Technology

The land of e-everything

From medical records to taxes to ID cards, Estonians rely on – and trust – information technology more than any other nation in the world.

It’s a happy coincidence that the country’s name begins with “e”, because in Estonia just about everything involves the fifth letter of the alphabet: e-Voting, e-Taxes, e-Governance, e-Medicine, e-Identity. In little more than a decade, the small Baltic nation (pop. 1.3 million), which became independent only after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, has reinvented itself as one of the globe’s most dynamic laboratories for all things electronic.

In parallel, Estonia has become the Silicon Valley of the North, gestating start-ups that go on to expand far beyond the country’s boundaries. Skype is the most famous, but in the financial community the name TransferWise is becoming a household word, and in cybersecurity the American military is reaching out to GuardTime to protect its most closely held secrets. From cramped quarters in Tallinn’s 14th-century Old Town to the modern Tehnopol complex adjacent to the airport, entrepreneurs are fine-tuning ventures that they hope will conquer the world. “This is a good place from which to dream about success,” says Mait Müntel, CEO of a language-learning start-up called Lingvist.

It all begins with a can-do mindset that is nurtured from childhood and reaches the highest levels of business and government. Internet access is considered a social right In Estonia: unless you’re deep in a pine forest or kayaking in the Gulf of Finland, it’s hard not to be connected. Children receive an e-mail address at birth, and from the earliest grades they learn to use computers. At age 15 every Estonian receives an electronic ID card that provides access to everything from police records to medical data to tax forms – provided they are your own, of course.

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Avoiding paper

When Estonians want to impress visitors from countries groaning under bureaucracy, they point out with a smile that, thanks to their e-Identity cards, they can start a company or pay taxes in 30 minutes. All contracts – whether to buy a car or fund a company – can be signed electronically, avoiding the need for paper and travel. Karli Suvisild, Project Manager at the e-Estonia Showroom, likes to tell the story of how he signed his current job contract on his mobile phone while on a fishing trip.

The showroom is an information centre connected to an e-Governance Academy that has been created to export Estonia’s e prowess, not only to fellow members of the European Union but to nations as far afield as Georgia, Qatar and Oman. U.S. presidential candidate Jeb Bush stopped by this summer, and a year earlier President Barack Obama visited Tallinn, where he declared: “The entrepreneurial spirit of the Estonian people has been unleashed. Your innovations are transforming the world”.

Hassle-free business

Estonia’s latest and most ambitious innovation is e-Residency, which basically allows non-Estonians to piggyback the country’s electronic infrastructure. E-Residency does not offer any physical perks, like the right to live in Estonia or a bank account, but it does allow you to have a verified electronic signature. Thus an e-Resident in Brazil could sign a legally binding contract electronically with an e-Resident in Germany, even if neither of them is Estonian. “It’s an awesome concept,” says Müntel. “It completely does away with the hassle of a foreign investor having to come here to sign each page of a 100-page document.” Estonians stress that e-Residency is totally transparent, therefore an unattractive vehicle for anyone who wants to launder money or escape taxes. Some of the details still need to be ironed out, but no one is worried. “This government acts like a start-up,” says Aman Kumar, a young Stanford graduate brought in from Silicon Valley to advise the Estonian government. “Fail fast, don’t always know where you’re going, but the important thing is to have tried.”

If Estonians are comfortable with this mindset, it may be because their country is in fact a start-up. Under foreign domination – Danish, Swedish, German, Russian – for much of the past millennium, Estonia emerged from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991 with few assets other than its brains. Technology provided the opportunity both to leap ahead and to establish an identity. Beyond that, says Kumar, “there’s a security implication behind everything this country does.” Estonians are aware that if someday their land is once again taken away from them, their national identity will be secure.

Mait Müntel (CEO of Lingvist), Aman Kumar (Stanford University)