From No Landlines, to One of the Most Advanced E-Societies in the World – Tech in Estonia

Estonian e-society displayed in Times Square in NYC (Photo credit: http://estonianworld.com/technology/the-estonian-tech-event-of-the-year-the-ict-week/)

If you think back about 25 years ago you may have been buying your very first cell phone, or knew someone who was. In Estonia, however, you were likely to not even have a land line. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 Estonia was finally free but very behind the times, especially in terms of technology. Estonia’s prime minister Mart Laar and his young government (average age 35) were given a clean slate and the decisions they made throughout the 90’s had a big impact on where Estonia is today.

1992: Shortly after Estonia was freed, Finland offered up their analog telephone exchange for free, as they were replacing it with digital connections. Laar refused this donation and decided Estonia would build its own digital system. And since such a small number of people had landlines at all, people went from having nothing, to buying cell phones. Estonia wanted to skip over the analog world all together, something governments and companies in the western world are still trying to convert to this day. Laar had said he knew nothing of computers, but wanted the newest technology for his people.

1997: By 1997 97% of schools had internet. By comparison, according to Statistics Canada this happened in Canada around the year 2003.

2000: Internet was seen as a symbol of democracy and freedom in Estonia and in 2000 it was the first country to proclaim internet access as a basic human right. Now Wifi is free and available almost everywhere. Linnar Viik, a lecturer at the Estonia IT College says you could walk from medieval Tallinn all the way to the University of Tartu and not lose connection. Also at this time, digital signatures were now considered as legally binding as handwritten ones, essentially allowing for paperless systems to prevail. Cabinet meetings have been paperless ever since.

2002: Digital ID cards are locally developed and introduced. ID numbers, much like our social insurance numbers are issued at birth. They are a digital identifier for an astounding amount of people’s lives as they can authenticate identity as well as provide a digital signature. Today the ID cards are used as an “online passport”. They are used to sign contracts remotely, vote, pay for transit and parking and conduct banking transactions. Doctors issue prescriptions electronically, and students check their grades. Entrepreneurs can create a new company within 18 minutes from their personal computer and people can even apply for government aid. The vast majority of Estonians file their taxes online in as little as 5 minutes.

2003: In 2003 Skype was founded in Tallinn and forever changed the way the world communicates and put Estonia on the map in terms of technology. All of a sudden people were able to see and hear their contacts around the world. Interviews could be conducted, meetings held, family members and friends could be seen without ever leaving their living rooms. Skype soon became a household name around the globe. Within Estonia it also launched what people refer to as “the Skype effect”. Skype inspired a generation of “techies” and entrepreneurs.

Picture of people using skype to call their families and friends(Photo credit: https://account.microsoft.com/account/skype)

2005: Two years later in 2005, Estonia became the first nation to hold a general election over the internet.

2007: First cyber-attack by Russia instigated by the removal of a Soviet era memorial in Tallinn. This led to NATO founding a cyberwarfare think-tank in Estonia in order to learn from the experience. Estonia now plays a leading role in protecting NATO from cyber threats.

2011: Skype was bought by Microsoft for $8.5 billion. Ex-Skypers invested money into new start-ups in Estonia’s capital creating even more buzz and gaining additional US investors.

2012: Nation-wide launch of a coding curriculum in schools for children 7 to 19.

2014: Estonia becomes the first country in the world to offer e-residency to non-resident citizens, opening its digital borders to the world. Although this does not provide citizenship or entry into Estonia, E-residents can create, manage and operate businesses through the internet from anywhere for just €100. Estonia hopes to have 150,000 e-residents and 20,000 companies globally by 2021.

Photo of Estonian ID card being used to vote online(Photo credit: https://www.leapin.eu/articles/e-residency)

2017: Starship Technologies, created by the co-founders of Skype, have their grocery basket sized delivery robots driving around the sidewalks of Tallinn, Redwood City California, Washington DC, Bern Switzerland and London England. They deliver packages, food and other small objects within 5km. The goal is to lower cost of delivery to less than $1.00. The CEO of London based food delivery company Pronto has said he would like to order 150 to 200 robots as soon as possible, and maybe as many as 10,000 in the future.

Basket sized robot in Estonia(Photo credit: https://estonia.ee/delivery-robots-created-by-estonian-engineers-are-transforming-the-world/)

Estonia started from scratch 25 years ago and launched itself into the tech world. It has become an example for the rest of the world to learn from and a country others are inspired by. Forbes has called Tallinn the “Silicon Valley of Europe” having more start-ups per capita than anywhere else in the world and the Economist has described Estonia as a “leader in technology”.

As John Kennedy of the website Silicon Republic puts it, “In many ways, Tallinn is one of Europe’s foremost digital cities and a natural home for tech entrepreneurs with flare and ambition. The Estonian capital of Tallinn emerged from the grips of the Eastern Bloc in the 20th century to become a jewel in Europe’s digital crown in the 21st century.”

 

Sources:

http://estonianworld.com/technology/estonias-i-voting-more-secure-more-popular/
http://fortune.com/2017/04/27/estonia-digital-life-tech-startups/
https://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2013/07/economist-explains-21
forbes.com
thenewyorker.com
theguardian.uk
Statistics Canada
dw.com

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