Estonia began two years ago with a podcast, in Chicago, on the eleventh floor of the building where Ferris Bueller’s dad worked, at a job where I knew two people in an office of 200. Pulling out the earbuds, I had no one to tell of the good news — that the future of governance is digital and paperless and based on best practices from a tiny country in Northern Europe. The epiphany broke through that astonishingly boring office setting, as I stared blankly at dual monitors in an open-plan office full of strangers on the north-west corner of the Loop, lost in thought about how to scratch this itch.
I left Chicago not for Estonia, but for Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon. But the idea of Estonia remained an inkling of a possible answer to my questions — how do countries develop? how should government(s) be constructed? why is there a gulf between ICT and policy? why is so much talk about technology policy so bad? how do I get the skills to be part of this thing, whatever it was — “digital governance”? why is there so much paperwork?
And then in April 2017, after loads of paperwork and months of waiting, I received a congratulatory email. I spent another month on more paperwork and three more months waiting. On September 1st, I arrived in Tallinn.
Here are a few of my misconceptions coming in:
Estonia is a paperless society. A number of official procedures still require paper, especially if it involves a foreigner and even more so if that foreigner is non-EU. Estonians are terrible at paper. It’s very chicken-and-egg: did they move towards digital because they were bad at paper, or are they bad at paper because they went digital? Once you’re in the system, there’s less paper. I’m not yet in the system, so I still have to sign with pens.
Estonians love e-Estonia. Some do, some don’t. It hasn’t always been smooth (especially for Mac users) and some sectors seem to struggle with it (the medical industry is commonly cited). The hype around Estonia as the top digital nation in the world is sometimes accurate and sometimes just marketing. Estonians do seem to enjoy talking about their digital society. Love it or hate it, they are able to take it for granted that the conversation on digital governance isn’t some abstract future or a fad or a tech policy talking point, but is on another level of realities, critiques, and possibilities (and I don’t mean the ICO, which is at least for now just hype of the marketing variety).
Digital governance equals a more functional government. Yes and no. This is something that I’m looking forward to exploring while here. As I understand it, the Estonian government is very good at crafting policy and legislation that allows technologies to be built for the betterment of citizens and also non-citizens. But it’s maybe too easy to make changes without rigorous review and/or adequate checks and balances. One example is the government’s recent tax reforms, which (in my limited understanding) swung things too far right on the Laffer curve for fuel and alcohol (thus deficits that should have been anticipated and/or avoided) and tweaked personal income tax in a way that everyone hates. One friend, who used to work for the Estonian Tax and Customs Board, views these reforms (and/or the extent that they are complained about) as part of a loss of basic understanding about taxation, a consequence of how mindless it is to file taxes — it takes just a few taps on a smartphone. Personally, I would give up tax literacy for the ability to to file taxes, or vote, or sign any document, or check to see who has accessed any of my personal data on my phone, but that’s just me.
An Estonian father is out driving with his two sons one night and runs over an animal. Fifteen minutes pass in silence, until one son says, “I think we hit a dog.” Fifteen more minutes pass in silence, until the other son says, “I think it was a fox.” A further fifteen minutes go by, until the father says, “Boys, stop fighting.”
Estonians are extremely quiet. My sample is limited to Tallinn, which isn’t a big place, but is still a lively urban setting. The Estonians and ethnic-Russians I know here are quite talkative, though it may just be the hat worn when speaking English. Or maybe I just know to bring up the recent tax reforms, which always provokes a response.
Central to my time here is the Technology Governance & Digital Transformation Program at Tallinna Tehnikaülikool (Tallinn University of Technology, or TTÜ). September’s coursework (itemized further down the page below what I read this month) examined the history of economic and innovation policy, the history and drivers of capitalism, and the cycles of techno-economic change as driven by technology innovation. This was presented within a framework heavily influenced by Schumpeter and Keynes and highly critical of neo-classical economics. Heavy stuff with a habit of hyphenated terminology, but it’s also very fun.
A year ago, while doing the paperwork that provided the means to come to Estonia, two books changed how I think about technology and innovation: How Rich Countries Got Rich…and Why Poor Countries Stay Poor by Erik Reinert and Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital: The Dynamics of Bubbles and Golden Ages by Carlota Perez. I took classes from both Erik and Carlota this month, which checked a number of boxes for the value I hoped to extract from my time here, especially regarding technology policy in developing countries (though I’ve recently been persuaded that there are no developing countries, only re-developing countries). It was pure profit.
September laid the foundation for my time in Estonia. Having arrived, I see more clearly, though still incompletely, how I will learn enough to offer a fairly unique contribution to the conversation and praxis of this “digital government” thing. I will also learn about this tiny country full of ordinary people living fairly ordinary lives.
Or at least that’s the idea, since I did make it to Estonia.
Thomas K. McCraw
The Role of the State in Economic Growth by Erik Reinert
Technology Governance & Digital Transformation Program, TTÜ
Oxford Training Session on the Modern Information Society: Cyberspace, Politics, and Society (Oxford University), 2 ECTS
History of Economic Policy and Theory of Uneven Development, Erik Reinert, 3 ECTS
Introduction to Types of Capitalism Professor, Erik Reinert, 2 ECTS
Technical Change and Techno-Economic Paradigms, Carlota Perez, 4 ECTS