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e-Estonia: The World's Most Advanced Digital Society

Named the most advanced digital society in the world by many, Estonians have built an efficient, secure, and transparent ecosystem where Unicorns find a solid ground to grow.

e-Estonia: The World's Most Advanced Digital Society
Tallinn, Old Town ©Susan Fourtané 

Estonia is a small country in Northern Europe. Due to its quiet and pacific nature, the Baltic nation does not often get too much attention. However, Estonia is by far the most advanced digital society on the planet. Geographically, Estonia is surrounded by the Baltic Sea and Gulf of Finland. It is one of the Baltic countries, together with Lithuania and Latvia. 

Its capital city, Tallinn, is well known for its beautifully preserved medieval Old Town. Here, near the Old Town Square, you can even experience entering into a real candle-light medieval taverna to eat some homemade soup cooked in a large medieval pot by a woman dressed in middle-ages clothing; the soup --served in a bowl with no spoon-- is made of an old recipe. You are supposed to eat your soup right from the bowl just like they used to do in the old medieval days.

Tallinn medieval tavern in old town, soup and pot of soup
Medieval tavern in Tallinn Old Town, soup and a large pot of soup, Source: ©Susan Fourtané

Back in 21st century Estonia, the country is one of the least crowded nations in Europe with an estimated 7.3 percent of its population killed during the Second World War and 10 percent subsequently deported to Soviet labor camps. Estonian population is mostly female. For every 100 women, there are 84 men.

The Republic of Estonia is currently led by a female president. Kersti Kaljulaid, who is a champion in digital revolution, was elected by Parliament on October 3, 2016, becoming the first woman and youngest person ever to hold the position. 

Estonia: Leading as a highly technologically advanced digital country

tallinn old town
Tallinn Old Town snowy street, Source: ©Susan Fourtané 

Former President of Estonia (2006 to 2016) Toomas Hendrik Ilves made a great contribution during his presidency towards building a digital country. 

Toomas Ilves has been globally recognized for making Estonia one of the most digitally advanced nations in the world with a model of digital governance, government e-services, e-voting, e-banking, e-healthcare, focus on education, and free public transportation. Among the great achievements during this period Estonia became the first paperless government in the world.

Not everyone knows that the Skype software was created by three Estonian software developers after the company was founded in 2003 by Swedish technology investor and entrepreneur Niklas Zennström and Danish entrepreneur Janus Friis. Microsoft bought Skype in 2011. From the total of employees working at Skype, 44 percent are based in Tallinn and Tartu. Tallinn has been dubbed the Silicon Valley of Europe due to having the continent's highest number of tech startups.

According to UNESCO, Estonia has 99.8 percent of adult literacy rate, one of the highest in the world with only Latvia and North Korea being higher. A nation's advancement can also be measured by the way governments treat their citizens. As mentioned earlier, public transport is completely free for all residents in Tallinn; and to get access to all public transport available residents of the Estonian capital only have to show their electronic ID card. 

Estonia is a pioneer in digital initiatives. The Estonian government-initiated Artificial Intelligence strategy counts with over 20 machine learning-based solutions live in the Estonian public sector. In Estonia, citizens are always the owners of their own data. None of this comes as a surprise in a country which has been recognized as the most advanced digital society in the world by so many. 

Estonia ranks number one in startup friendliness, according to the Index Venture 2018. Estonia counts with four Unicorns --companies with valuations of over $1 billion--, 987 startups, and 5.9 percent of the total number of employees are in the ICT sector. Estonian Unicorns are Skype, Transferwise, Taxify, and Playtech. 

Last year, global leaders attended the third annual Tallinn Digital Summit to learn more about how to take a nation to the next digital level. 

e-Estonia: How a small country built the world's most advanced digital society

tallinn old town
Tallinn Old Town street, Source: ©Susan Fourtané 

The challenge for Estonia was to build a fully functioning country from scratch. The creation of e-Estonia has led the Baltic nation to a society with more transparency, trust, and efficiency.

