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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.

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