with, so that if somebody then was diagnosed with COVID, it would get uploaded to a database and it would then be transmitted to everybody else anonymously. But the truth is, it was never accepted.

You, in contrast, moved extraordinarily quickly with the Greek government, using what I think of as much simpler but more effective technology with text messaging. Can you describe what you did?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Yeah. When we looked at these solutions, we looked at each other and we said: “This is never going to work.” I mean, it’s just too complicated. Too many issues, there are going to be too many false positives, false negatives. It’s just going to create a massive confusion. So we said, “Okay, how can we use basic technology to help us solve aspects of this problem?” We used basic SMS technology, “Send us a message if you want to go out to walk your dog, so we know where you are. And we also have proof that you’ve actually notified someone.” Those were during the times of the heavy restriction, it worked very well. It was very well accepted by people. And of course, when we designed our vaccine strategy, we designed it bottom-up, to be digital.

I was so surprised when I saw my daughter showed back, and she came back to Greece (from the United States) and said, “Where’s your vaccine certificate?” And she showed me this little handwritten card. Then I started laughing. I mean, what is this? I mean, in Greece, it was all digital from the very, very beginning. We were at the forefront of designing the EU digital vaccine certificate, which allowed us to travel during COVID because it recognized a vaccine status among member states. Well, I mean we’re not technology guys, but sometimes applying some common sense when you look at a solution and making the call that this is just maybe too complicated a solution to what is already a complicated problem, it pays off. So we never went down the path of the digital tracking ecosystem.

Well, I mean we’re not technology guys, but sometimes applying some common sense when you look at a solution and making the call that this is just maybe too complicated a solution to what is already a complicated problem, it pays off. So we never went down the path of the digital tracking ecosystem.

Brad Smith: And I think what you’re also pointing to, I’d almost refer to it as layering. You take the lives that people lead and you add the simplest layer of technology on it.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: But one more point where we used really sophisticated technology, back in 2020, we said: “Okay, we don’t have enough tests. We want to open up for tourism. Who do we test? How do we create a random sample?” And we talked to some really bright AI experts and we used AI to do targeted testing of the people who came. This actually even made it into Nature as a good example of government-sponsored technology. That was actually very sophisticated but it delivered a clear result. I told my team, “What is a problem that we have to solve? I have X number of tests. I have 20 times X people coming. Can I optimize my testing in a way that will give me more bang for my buck?” And they delivered.

Brad Smith: And I wonder if there’s an insight in that pattern, namely, one needs in the world today, deep experts in a specific space, like AI, access to data, figure out what to do, but then when it comes to scaling rapidly across an entire population or just say an entire group of tourists from around the world, then make it simple in terms of the interaction that they have with technology.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Yeah, because if you look at our site, it’s extremely simple, very elementary in terms of no jazzy graphics or anything. It’s just, “What do you want to do? This is the way to do it. These are the instructions and we’re here to help.”

And then sometimes it pays to also have traditional customer service channels. I mean, when we realized at some point that the biggest problem we had in terms of interaction between a citizen state, I asked, “Where are the complaints?” When they talk to us as a state, 50% was pensions or problems with their pensions. Very complicated in terms of calculating their pensions and we had to set up a call center.

So yes, we have technology, but sometimes you just have to talk to someone. There’s no replacement for that. And maybe we start using AI in our call centers, but we need to be aware of the type of problem, what technology can and what it cannot do. And it has been incredibly successful in helping us reduce the complaints that we have.

But another aspect of tech, which not many people appreciate, is that if you can have your systems talk to each other successfully, you can deliver means-tested public policies.

Brad Smith: Well, and I have to admit, I will always remember at the height of the pandemic, you and I had a meeting by video, I think it was April of 2020, so it was early in the pandemic. And in Seattle, one of the capitals you would think of the tech sector, no one had any idea what the ICU, the intensive care unit bed capacity was for our hospitals across the region. Nobody knew who was in them or what they were there for. There was no database. And as I mentioned that to you, you looked down at your laptop and you said, “I have right here on my screen, the ability to aggregate data from all of the hospital beds across Greece.”

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Yeah. And this is important. So one of my dashboard, we put in place a special COVID dashboard where I could check all the basic metrics. And I think once we understood the predictive power of the data, after the first wave, it really helped us. Essentially what you want to make sure is, you want to be able to ramp up when you need beds and you need to have an idea of how this thing moves. But at the beginning, we were all pretty clueless about this.

