How Estonia Defined Itself Through Future Visioning
8 years ago, Estonia was visioning its future for 2018. The future is here. What has come true, what was missed and what stayed the same?
In 2010 I was hired by the Estonian Government organisation Estonian Development Fund to lead the Estonian visioning process for the future leaders. We brought together around 100 young activists under 30 who would, in future, be leading the country, the companies, science and culture. Who else to vision the future than not those who will be delivering it.
The highlight of the process was the Estonian Leaders 2018 forum on December 6th, 2010. The final ideas and visioning document, together with inputs from experts and regional workshops, was later presented to the Estonian Parliament.
By 2010 Estonia had achieved considerable success and international recognition for its ability to build a successful fast-growing economy out of nothing (from its independence in 1991). In many ways, Estonia was at its best. While that would be a good enough reason to take time off and enjoy the fruits of its success, Estonia decided to take on even more ambitious ideas. Establishing a separate government organisation for future was itself a fascinating decision. Plenty of new success stories have emerged since.
Many of the participants of the forum in 2010 are successful politicians, international business people and recognised culture figures today. Here are the seven winning ideas that emerged during the event that also gave us a glimpse of the future we’re seeing today:
1. Government level international lobby and sales team. Increasing knowledge about Estonian efficient business environment.
Also 3. Improving sales skills (Estonia and Estonians)
This winning idea emerged from the need to bring Estonia to the world map and help Estonian businesses gain easier access to foreign markets through better recognition.
Estonia can now be considered the most successful startup nation in the world
Although the government has actively increased its role in organising foreign visits and international business support, Estonian international presence and recognition have skyrocketed after the launch of its innovative e-Residency program in 2014. It is a government-issued digital ID available to anyone in the world. Becoming the first country in the world to offer a solution like this, Estonia managed to lead the way to the future of governance and borderless business.
2. Smart and back — talent management program
One of the most widely discussed topic 8 years ago was the declining Estonian population and specifically young talents leaving the country.
After a range of policies, private sector initiatives, and most importantly overall better economic environment, the net migration of Estonian citizens has started to increase over the years, and in 2017 it was positive for the first time. Also, overall immigration has exceeded emigration for the third year in a row.
4. Healthcare: Focus on prevention and early intervention
Estonia’s government is the first in the world to run a personal genetic information service that started already in 1999 with the creation of Estonian Genome Center and collection of over 52 000 DNA samples (5% of the population). However, it wasn’t before 2017 when the first participants started getting their personal whole-genome sequences. Starting from this year, Estonian is to collect the DNA of additional 100,000 citizens to provide them with personalised health and lifestyle advice.
These are some ground-breaking developments towards personalized medicine and health risk prevention, but it will still take time to have these improvements fully implemented to the national health system and daily operations. Until then, the Estonian health system tends to be one of the least efficient sectors and is yet to go through a systematic general improvement.
5. Becoming an interregional startup centre
Back in 2010, the Estonian startup success was primarily based on the one-time success story of Skype. By today Estonia has four startup companies with the valuation of over billion dollars (also known as unicorns).
Estonian startups used to take their headquarters out of Estonia (closer to customers and investors) as soon as they raised significant capital, but the latest Estonian unicorn Taxify is the first one that has kept their headquarters in Estonia. This shows increased trust and improvement in the business environment — one that satisfies the needs of global high-growth companies.
Having the highest number of unicorns per capita, Estonia can now be considered the most successful startup nation in the world.
6. Tagging products with ecological footprint rank
Still a timely topic of discussion that has yet to become realised.
7. Let’s Listen 2011
Back in 2010, there was too much miscommunication and misunderstanding among the small population of Estonia. On the quest of opening up the otherwise closed Estonians, several ideas were proposed to increase communication and interaction among a wider Estonian community to increase the number of people discussing and joining in on policymaking, visioning and building a better country together.
In 2013, the Estonian Opinion Festival was launched in Paide (in the centre of Estonia) to solve this challenge. The Opinion Festival is a yearly meeting place for all layers of society, giving a platform for different worldviews. Its mission is to improve debate culture and civic education, and it has become an important part of Estonian public discussions.
Read also: Report: Estonian Digital Infrastructure
Future Visioning Scenarios
Estonian Development Fund also published four future scenarios for 2018. Back in 2010, I remember thinking that they seemed quite dim — three out of four scenarios didn’t promise much for Estonian future. From these, one could conclude that there was a higher chance of stagnation or even decline for Estonia in the upcoming decade.
Looking back at the four scenarios today, we can immediately see that firstly, the global landscape is significantly different from all four scenarios. In 2010, no one could foresee the changes that happened during this decade — radicalisation of USA, Brexit and the Ukraine-Russian war as an example. The latter is the most influential for Estonia and in a strange way, it has actually strengthened Estonian foreign policy position. One could also argue that with Brexit (but also overall development) the European Union has strengthened its position and internal stability during the past decade.
Estonia, on the other hand, has clearly moved towards the most positive scenario envisioned and, in many ways, even passed it due to its success and growth of the private sector, global landscape and its famous e-Residency program. Compared to the scenarios, however, its success is probably less to do with internal policies or wide-scale structural reforms.
Estonian Development Fund was closed in 2016 with new political movements. The need for looking ahead remains. After a few years of minimum strategic visioning, next year’s parliament elections have again raised the issue on daily politics with the creation of a new political party Estonia 200 that is specifically focusing on a long-term vision.
The practice of future visioning is not necessarily about the specific ideas that emerge from the process but much more about the participants and the process of visioning itself.
During Estonian future forums in 2010, the people who were going to create the future were brought together to be inspired to look ahead and think big. Their inspiration, motivation and dedication have helped take Estonia from a fairly successful small economy to an international phenomenon.
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