Escrit el 4 ago, 2014

Estonia, The most digital country in Europe

Estonia, with a surface comparable to that of Denmark and with a population of only 1,300,000 inhabitants, is one of the most digitalized countries in the world and it has taken advantage of this condition to improve the economy and living standards of its inhabitants. Thanks to a recent Study Trip organized by the European Union of Science Journalists’ Associations (EUSJA), to which I belong through the Catalan Association for Science Communication (ACCC), I have seen the model and understood the main reasons for the impressive Estonian development.

Estonian society became very dynamic after the declaration of independence in 1991, following a long period of Soviet occupation. Like in Finland, education is a high priority, resulting in a high public investment and similar results in the PISA report.

The ICT sector is of great importance, it accounting for 9% of GDP and is the driving force of economy even if it only employs 4.5% of the workforce. Students from Tallinn University of Technology and those from the Institute of Computer Science of the University of Tartu are immediately captured by private companies even before graduating. Attracting foreign talent is, however, very difficult because of the weather and salaries level. This has led them to prioritize efficiency and innovating ICT solutions. In fact, the main feature of digital projects they have carried out is maximum investment in talent with minimal resources.

The commitment for an inclusive information society at the time of independence is related to the will to democratize and modernize the country. Estonian scientists played also a crucial role in the technological development of the country. Although Sweden and Finland have been a source of inspiration fro them, they are very proud to have surpassed those countries in some aspects and are also proud of their EU membership. Estonian relations with the United States are important because they are anti-Russian and belong to the NATO.

Main indicators of digitalization

- 99.8% of banking transactions are electronic. The country is discussing wether eliminating cash (NO CASH) by 2020. The same debate is taking place in Sweden where, for the moment, critics still see risks of vulnerability. What is certain is that by 2017 paper receipts will have been eliminated in Estonia mobile payment using NFC technology will have been implemented.

- 95% of the medication is prescribed electronically, both in the public and private sectors. A prescription takes 10 min to reach all pharmacies in the country once the professional writes it. The citizen only has to be identified in any of them to get the drugs.

- 66% of the population updates one’s census data online voluntarily and 95% made ​​their annual tax returns online.

- Over 25% of citizens who vote do it online. Electronic voting by mobile phone, tablet or computer opens a week before election day and it is possible to change the vote until the last minute, even from abroad. Despite the criticism, the system is very safe as it is designed and also because the volume of people involved is relatively low.

- The electronic ID is used by 93% of the population. In Finland only 6% use it. The main difference is that the ID card is unique and works, with a reader or from your mobile, for everything: online banking, use of libraries, digital signature, to request scholarship, access to data from the health records, access to government services. The police check and identify citizens or those with driver’s license through their IDs and they can check whether a citizen is updated of any payment … Any new public or private service can connect to the identification system without accessing the database population through a very simple design called X-Road, which has been offered to other EU countries.

- 100% of schools operate digitally and students begin programming at age of 7. Teachers are given a free laptop platform and through e-School, parents, teachers and students share information. The program was introduced in schools much earlier than in other countries including the United States, where the Government has recently realized the importance of these skills in today’s society.

- 97% of businesses and 76% of households are digitally equipped. Almost all citizens have a mobile and 76% of the country is covered by broadband, 3G and 4G band. Estonian Constitution stastes that the Internet is a social right because it is the channel for democracy. In most public and private premises there is free WIFI, as well as in outdoor spacesw (streets, forests, lakes, etc), but only for Ewstonian citizens.

- In recent years they numerous Internet start-up businesses have been set up to the with great success. The pioneer was Skype, which still has its headquarters in Tallinn although Microsoft bought it for US$ 8 billion. One of the more recent successful company is TransferWise, located in Estonia and London, which allows international money transfers with lower fees. It operates with more than 24 currencies and in 50 countries and transfers the equivalent of € 4 million a day. It aims at “changing the rules of international banking” as stated by its leaders and founders, who include several former employees of Skype. Its promotional videos on youtube denounce the opacity of banks in these transactions.

What explains the success of digitization in Estonia?

- Become independent from the USSR in 1991 enabled Estonia to start building the information society from nothing, since the Soviets had not done much to apply technology to the society and even less in the annexed countries. Starting from scratch without hindrances and being a small coutnry  was advantageous in comparison with other countries.

- At the former USSR There were two groups of researchers in computer science, A league led by the military, with many resources but highly controlled, and B league without so many resources but with much more freedom. All Estonian scientists were in the B league but often interacted with those in the A league and also with scientists abroad. At the time of independence the level of Estonian scientists was excellent and their ideas, innovative and connected with what was being done in western countries, were another important point.

- Having a goal at the time when the Internet began inspired a generation. They thought they could build a better society using digital technology. The best scientists, with expertise and international connections, collaborated with the Estonian Government and the companies that were being created. The various political parties that have ruled the country since then have been promoters of e-society and R+D+I with more or less public investment, which has fluctuated depending on the available budget, but they have never questioned its social and economic impact.

- The political system in an educated, not very large society has struck the right balance between business promotion and protection of the welfare state. It takes less than 24 hours to create a company, and companies that reinvest profits in the business are not required to pay taxes, while the coverage of health, education, pensions, etc. is very high.

- Citizens support the changes and trust in institutions as there has been a radical change in the country since the Soviet era. The URSS did not provide public services, manipulated elections and subjected the population to espionage.

- The mission of the university is to apply knowledge and help developing the country. Centers of excellence, with prestigious groups, and centers of competence with participating companies and the public sector achieve computing R & D projects.

What can we learn from the Estonian paradigm?

- Estonia is a reference on how to make that investment in R & D impacts on society, economy and welfare. Different governments and institutions have invested in the ICT sector, benefiting both companies and society. They have won the trust of the citizens because it has generated wealth, reputation and employment.

- Estonia is a good example, perhaps the best in the world, in applying e-administration, which is usable, efficient, unexpensive and safe, in addition to being open to the private sector. So, citizens massively use it. Most governments around the world should implement similar models but, in general, the difficulties to do so are enormous: low levels of scientific and technological literacy, excessive bureaucracy and poor usability of procedures, excessive costs to integrate obsolete systems, impossibility of one ony leadership in the projects … In our societies, moreover, this is not a political project itself. In fact, before moving to the new model, corruption should be eradicated. Modernization and efficiency are a second priority, something that is asumed for good governance but not attractive enough for attracting votes in an election.

- Estonia is not, despite the progress in technology, a benchmark of e-government and participating mechanisms. Transparency is not a priority for the Government, but so are safety and efficiency. Transparency is not necessary because people trust their institutions, like their neighbors, Danes, Swedes, Norwegians and Finns, and just the opposite of what happens in other countries including Spain.