One advantage in Greece is that our healthcare system is centralized. So we have seven healthcare regions and 120 hospitals. So they all had to operate according to the same guidelines. But frankly, we’re not there yet in terms of measuring, because especially when it comes to healthcare, we’re still behind where we need to be in terms of measuring quality of care, but also using technology as a transparency tool.

Brad Smith: So you’ve really harnessed the power of technology as you’ve been describing, to modernize government, simplify and improve government services, make it through the pandemic. I want to ask you about some of the other areas and how you’re thinking about technology. You just had, what I think of as a pretty big milestone recently, in terms of powering the entire country for a period of time on renewable energy. Can you tell us about that?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: We have 10 gigawatts of installed renewables, 10 gigawatts is our peak consumption. Obviously, not all of it is going to come at any given point from renewables, but we hit a milestone 15 days ago. It was a lovely sunny and rather windy Friday in October, with very reasonable temperature. So no need for air conditioning, no need for heating, which means relatively low electricity consumption. And for six hours, we managed to power the entire country with renewables. So this was wind, solar, and a little bit of hydro.

So this is something which had never happened before, but it’s the way forward. And the more we penetrate with renewables, the closer we will get to this reality. But we have to recognize that in the meantime, we will need alternative sources of energy. And there was a fallacy in the green movement that you can move from coal and oil, to wind and solar, by flicking a switch and this is not going to happen.

We will need fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. It has to be gas. We need to be as efficient as possible with gas, but you have to be realistic, while at the same time understanding that accelerating the penetration of renewables, makes sense from a climate change point of view, makes sense from economical point of view, makes sense from a geopolitical point of view. Because no one can take away our sun and our wind. Mr. Putin cannot shut that down.

So there are three reasons why it makes sense to really go overboard in investing in renewables. And this of course means overcoming various obstacles, permitting, it really needs to be streamlined, and we need to be clear where can we go and where we cannot go. So I’m very much in favor of go-to areas. So rather than having windmills spread out all over the country, two, three here, let’s pick 10 places where we have the support of the local communities, where the grids are in place and where we can actually really accelerate.

Permitting for example, we told ourselves that we don’t want to have windmills on our very high mountains, because it competes with our natural ecosystem. We have enough space to put them elsewhere. And the second, of course, is the grid. I think investments in grids are going to be absolutely critical, in order to make sure that power flows seamlessly from where we can actually produce it. This is going to be very important. So networks and interconnectivity also with European markets, is going to be tremendously important, especially if we think about becoming a net exporter of energy, which we should be. Or an importer of energy from Africa, which has very cheap solar, to then send it to other Northern European countries that don’t have the same efficiency in terms of producing solar energy.

Brad Smith: So you see technology obviously in this intersection with public policy, including the electricity policy, carbon policy, is going to continue to take Greece into the future. There are also some things about Greece that I think has given the world unparalleled contributions for literally millennia. And I just want to ask you a little bit about how you think about technology in that context as well?

Obviously, you and I have had the chance on multiple occasions now, not just to talk together, but work together about how one uses new digital technology, not just to preserve, but to expand access to culture. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: We did our amazing project together in Olympia, which is one of our iconic sites, and ask your people listening to it to actually look it up, because it is an amazing augmented reality recreation of what ancient Olympia looked like. So you can access it from your laptop, but more interestingly, if you visit the site and you use your phone, you will superimpose an augmented reality recreation of what ancient Olympia looked like. And it is truly eye opening, I think that in terms of experiencing our culture in situ with technology.

I mean, this is really opening up a completely new universe with significant opportunities for the country, bringing more visitors, developing more technology in this interconnection between culture and augmented reality. It’s fascinating what we can do with technology to recreate the ancient world.

But of course, you also need content for this. So you need the archeologists, you need the historians, you need their input because they are the ones who know what it looked like, and then you need the technology guys to put it all together. So it’s a fascinating way of bringing together these very diverse fields of knowledge.

But if you think about even what happened here, you go to the Acropolis, you look at the Parthenon, we don’t think about the engineering that went into building this thing. I mean, which in itself, I mean, think of the technology of the era. It’s fascinating. We haven’t spoken enough about this because we speak a lot about classical Greece and the values that has endowed the world with. But the ancient Greeks were also incredibly innovative and entrepreneurial when it came to using their technology, be it war technology, modern, very fast ships, or be it technology for living or for beauty and for worship, as was the case in our temples.

