Estonia, the first digital country in the world
After having visited almost every European country, the Baltics were not at the top of my list for my next trip.
But as soon as I got out of the plane in Tallin’s airport, I felt I had made the right decision. I felt a warmth that was totally unexpected.
As an entrepreneur and digital nomad, I knew a few things about Estonia. I had heard many good stories about the country’s initiatives to digitalize every aspect of daily life. I also heard Estonia planned to be a pioneering country that would set the example for the whole world, so I needed to check it out. However, I didn’t know much about its history and even less about its tourist attractions.
I took the trm to the city center and even just this short trip was booming with contrasts. The landscape went from old grey soviet buildings to very modern and fully glass constructions. Our last stop was finally in the beautiful medieval historic center. That’s when I remembered Estonia has a rich history, but as a country, it’s only turning 100 in 2018. Don’t forget that not a long time ago, it was part of the USSR. The country was poor and debilitated after getting their independence back, and that’s when the government made the strategic decision of betting on technology.
I stayed downtown, so I explored every inch of the cobblestone streets. I fell in love with the colorful buildings, the palaces, the churches (orthodox, catholic and lutheran, one next to one other), the towers, the little passages, the squares, the green areas, and so on. After one day, my intuition was telling me: “you could live here!” But I still needed to know more about the whole digital and innovative scene. The Estonian government has declared the Internet as a basic human service, so I didn’t have any problem finding information while I was there. I even had 4G in the middle of Lahemma National Park, the one day I decided to explore a tiny part of the 2 million hectares of forest the country boasts - it covers more than 50% its territory!
As I dug into the e-Estonia initiative, I fell more in love with it. The goal of the Estonian government is not technology by itself. Technology is being used to make the governing process more transparent, more citizen-centered, and less corrupt. More effective and more efficient, and they’ve come a long way.
In Estonia, 99% of the relationship between citizens and the government happens online. Only marriages, divorces, and some real state transactions need people to actually move from their houses and laptops. Without long line and bureaucracy, just logging on the State platform with your e-ID can get access to all the e-services. Citizens can even i-vote
from anywhere in the world since 2005.
There’s an e-health initiative as well. People own their own medical history which is all in the system, so doctors can access their patients’ electronic records and make better decisions. Imagine how good this is for emergencies. The patient is arriving in an ambulance, and the doctor already knows all the patient’s information before even seeing him or her.
The good news is, you can be part of this innovative process. Since 2014, anyone can become an e-resident. You can get your e-ID and access all the e-services as any Estonian would; create a company in Estonia, open a bank account, pay your taxes. Everything is for very little cost and without even visiting Estonia. Estonia is the first country in the world wanting to become a borderless society.
Sounds like the future? There are many ambitious initiatives on the country’s roadmap. But not everything is perfect. Like in every country that develops this fast, a big social gap can be found. At the same time, the birth rate is declining at an alarming rate, and Estonia is already one of the least populated countries in the EU. Just to give you an example, it’s the same size as The Netherlands but it has less than 10 times its population.
Cybersecurity is another big challenge. When all your information is online, theoretically, it’s all in danger of being hacked - and it has happened already. Russia cyber attacked Estonia in 2007 and communication collapsed. Luckily, Estonians learn fast and know that it is key for their project to work.
Nowadays, Estonians are world renowned for their cybersecurity systems and are opening data embassies in different parts of the world where they’re storing a digital copy of all the State information. They’ve been using blockchain technology to decentralize information for more than 10 years, so the risk is currently very low.
Estonia is a beautiful country. I’m never going to forget the amazing sunset I enjoyed at 11 pm, with the sun disappearing behind the Baltic Sea, getting lost on the cobblestone streets while listening to traditional music and enjoying a hot sweet wine to combat spring’s cold. But behind the beauty, what surprised me the most is how such a small country is leading the way towards a more transparent, open, and connected world. And I wonder, could this be scaled or adapted to bigger nations like the U.S, Canada, Germany or the U.K.? Would they want to be more transparent, open and connected? We shall see.
One thing is for sure: we know where to look if we make the decision to go that path.