Want to go digital? Think Estonia

By Nicholine Hayward on Tuesday, 17 May 2016

It may be a tiny country, way up north on the Baltic coast, with few natural resources, but Estonia is the one of the most talked-about countries in the world. It’s not for their Eurovision success (or lack thereof) but because they are the world’s most digital nation.

Estonia’s schoolchildren learn to code from the age of 5, virtually 100% of banking is carried out online, free wifi is everywhere and every citizen carries a digital ID card to access thousands of public and private sector services, including online voting, managing pensions and accessing health records. As the birthplace of Skype, Estonia has more start-ups per head than any European country and was virtually untouched by the banking crisis.

Citizens used to joke that the only thing you couldn’t do online in Estonia was get married or divorced, but the introduction of blockchain-based notary services is changing even that. In fact, the country secures its credit card infrastructure on blockchain and has the lowest rate of card fraud in Europe. The regulatory touch is light. It’s easy for banks to prove that they know their customers and that they treat them fairly, as it’s simply a matter of cross-referencing one dataset against another from a shared ecosystem of financial data. Issues of culture or ethics simply don’t come into it.

It’s all because of a brave and decisive move by the newly independent Estonian Government back in the mid 90s – Project Tiger Leap. Faced with a flat-lining economy and an archaic Soviet-era civic and technological infrastructure, Estonia’s young and entrepreneurial leaders knew the future was digital.

It’s often assumed that Estonia had a clean sheet to work from but this wasn’t actually the case. It had a motley collection of Soviet-era systems, but rather than try and start from scratch Estonia invested in connecting technology, a de-centralised open architecture called the X-Road, to link existing systems together and to which new ones could be added over time. So rather than waste billions, as many governments do, on creating monolithic proprietary systems, Estonia’s solution was not only cheaper but also smarter and more future-proof.

At the same time, they didn’t try and do it all in-house, but got a host of partners, from banks and private companies to overseas investors, on side. Within just a few years, under a mantra of ‘digital by default’, the country was transformed, the first digital ID cards were issued in 2002 and the first online election was held in 2003.

It’s no wonder that Estonia is a magnet for governments from all over the world to share and learn from its experiences. But it’s in the way it approaches citizen digital engagement that the most useful lessons are to be learned. The first is that the Estonian government didn’t try to sell its citizens a big vision of a digital future. Nobody would have understood that. But they did understand long queues and pointless bureaucracy, so by focussing on solving today’s problems not tomorrow’s possibilities, it became a much more tangible and motivating proposition.

The second is that nice-to-haves can be as effective as need-to-haves. Estonia didn’t need to digitise its national archives and bring its museums and galleries online, but it changed the dynamic from one of everyday admin to one of a collective and experiential digital culture.

The third is the deal that the government has effectively struck with its citizens over the issue of personal data. While it’s true that the government, and increasingly so with the move to blockchain, has access to a wealth of data on individuals, by the same token, those people have access to and control of their own data. They can see, for example, who has accessed their financial, health or property ownership records – and anyone who does so without a valid reason is liable to prosecution. Compare this to the UK, where we don’t even have the right to access our own Clubcard data because it doesn’t belong to us but to Tesco.

Another learning is around the idea of no choice – commonly presented as a bad thing here in the UK. Having a digital ID card is mandatory in Estonia, something our own citizens steadfastly resist. But by normalising the concept, and by making the ID card a passport to a world of useful services, the card plays a very different role in people’s lives. It’s a badge of belonging as much as a form of identification.

Finally, Estonia is happy to share its experiences and knowledge. It offers a warm welcome as a training ground and think tank for digitisation to anyone who wants to come and learn. Its status and reputation are enhanced, not diminished, by being completely open and transparent about what it has learned.

So that’s why, here at Teamspirit, whenever we’re given a client problem to solve or a brief to crack, we ask ourselves: what would Estonia do?

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