Brad Smith: And one of the things I really find fascinating about the work done here is, to juxtapose it a little bit with the technology conversation of the past year. I think in some ways the phrase or the word metaverse causes people to think about visiting other places while staying home. And there’s greatness in that. You can access some of Greece’s heritage from anywhere in the world, but what you’ve also shown is how it can add to the experience of visiting a place in-person. You can walk around Olympia, you can look at the ruins, you can use your phone, you can see what it looked like 3,000 years ago, and you can talk to a guide who you’re with at the same time. And it just highlights, I think, especially for a place like Greece, here, say in Athens, a new aspect of tourism that will make visiting here even more compelling than it is already.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, I mean, it’s great that you can look at things from your tablet. There’s no way you can taste the food, or smell the flowers, or appreciate, really appreciate what the experience is all about. And I think the more we depend on technology, the more there will be a need to get back to the roots of humanity and see how these two can actually coexist. And I think this is what Greece really has to offer to the world. And also our heritage and the knowledge that was created here, which is the foundation of many things we know about and not just our political arrangements, not about democracy, but also about science.

It’s fascinating to come back and look at how they thought about these complex problems, and to be inspired. At the end of the day, we have to think outside the box quite frequently and this means being exposed to other stimuli in a completely different way. And this is, I think, what technology can add to what is really there.

Brad Smith: Greece has given the world so much. People think of the Olympics, the food, as you point out, the philosophy, the science, and I might even say in my own view, the greatest gift that Greece has given to the world, is democracy itself. How do you think about the state of democracy, the health of democracy around the world, its intersection with the technological era in which we all live? You sit here today as the elected leader of the place where democracy began. You see democracy perhaps in a way that is unusual in the world. What do you make of that?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Oh, I have lots of thoughts on this topic. Sometimes it is important to go back to ancient Greece and see what the thinkers, who essentially put down on paper what ancient Greek democracy was all about, what were they thinking. Because if you still read Pericles’s Funeral, it is essentially the challenges faced by a democracy, which is attacked by an authoritarian regime. It’s extremely relevant text. I think it should be mandatory reading, especially for all elected politicians.

But look, our democracy is facing challenges and needs to demonstrate that it is resilient. We live in a toxic environment where this debate can be very polarized. At the same time, we also need to be aware that sometimes all this toxicity of the social media sphere, it’s not necessarily what people are thinking about and what they care about.

I mean, now people care about the cost of living. They care about their fuel bills, they care about healthcare. They don’t necessarily care about politicians fighting with each other and getting on each other’s throats. So sometimes we need to be aware that within the bubble of the political discourse, there’s another reality which craves for real solutions to real problems. And one needs to be very cognizant of the fact that at the end of the day, our job is to make people’s lives better and to solve problems. And we’ll be judged, I think, based on our ability to deliver real results.

Brad Smith: Well, I think there’s an interesting point that you make and it also, I think, takes us back to ancient Greece. There were two things that came to life at the same time. One was theater and the other was this enormous, not just confidence, but faith in the ability of, at that point, the common man, common people, to exercise judgment.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: And they all had a role.

Brad Smith: Exactly.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Which means that in our world of limited civic engagement, ancient Athens, granted, was a city state. They had slaves and women had no participation in, but everybody else had a role. And it was expected that you participated, you had to participate in order to be considered a citizen worthy of reaping the benefits of a wealthy city.

Brad Smith: And people love to go to the theater, but you had here, not just this country, but in this city where we are today, this ability for common people to, as you say, appreciate what really mattered. And social media may be the theater of our day to some degree, it may be dramatic, but as you say, when people go and vote, we still, just as we did then, have some reliance, confidence, faith, that as you say, they have an ability to think about what really matters.

Well, I want to thank you. Greece is back. What is good, in my mind, is that lots of people are paying attention. It’s not a temporary phenomenon. I think the growth that you’ve built, has been built on a strong foundation and I think there’s lots of reason to be optimistic about the future.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, thank you. And to those of you listening to, especially at this podcast within the technology world and on the West Coast, you should be aware that there’s a very vibrant technology ecosystem emerging in Greece with lots of extremely successful startups. We have our first unicorns and we want to make sure that tech will contribute more than 10% of our GDP, and we can do that.

Brad Smith: It’s a remarkable state of affairs. And, yes, I can attest there are a lot of talented people here in Greece and it’ll be good for Greece if Microsoft faces even more competition in hiring them.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I think it will happen. Thank you so much, Brad.

Brad Smith: Thank you.