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Estonia: How A Former Soviet Country Became A World Leader In Digital Innovation

The country is the envy of the world when it comes to digital innovation

10Oct

Europe is going through a transitional period. The UK has decided to leave the EU, several countries are struggling economically, and there are huge issues surrounding the refugee crisis coming from middle eastern countries.

Alongside these changes, there is also a large number of societal changes taking place that EU countries are needing to adapt to. This change has seen some economies, such as Greece, Italy, and Spain, struggling, with their traditional industries unable to adapt to more technological focussed challenges.

However, one country is dealing with these challenge better than others. It's GDP per capita may only be $29,300, compared to $41,936 in Germany and $39,899 in the UK, but in terms of digital innovation, it is beating its opposition in almost every area. This country is Estonia, a former member of the Soviet Union who many claim to be the most digitally innovative country in the world.

One of the main elements that sets them apart from others is their use of digital technologies for their citizens, creating new products to make their lives easier and more efficient. For instance, they allow their citizens to vote online and through text message, rather than demanding that people actually turn up and cast their vote in person at a brick and mortar location. This has even allowed them to experiment with how people vote and the systems upon which the voting register is stored, in their last election, for instance, they won many plaudits by successfully using blockchain technologies to make sure that ballots were cast fairly and that the result was accurate. This has also seen a 3% increase in the percentage of people voting in parliamentary elections since it was first introduced, with the number of people voting online increasing by 483% since 2007.

It is not simply voting online that has won the country plaudits either, through their ID programs Estonian citizens can also check out their medical records, pay taxes, or do practically anything that a citizen may need to do when interacting with their government. This is because they can be identified through a physical ID card in-person or through a digital ID, using a chip and pin arrangement with a card-reader, similar to how most people use online banking services.

Estonia has become so advanced in digital technologies for a number of reasons. One is that having only gained independence in 1991, they could easily move from their legacy systems, partly because they were happy to move away from elements that could be related to Soviet rule but also because they didn't have decades of history of using a particular system. This has allowed them to become considerably more agile and flexible with the technology they use and how they collect and store data. Whereas a country like the UK and Germany would have data held in a way that forces them to use certain technologies that could deal with legacy formats, this wasn't an issue for Estonia, so they could afford to experiment and find technologies that would work best for them.

The country also has a progressive view on data collection, with one of the best known examples being their once-only principle. This consists of government agencies only asking for information once, then having it shared across all government departments. So, for instance, if somebody were to give their address and birthday to the tax office, the housing office would not need to ask for it when that same citizen is dealing with them. Essentially every government department shares the same database, which they can then use to create a single source of truth for their citizens.

Something that holds other countries back from doing this is concerns over data privacy and the 'big brother' state. Having operated under the Soviet system previously, where there was considerable state surveillance, it may go some way to explaining why this doesn't phase Estonians as much as other countries. They also have a huge amount of trust in their government to do the right thing rather than exploiting them, something that those in other developed countries don't have. For instance, after her election in October 2016 Kersti Kaljulaid, the current Estonian Prime Minister, had an approval rating of 73%. When you consider that at the same point in his premiership Donald Trump had a 45% approval rating, it is much easier getting big projects passed and working well.

The country is also considerably smaller than others with only 1.3 million people, which if were in the US would make it the 43rd smallest state below New Hampshire. With the decreased number of people who will be impacted, rolling out new technologies is considerably easier and cheaper, with any slight faults impacting fewer people and are therefore simpler and quicker to rectify. They also took pre-emptive steps to allow themselves to become a tech leader, teaching coding, science, and math from a very young age, meaning they now have a highly tech-savvy population with the capabilities to use these new systems without issue.

Ultimately Estonia's move to a more digitally savvy society has allowed them to implement some of the most innovative ideas of any country in the world, but the reasons why this could take place date back well beyond the current government. The ideas that have allowed them to make these huge leaps hark back to decisions made nearly 30 years ago. It is a strong reminder that the biggest changes cannot simply be done over night, but through creating strong foundations, future innovations can be truly groundbreaking. 

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