6 lessons in building a digital society

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Around the world, Estonia is still often seen as something of an innovative newcomer. But when it comes to digitisation, the country is quickly becoming the grandfather or grandmother of digital nations. With over 20 years of experience, Estonia has stories to tell about the lessons it has learned. 

This was also apparent during a panel discussion, “Building Resilient and Effective Digital Societies: Lessons and Opportunities”, at the recent Tallinn Digital Summit. Florian Marcus, a project manager at Proud Engineers, moderated the panel, which also included Proud Engineers CEO Laura Kask; Ave Lauringson, managing director of the e-Estonia Briefing Centre; Ants Sild, chairman of the Baltic Computer System (BCS) Digital Skills Academy; and Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who served as president of the Republic of Estonia from 2006 to 2016.

1. Offer digital skills to everyone

The topics discussed by the panel were varied and wide-ranging. Still, when asked about the lessons Estonia had learned from its early embrace of digitisation, dating back to the dawn of the online era in the 1990s, a consensus emerged that building a digital society required more than investing in equipment or software. Rather, public outreach was needed to educate citizens about using new technologies, improve their digital skills, and change their mindset.

According to Ants Sild, digital skills have been one source of Estonia’s success in creating a digital society. He said that the state began cultivating digital skills long before it began to transfer its services online seriously. “These were not just IT and technology skills, but more societal skills,” he said. Ilves, who was one of the initiators of the  Tiger Leap Program in Estonia in the mid-1990s, agreed. Tiger Leap was an effort to modernise the country’s educational system, focusing on making computers accessible to all students, as well as connectivity to the internet, alongside teacher training and providing new courses in Estonian.

“At that time, the idea was just to get the digital skills out,” Ilves said. He said that the focus was on investing in education and infrastructure for the first few years, including understanding digitisation and coding. It wasn’t until 2000 that the X-Road data exchange layer was introduced, creating the backbone for an ever-expanding ecosystem of digital services.

2. Make it mandatory

Here, Ilves underscored that Estonia created a mandatory digital identity for all residents, a step he called “key to developing a digital society.” He said that digitisation efforts had failed to coalesce in countries where such identities were optional, as people weren’t motivated to use an optional identity. Governments were similarly not motivated to create digital services.

“You have to make it mandatory for it to be successful,” Ilves said. 

Estonia has borrowed ideas from other countries, too, though. Proud Engineers’ Laura Kask said that the idea to create a digital identity actually came from Finland, where non-mandatory electronic identity cards were introduced in 1999, three years before Estonia.

“The idea came from Finland, and we incorporated our ideas on top of it, tested it, made it compulsory, and now almost 99 per cent of the [Estonian] population uses it,” Kask said.

3. The need for political will

Other factors enabled Estonia’s digital transition. Ilves said that governments must be committed to undertaking reforms that may outlast current administrations. “You need to have the political will to do it,” Ilves said. “Too many countries think that digitisation is about buying stuff,” he said. It requires, he insisted, “knowledge and commitment on the part of political leadership.” The legal framework also has to be solid.

“Laws are the software of society,” commented Ilves. He said that Estonia would not have been able to achieve what it has had it not adopted the Digital Signature Act, enacted in 2000. “If you want to change society, you have to change some of that software, too,” he said. 

Private sector adoption has also spurred on change. