Digitalization is a key issue for politics and society. Many people are therefore looking to Estonia, which has been home to technological innovations, digital pioneers and best practices for years. As the research carried out in Tallinn for the 2017 Reinhard Mohn Prize shows: Thinking and acting digitally pays off – which is why Estonia has become a digital success story.
The small Baltic country, which shares a border with Russia, has been independent since 1991. Sparsely populated, it has 1.3 million inhabitants, about the same as the city of Munich. In the 1990s, after it gained its independence, the question arose of how Estonia could position itself within the constellation of larger European nations. It quickly began focusing on technology and defined a number of key goals: promoting innovation and doing what was necessary to become an information society. The results could be seen in policy-making and public administration, in how the government communicated with citizens, in efforts to promote the private sector and in primary and secondary education.
In 1997, the national Tiger Leap program was launched. The program made it possible for computers and IT to be introduced into educational institutions over several years. Moreover, all of Estonia’s schools were equipped with the necessary hardware and software, more than 10,000 teachers were trained and another 2,600 took further education courses to become IT specialists. An Internet portal was created to provide educators with a wide range of teaching materials on these topics and with a chat room. It also served as source of information on current training opportunities.
Additional very forward-looking activities were initiated in the late 1990s to augment the program:
- The country’s parliament approved a comprehensive agenda for moving Estonians forward into the information age.
- “Public Internet points” were established in cities and rural regions, providing free access to computers with Internet connections.
- Legislation was passed to create an “e-state” and all of Estonia’s public institutions were required to participate. Communication channels and services were digitized as a result.
Originally serving as catalysts, these initiatives have been further developed on an ongoing basis and are still benefitting the country to this day. Above all, they are the reason why Estonia is one of the technologically most advanced countries in the EU.
The Reinhard Mohn Prize 2017 devotes itself to the idea of “Smart Country - Connected. Intelligent. Digital.” In preparation for the award ceremony, the project team looked into a number of digital projects from around the globe. The focus is placed on economics and work, health and care, politics and administration, mobility and logistics, and learning and information. In addition, the team conducted research in selected countries. In addition to Estonia, the team also visited Sweden, Austria and Israel.
Estonia stood out in particular because of the country’s consistent efforts over two decades to shape digitalization and move it forward. These efforts were begun as a change process and supported by forward-looking policy decisions that provided the requisite framework. During many on-site conversations with policy makers, public administrators and business leaders, it became clear that, when it comes to digitalization, the country has embraced a trial-and-error approach, thereby establishing a culture of attempting new things and learning from mistakes.
As a result, in Estonia today many exemplary digital solutions are integrated into everyday life. Digital applications make it possible to access government services and deal with administrative or bureaucratic tasks. The applications are as simple as they are innovative and can be easily accessed by everyone in the country. Only about 4 percent of Estonia’s inhabitants do not use e-services. Everything can be done digitally, with a few exceptions: getting married, getting divorced and buying a house. For these activities, people must be physically present and provide a handwritten signature. Beyond that, electronic IDs and signatures are the legally valid means that make it possible for Estonians to “act digitally” as they go about their daily lives.
The e-Estonia website offers an overview of the country’s digital innovations. Estonia has therefore become a favorite destination for many policy makers and others from throughout Europe who are also dealing with the issue of digitalization. Estonia's achievements are presented in the e-Estonia Showroom. Estonian's are proud of their digital society – as they should be.
X-Road as hit export
During its time in Estonia, the research team was particularly impressed by one digital export: the X-Road. The X-Road is a data platform that serves as a public-sector “digital backbone” enabling data to be shared among authorized databanks. The basic principle is that data are not stored centrally, but only where they are generated. The X-Road thus provides access to public-sector databases as one single unit. Anyone can log in to the X-Road and access all of their data. Whenever they choose, they can see who has viewed or used their data, and when. This makes the X-Road an effective, pragmatic solution that ensures data security, data exchange and data sovereignty for each individual.
So where does it go from here?
The team’s comprehensive international research findings will flow into additional project work. Come back soon to read more about the team’s experiences in Austria and Israel. The report on Sweden is available here.