Estonia shows the way to an inclusive digital society

When the international media talks about Estonia, they often start the story at the collapse of the Soviet Union, likening our country to a phoenix that arose from the ashes. The history of Estonia is actually way older – and we would be more than happy to make it better known worldwide – but this narrative allows us to show this incredible journey that has been the building of our digital society. 100 years after our independence and less than 30 years after regaining this independence from the Soviet occupation, Estonia is now often described as the world’s most advanced digital society. I don’t know if this is true – other countries are very digitally innovative as well – however Estonians have legitimate reasons to be proud of it.

Estonia owes its remarkable transformation to strong political leadership which, post-independence, quickly understood the transformative power of technology and took a very open and liberal approach in building the country’s new administration. Nowhere is the change more evident than in digital innovation, which has enriched the lives of Estonians in numerous ways.

But just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, Estonia did not go digital overnight.

In 1997, the country wisely invested in building a robust IT infrastructure and passed on its benefits to those who would one day become the country’s future — the new computer-savvy generation. Under Project

Tiigrihüpe (Estonian for Tiger’s Leap), the Government of Estonia invested heavily in the development and expansion of computer and network infrastructure, with a special emphasis on education. Schools and public libraries across Estonia were given free internet access.

Tiger’s Leap proved to be a catalyst for the spread of technology in nearly every sphere of Estonian society, with over 90% of households having internet connections.

Estonia started developing e-governance solutions that enhanced government services and reduced bureaucracy, increased competitiveness of the state, and helped to better serve its population. This has been the main reason behind the development of Estonia’s digital administration : the government wanted to provide efficient services to Estonians, reaching them everywhere, whether they live in our capital city Tallinn, in one of our islands Hiiumaa, or even abroad. Citizens could select e-solutions from among a range of public services at a time and place convenient to them, without the need to physically visit the agency or authority.

Today, 99% of public services are available online — from electronic filing of taxes to requests for medical prescriptions, from voting in elections to registering a company online. Parents can check their children’s academic records and monitor their progress, doctors can, in an emergency situation, read time-critical information, such as blood type, allergies, recent treatments, on-going medication or pregnancy. Estonians can avail of all these and other services by using chip-enabled digital ID cards from anywhere, at home or in transit. As we often explain, there are only three things that you cannot do online in Estonia : you cannot get married, you cannot divorce and you cannot buy real-estate. These operations are not technologically challenging. However, we still believe it is important for people to turn up in person for such big events…

The single digital identity, which also serves as a national ID, is a bridge between the administration and the citizens. Almost 100% of Estonians have been issued digital ID-cards, making their lives simpler and more convenient.

The country, no doubt, had to overcome challenges to establish a ‘digital first’ government. It required coordination and collaboration with private institutions and agencies. The digital foundations had to be strong. Digital technology had to be shared at all levels of society. The IT ecosystem had to be made secure and transparent. More importantly, the citizens had to be convinced that digital transformation was good for them as well as for their country. Thanks to its all-pervading digital signature, Estonia is estimated to save the equivalent of 2% of its GDP, which is equivalent to its defence budget.

Estonia has come a long way since those early digital years. Today, digital disruption is visible everywhere, especially in areas of governance. For example, Estonians can view online every piece of legislation and amendment introduced and passed since February 2003. The laws are published online and serve as an open-source library. There are many similar examples of how e-solutions have transformed Estonia into one of the most developed digital societies in the world.

Above all, our ‘digital first’ model has drastically reduced corruption both at the government and private level. I am pleased to note that, in 2018, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) declared Estonia as one of the least corrupt countries in the world.

Today, Estonia continues to adopt disruptive technologies to modernise its economy, advance businesses and improve social life.

Take the case of internet voting — or i-Voting — where citizens cast their ballots from an internet-linked computer anywhere in the world. In 2005, Estonia became the first country to hold nationwide elections using i-Voting, which is different from electronic voting machines used elsewhere in the world. i-Voting takes place before polling day, so if there were reasonable grounds to suspect that the system has been compromised, then all digital votes would nullified and we could all go to actual polls instead. This has never happened, though. In the parliamentary elections held on March 3, 2019, nearly 44% of citizens voted online. i-voting is not only secure and convenient, it also fulfils the most fundamental component of our digital nation — trust.

Estonia’s transformation into the world’s most advanced digital society is getting global attention, including from India. I am delighted to note that India and Estonia are already partnering in various areas of digital technology, including e-Governance and e-Residency.

The Indian state of Telangana, known for its capability in information technology, is collaborating with Estonia in the areas of e-governance, entrepreneurship, smart cities, e-health and cyber security.

Last year, Reliance Industries CMD Mukesh Ambani became an e-resident under a first-of-its-kind initiative — e-Residency — where non-Estonians nor residents in Estonia can register an EU-based company entirely online from anywhere in the world, without having to come to Estonia. It is a government-issued digital identity and status providing access to Estonia’s e-services and transparent business environment. Since then, Mukesh Ambani has set up a research centre in Estonia for Jio, India’s largest 4G mobile network. Of course, Mr. Ambani does not reflect the majority of our 2,500 e-residents from India. The 350 companies they have created in Estonia are mostly small and micro businesses. They offer digital services, are freelancers, IT developers, consultants or digital entrepreneurs planning to expand their activities to the European market. Thanks to e-Residency, they can easily and remotely access Estonia’s trusted and transparent business environment.

E-Residency may sound like a technological innovation but it actually isn’t. The thinking behind e-Residency is as old as the Republic of Estonia itself. Estonians have always been making friends beyond their borders because this is essential for building a successful country at home, whether digitised or not. Almost all countries encourage foreign investment and maintain relations with people abroad. They just don’t have the digital ID system to manage that relationship in a secure and convenient way.

E-Residency is a status that is part of the new normal for how our state functions and engages citizens of other countries living beyond our borders. And it’s a community where people support each other and want to give more back to Estonia.

Estonia’s ‘digital society’ has demonstrated how secure, efficient and affordable technologies can benefit an entire country and help build a more inclusive society — socially, politically, economically and culturally. We now have so much to offer and we are willing to do it with the rest of the world.

By Arnaud Castaignet, Head of Public Relations, Republic of Estonia’s e-Residency programme

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