“The armed forces and the startup communities are different worlds,” said Nataliia Kushnerska, project leader of Brave1. “In this project, everyone gets what they need. The General Staff and the Ministry of Defense receive very nice solutions that they can really get to work with. The Ministry of Economic Affairs will have a growing ecosystem, an industry that you could use to restore the country.”
It was a sultry spring in Kiev. Café crowds spill over to tables facing the street. Couples let their dogs under the blossoms in the city’s sprawling parks and botanic gardens, and teens use the front steps of the opera house as a skate ramp. 500 days away, the desperate, relentless defense of the capital last year is etched in memory. What has replaced it is a strange new normal. Restaurants advertise their bunkers next to their menus. Men and women in uniform with duffel bags and bunches of flowers wait on station platforms – returning from or on their way to the front. During the day the sky is clear of planes, a strange absence for a capital city. At night there are the sirens: Mark Hamill on repeat. When I left, the counter-offensive was about to take place. Here and there people dropped hints – supplies to find, mysterious forays to the southeast. It started in June, when Ukrainian troops slowly moved forward again.
Victory is not assured and many sacrifices still have to be made. But there is room now – psychologically, emotionally and economically – to think about what comes next. Before leaving Kyiv, I spoke with Tymofiy Mylovanov, a former minister and now president of the Kyiv School of Economics, known for his unfiltered political analysis. I asked him why this fledgling government had defied the expectations of many pundits, who expected their anti-corruption efforts and grandiose digitalization plans to fail and crumble before Russia’s onslaught. “Because people don’t pay attention to the details,” says Mylovanov. About Fedorov he says simply: “He is the future.”
The war has provided a proof of concept not only for drones or the technology sector, but for a government that was idealistic and untested – even for Ukraine, as a country whose borders, sovereignty and identity have been undermined for decades.
Brave1 is a small way for Ukraine to look ahead, to turn the disaster it is going through into an opportunity to build something new. The incubator is not housed in an imposing military building with men in uniform, but in Kiev’s Unit City tech hub, with bean bags, third-wave coffee stands and trampolines built into the courtyard. It is characteristic of the start-up of the war effort, but also of the way in which the war has become background noise in many cases. The moments are still shocking, but every day there is a need to just get on with business.
The war is always there – Fedorov still had to present his educational project in the basement, not the ballroom – but it is integrated into the workflow. In March, Fedorov was promoted and given an expanded assignment as deputy prime minister for innovation, education, science and technology. He pushes the Diya app to new places. It now offers courses to help Ukrainians retrain in technology, and motivational talks from sports stars and celebrities. Ukrainians can use it to watch and vote in the Eurovision Song Contest. And they can use it to listen to emergency radio broadcasts, store their evacuation documents, request money if their homes are destroyed, even report the movements of Russian troops to a chatbot.
Speaking as a techie, Fedorov says these are exactly the kind of life-changing, tangible products he vowed to create, all incremental advances that add up to a new way of governing. Small acts of political radicalism delivered online. ‘Government as a service’, as he puts it. He implements changes in the education system. He reforms the statistical service. The boring things that don’t make the headlines. Ordinary things to be done alongside the extraordinary. “The world keeps turning,” he says. “While Ukraine fights for freedom.”
This article appears in the September/October 2023 edition of WIRED UK