The Estonian government believes and demonstrates that developing e-solutions is not just a matter of adding a digital layer but rather changing everything. The road map towards today's digital society began back in the year 1994.

For the last 26 years, Estonia has never stopped innovating and using state-of-the-art technology to build its ambitious future. To understand how Estonia built the advanced digital society it is today, it is necessary to have a look at the visionary steps the country followed. 

First draft of Principles of Estonian Information Policy 

In 1994, the first draft of Principles of Estonian Information Policy was created. The strategic outline for IT development was ratified by the Estonian Parliament four years later. It was established that information technology (IT) was essential to solving the challenges facing society due to politically turbulent times. This resulted in one percent of the GDP earmarked as stable state funding for IT. 

Launch of the Tiger Leap initiative 

In 1996, the Tiger Leap country-wide IT infrastructure development initiative was launched. The challenge was to update local IT infrastructure and establish computer skills as a priority in schools. As a result of this initiative, 90 percent of the population uses the Internet regularly today and Estonia ranks first in the Digital Development Index.

First e-Banking service 

In 1996, Estonian private banks developed the first online banking solutions. The low population density signifies a challenge, meaning high cost for a nationwide network of bank o-ices. Today, the early development of high-quality e-Banking services encouraged people to get online, to embrace government e-solutions, and to use e-ID. 

e-Cabinet meeting 

In 2000, the database and scheduler for streaming governmental decision-making processes were introduced. The challenge is to reduce government bureaucracy, making e-solutions part of decision-making. This resulted in the average length of cabinet meetings of the Estonian government being cut from 4-5 hours to as little as 30 minutes. 

e-Tax board 

Also in the year 2000, Estonia created the online tax declaration. The challenge was to maximize the state tax revenue to support the growing needs of the developing society. Now, 20 years later, declaring taxes online takes about three minutes; and 98 percent of the population in Estonia declare their income electronically. 

m-Parking 

It was the year 2000, too, when a system that enables drivers to pay for city parking via mobile phone was created. The innovative m-Parking system was intended to manage growing traffic in densely populated urban areas, creating a modern low-cost parking infrastructure. Today, 90 percent of parking fees are paid via mobile phones. Estonia's m-Parking solution has been adopted in other countries around the world. 

X-Road 

In 2001, Estonia developed a distributed data exchange layer for registers and information systems. There were limited resources to create a national integration platform, which represented a challenge, as well as ballooning data exchange costs and public data leaks from existing unsecure databases. With hard work and perseverance, the X-Road has become the backbone of e-Estonia, allowing the nation's public and private sector information systems to link up and operate in full harmony. Today, 99 percent of all public services in Estonia are accessible online 24/7. 

e-ID and digital signature 

In 2002, the logical next step was to create a digital identification system based on the mandatory ID card. This would allow citizens to securely identify residence using public and private e-services. Estonian residents using smart-ID have increased from 140,276 in 2017 to 463,559 in 2019, representing 99 percent of the population, from which 67 percent use their ID card regularly. The electronic ID is used to access 99 percent of state services that are online and 2,773 services that can be used via X-Road. Digital signatures save 2 percent of GDP annually. 

i-Voting 

In 2005, Estonia became the first country in the world to adopt online voting in order to maximize accessibility to local and general elections. The challenge was to overcome politically turbulent times, establishing IT as essential to solving the challenges society was facing. Today, one-third of the votes in parliamentary elections are cast online; votes are cast from over 110 countries where Estonian nationals reside or are visiting at the time of elections.

Cybersecurity

In 2007, Estonia concerted all its efforts to enhance IT security. The challenge came after Estonia was hit by the largest organized cyberattack against a single country in April 2007. International cooperation was needed in order to contain this new thread. As a result, of the nation's cybersecurity efforts, Estonia has become one of the leading nations in cybersecurity. Both the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Center of Excellence and the EU IT Agency are located in Tallinn. 

