Over just a few decades, Estonia developed from a Soviet republic to one of the most advanced digital societies in the world. The small Baltic state is setting a precedent for other EU countries to harvest the benefits of digitalisation.
Despite being home to only 1.3 million people, Estonia is a global leader in digitalisation on multiple fronts. The country launched multiple digital initiatives as early as 2000, when internet access was defined as a human right, and e-identity was launched.
“It started with where people feel the most benefits, which is, of course, taxes,” Prime Minister Kaja Kallas explained. “This is what made people pick up the digital ID that we launched in 2000,” she added.
Today, around 99% of government services are run online, from e-voting in elections to tax services.
The government also paved the way for the establishment of a digital ecosystem that allowed start-ups to thrive. The most recent initiative is the e-residency programme, which allows doing business in Estonia even if the company’s physical location is outside the borders of the Baltic nation.
With over 11.000 start-ups, Estonia has the highest number of start-ups per capita in the EU – 4.6 times as many as the European average. Seven of these start-ups are considered ‘unicorns’ with a market valuation exceeding €860 million, three of which reached unicorn status only last year.
A model for digitalisation
Due to the success of the Estonian model of digitalisation, many EU countries are hoping to emulate its success.
German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier even considered flying in the “best digital team of Estonia” to help to foster digitalisation in Germany.
Asked by EURACTIV, Kallas said that she is in frequent discussions with her European counterparts on implementing the Estonian model abroad. She emphasised that Estonia could serve as a testing ground – a “beta version” – for larger countries.
While cautioning that “it’s very hard to turn around a big ship when it’s much easier to turn a small boat,” Kallas emphasised that Estonia could be a learning experience for them.
In a similar vein, the Estonian Minister of Information Technology, Andres Sutt, told EURACTIV that it’s not possible to copy the Estonian model but “that it’s possible to learn from our journey.”
Trust as a cornerstone
Given the high degree of digitalisation in Estonia, the Baltic country has been targeted by multiple cyberattacks in recent years. The most devastating one was in 2007 when Russian affiliated hackers managed to bring the whole of Estonia’s digitalisation infrastructure to a halt.
Despite these continuous cyberattacks on the Estonian digital infrastructure, “the trust of the citizens in digital state services remains consistently high at around 90%,” Siim Kumpas, strategic communications advisor at the Estonian Government Office told EURACTIV.
The Estonian approach to create trust in its digital services is twofold.
Firstly, the government attempts to provide transparency to the maximum degree possible. “We have always been transparent if something doesn’t work or something goes wrong,” Minister of Technology Sutt emphasised.
For instance, every citizen can monitor if municipal or state authorities are accessing their data.
Estonia opted for a model where they first provided digital services, which in return increased trust through their usability. “If we would have asked our people in 2000 whether they needed digital identities, they would have probably said no,” Prime Minister Kallas said.
By pushing for more public digital services, citizens were able to see their added value and how they simplified their lives.
Digital single market
In a similar vein, the Estonian government is also pushing for the implementation of more digital services on the EU level.
“If we want to have a functioning single European digital market, then we need more use cases,” Minister Sutt told EURACTIV. “So far, we only have one, and that’s the COVID certificate,” he added.
From an Estonian perspective, providing more digital services and guaranteeing their interoperability across the EU is one of the main areas where Europe could become a global leader.
“As the largest market in the world, we need to have more digital use cases,” Sutt said, adding that there are numerous areas where such use cases would enhance the European digital market – from proscription drugs to electronic consignment notices.
The precondition being that data can move freely across the EU in a secure and privacy-friendly manner.
“If we don’t have this sort of a cross border moment of data or access to data, we are just constrained, fragmented,” Sutt emphasised.
The European Commission has already put the establishment of a single market for data on the top of its agenda and has put forward two legislative proposals to make this a reality: the Data Governance Act and the Data Act.
[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi/ Alice Taylor]