For this issue I travelled to the future – to Estonia, specifically, to report on that small nation’s success in creating a 21st-century digital society. It was an exhilarating journey, all the more so since the last time I had visited the country, in 1990, it was still a backwater of the old Soviet Union. The first thing you notice is that Wi-Fi is available practically everywhere – and without the annoying hassles (logon procedures, time limits) that many European public places love to inflict. When you talk to people they proudly tell you that it takes only 18 minutes to start a company or 30 minutes to file an income-tax return because all the data is treated digitally, and that school children are taught computer literacy at an early age.
Estonia is special because it decided that universal access to digital technology was a societal priority, not a luxury.
The government led by example – ministers and parliamentarians carry computers and tablets rather than mountains of paper – and it enlisted the private sector to build the necessary infrastructure. By giving its citizens digital ID cards that enable them to go online to vote, pay bills, check medical records, file tax returns, see their children’s school reports, and so on, Estonia has marshalled 21st century technology to make life easier for its citizens.
Returning from Tallinn to central Europe the question uppermost in my mind was: can the achievement of a small nation be replicated on a continent-wide scale?
The lazy answer is that, no, only a small and relatively homogeneous nation can persuade its citizens to accept massive changes in their habits. Not only that, but Estonia had the rare advantage of being for all practical purposes a new country when the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, with no bureaucratic baggage. And it’s a peripheral country with few hackable treasures – no major corporate interests, no global military.
In fact, much of the Estonian experience is scalable. As Facebook, Google, Skype and many other digital enterprises have shown, if you can provide an electronic service for 500 people, you can do it for 5 million. It comes down to mindset.
The good news is that foreign delegations are now regularly streaming through Tallinn to see how the Estonians do it. Even if only a few ideas rub off, Europe will be the better for it.
By Henry Muller
Estonia in focus: