Estonia’s innovation story of tenacity and resilience.

We went to visit Cybernetica in Tallin to learn more from the world leader in e-Government — and found a lesson in how innovation needs to be fought for.

By Sunita Lauber

An Estonian ID-card that is much more potent than our passports. Apart from being a legal travel ID, it is also their national health insurance card, their banking login and their digital signature to vote, heck medical records, submit tax claims, use prescriptions, etc.

This level of integration of government and administration on a flexible digital system has reduced government expenditures by the equivalent of 2% of their GDP. And if you’re not sold yet: Estonians fill out their tax returns in 3 minutes.

The country that has declared internet access a human right in 2000 has cemented it’s status as “the most advanced digital society” in 2014. As the first country on earth, it started offering e-Residency: Any individual can remotely become an e-Resident and set up a business that has access to the European Union, set up a bank account and more.

The future of the Cyberstate

This has gained the comparatively small country a lot of good PR. In the wake of Trumps presidency, some US media have proclaimed that instead of a protest exodus to Canada, the e-Residency in Estonia would be a way to “share our values overseas” and “reinforce America’s commitment to a free and interconnected Europe”. (http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/international/312937-how-estonia-can-save-western-civilization).

The case for e-Residency has been made in the UK for people who want to make sure their EU-Identity can live on after Brexit. Getting a digital residency to create an identity that is disconnected from the geographical concept of a country? Estonia’s e-Residency is redefining what a nation is.

Built from scratch with vision

Estonia has been a leader in e-governance for a long time. They have fashioned themselves E-stonia long before neighbors to the west had a coherent strategy in this field. The seeds go back into the 90ies, when Estonia achieved independence from the Soviet Union. Soviet Estonia didn’t have infrastructure to manage their state and the new Estonia needed to quickly find a way to build an IT-backbone and administrative structure. By 1996, there were about 20 online banking service in the world, three of them were Estonian.

Our exchange partner Cybernetica was instrumental in setting up the infrastructure and connect institutions from universities to health services. They are a research and development company, original equipment manufacturer and solutions provider, including integrated surveillance systems for border security applications and e-customs solution for customs authorities.

A population of about 1.3 million meant that Estonia needed to build an efficient state for sheer lack of human resources. Of course, the comparatively small size also made it agile. In 2004, the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Kristiina Ojuland, said in an Interview:

“Estonia is a small country. You can do things in a small country fast if you have political will”.

The legislative environment has been built to assist a highly interconnected state too. For example, in Estonia, health data is being used for statistics without patient’s explicit consent. This would not be allowed without the patient’s consent in Germany, for example.

Prime Minister of France, Edouard Philipe, in Tallin: France aims to achieve an Estonian e-governance level within 5 years.

But Estonia didn’t have an easy ride. Its young history as an independent state alerted it to a threat that other countries would only discover over a decade later: Russian cyber attacks aimed to destabilize the political climate.

In light of the recent events surrounding cyber attacks, Estonia’s world leading position in e-government is getting more attention again. Estonian prime minister Juri Ratas (and his predecessor before him) is urging EU members states regularly for more cooperation on cyber defence. He said “a common European approach to cybersecurity” was needed, as well as a “single European cyberspace”.

The first reaction to the Estonian e-identity card

People can’t live without their e-Identity cards in Estonia. And after hearing all of this, you would assume the Estonian people were delighted to be the first to have such a streamlined system — but no, the nobody saw the point at the beginning. In our exchange with Cybernetica we learned that people have completely forgotten how unpopular the idea of yet another card was:

“People didn’t want another card. They didn’t see an advantage over their passport. It was thought to be a huge waste of public funds when the e-ID was introduced in 2002. They were called “ice scrapers” used to defrost windshields on chilly mornings.

5–6 years later, a life without e-identity cards is unimaginable in Estonia. This is because the flexible system offered so many functionalities so quickly. But Estonia also has some good lessons on how to include the public in benefiting from this new world of connected data. The Estonian Genome Centre (The Estonian Biobank) gathered large amount of personal data, medical history and current health status for research. Participants took active part in recording this data by joining the Estonian Biobank and in turn, received their gene map.

Getting public support means finding ways to let people directly see and benefit instead of just optimizing processes.

No Innovation without tenacity and recilience

So despite the groundbreaking role Estonia took, the process was by no means smooth. Cybernetica reminded us of that. Estonia today is one of the most technologically progressive places in the world — but it wouldn’t have happened if the government hadn’t pursued their vision with tenacity.

Innovation is not always sexy. The current focus on customer-centricity and design thinking might lead to misunderstandings in this respect. Yes, asking your users and testing solutions is good practice. But it when bold decisions need to be made for the long-term strategy, a sole focus on what has proven appetite, can’t be the only strategy.

The fate of innovation still lies in the hands of those with vision.