Skip navigation
  • Von: Sandra Särav
  • 07/26/2018

e-Estonia – The Little Country that Could

Estonia is often described as the digital leader in Europe. The country with just over one million citizens has managed to built e-solutions that save its inhabitants not only time, but also money. It was the first country to adopt online voting, and is still the only country in the world to offer e-residency. Read on for an inside view on Estonia’s digital journey by Sandra Särav, who works as Global Affairs Director at Estonian Government CIO Office.

This article first appeared in the bimonthly ORAWORLD e-magazine, an EOUC publication with exciting stories from the Oracle world, technological background articles and insights into other user groups worldwide.


I bet lots of you have heard of the term e-Estonia. That’s what has put Estonia on the map. You may have even heard of terms like x-Road, KSI Blockchain, or that Estonia is the country where Skype comes from. But what does it mean really, from a policy perspective, to build a digital society? In my mind, it comes back to three key points.

You cannot digitalize for the sake of digitalization. You have to have an ulterior motive. Like putting the citizen in the centre. In 2018, countries are expected to digitalize and embrace the digital transformation, because data is the new oil and apparently, it's cost-effective to digitalize things. But it doesn't have to be blunt like that. We think that, right, it's good if the citizen declares taxes, but what if we actually made them enjoy the process? What would the citizen want? Well, –what about not to spend days or weeks on declaring the taxes. What if they could do it within a couple of minutes? Or what if you as a company didn't have to declare taxes at all. What if you gave consent to the tax and customs board to collect the data in real-time and they wouldn't have to burden themselves with the process to begin with. And maybe we could exploit it in other ways – like pursuing real-time economy. And this is what we do at the moment. We build seamless services and try to enforce a proactive government that knows the needs of the citizens even before the citizen can ask for something. Whereas this would also mean using the data given to us to predict what the economy will do next. It’s like going to a restaurant and have the waitress read your mind and bring you the perfect food-and-wine combination. Plus, it turns out to be cheaper than McDonalds.

Second, digitalization must be stable, but innovation cannot stand still. In Estonia we know that you always have to look forward and cannot rest on your laurels. Today, 99 percent of Estonian public services are online. We introduced our mandatory national ID cards back in 2002, through which all these services are accessible. By 2015, almost all services were online and every third person used internet voting. But we didn’t stop there. Under my first point, I mentioned that a government should be proactive. It’s not only this, though. There’s always something happening in the digital sphere that you need to catch up with. For instance, the keyword for 2018 is AI. And you have two options, really: a) overregulate it and kill it without enjoying its benefits; or b) see how it could help you and your citizens. Estonia grabs the bull by the horns. We see that we need to avail ourselves to the possibilities of AI. Now, one of the things we focus on is personalized medicine: with the help of AI, we could take healthcare to a whole new level. Last year, the buzzword was self-driving cars. We wanted to be there, too – we tested self-driving buses on the streets of Tallinn – successfully. And now we have a plan to launch a project of self-driving vehicles in Estonia. A few years before that, we opened our digital services to the entire world with the e-Residency programme. Today we have more than 30 000 e-residents using e-services of Estonia from more than 150 countries. And way before that, we were the first country to test internet voting. So there’s always something to look forward, and if the big tech companies can innovate, it means that we as a country can, too.

My third point coincides with my first point a bit but I need to emphasize it – digitalization is not only about the technology and technological capabilities but about the mind-set. In today's global world, you can recruit technical talent from anywhere. We welcome other countries to implement our solutions like the so-called backbone of e-Estonia, our data exchange layer x-Road that saves us more than 800 working days annually. Our companies would be happy to set you up, but there has to be willingness. It’s not only about introducing an ID card. Rather, think of it this way: I've always driven a Volvo, but what if I tried a Tesla? What if I moved to Mars? Of course, this all requires a lot of trust. When we talk about digitalization, the citizens need to trust their government – but the government also needs to trust the citizens. There are different ways of ensuring that. For instance, in Estonia, the citizen or the company still owns their data. They just grant access to the data for the service provider. And most of the crucial data is secured with blockchain – so there’s nothing to worry about really. We can check which medical professionals have accessed our medical records, and challenge this (in court) if necessary. And that’s why 97 percent of patients have countrywide-accessible digital records: We also use nearly online digital prescriptions. This is how our brains work – if things are easier, faster, and more effective when done online – then this is what we do.