Blockchain technology

In 2008, Estonian cryptographers developed the scalable blockchain technology KSI aimed at mitigating threats of insider data manipulation in Estonia's registries. This development was created following the cyberattacks in 2007. As a result of this initiative, Estonia has become a pioneer of blockchain technology. Several government registries are backed by the KSI blockchain.  

e-Health 

In 2008, Estonia created a nationwide system integrating data from the country's healthcare providers. This would improve the quality and efficiency of healthcare provided under public health insurance. The electronic health record (EHR) has created a comprehensive profile of each patient, reducing bureaucracy and giving access to time-critical information in emergency situations; therefore, saving countless lives. 

e-Prescription 

In 2010, to complement the e-Health system, Estonia created a centralized paperless system for issuing and handling medical prescriptions. The e-prescription system aimed at minimizing paperwork for prescribing and dispensing medical drugs. Today, 99 percent of medical prescriptions in Estonia are handled online; routine refills can be issued without appointments. 

Public services green paper

2013 was the year for mapping challenges and solutions for developing state e-services. The challenge was to address the e-state's shortcomings at the time in order to assure its sustainability and future development. The result was a better understanding of the public's needs and the clear definition of goals and principles for the development of e-services.

Road administration's e-Portal

2014 was the time to create a one-stop online service for drivers and owners of vehicles. The service was created for simplifying and reducing the costs of the Road Administration's service provision. Today, the e-portal provides services six times faster, 20 percent cheaper, and increases transparency. 

e-Residency 

2014 was the year Estonia created the world's first borderless digital society for any global citizen to join. This was a true innovation showing full understanding of the benefits a digital society can bring not only to Estonia but to every citizen in the world who understands what it means to live in the 21st century. 

The e-Residency was a way of finding new and innovative paths for attracting international business and talent to Estonia. The e-Residency is the first digital nation for global citizens. The number of e-residents and their businesses is steadily increasing.  

World's first data embassy

In 2015, Estonia created the world's first data embassy outside its borders. The challenge was to assure the digital continuity of Estonia and its statehood in worse-case scenarios such as critical system failures or external threats. Estonia is the first country in the cloud. The country's critical databases and services are backed up in a high-security data center in Luxembourg. 

NIIS X-Road consortium 

2017 marked the year of the creation of the Nordic Institute for Interoperability Solutions (NIIS), which ensures the development and strategic management of X-Road and other e-government solutions. The challenge was to ensure the interoperability of e-governance solutions and platforms both nationally and internationally. Founded by Estonia and Finland, the NIIS is a pioneer of cross-border e-governance solutions with the intent of providing better content and services for the public. 

Seamless Services roadmap 

In 2018, the first Seamless Service went live. The challenge for Estonia was to reduce bureaucracy and human resources to manage essential routine state services. Seamless Services are proactive government services that react to life events requiring minimal bureaucracy. Seamless Services provide a more natural relationship with the state.

Government AI strategy 

In 2019, the Estonian government outlined the current and future usage of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in government and private services. The main challenge was to create the legal and strategic framework for accelerating AI development and making Estonia a trailblazer in this emerging field. The creation of the AI strategy resulted in a detailed strategic plan for promoting the implementation of AI solutions in the public and private sectors. 

A tale of two Tallinns: The future of e-Estonia  

tallinn old town
Tallinn Old Town Square Christmas market, Source: ©Susan Fourtané

Whilst some countries try to sell the illusion of greatness and advancement, other smaller nations prefer to quietly show rather than tell. In doing so, Estonia has left behind any other big country in the world. By far, Estonia wears the crown as the world's most advanced digital society to-date. 

Perhaps one of the most attractive things about Tallinn is how being the advanced digital society it is, you can see and experience how advanced infrastructure co-exists with medieval architecture and traditions that come very much alive in the Christmas market in the Old Town Square.  

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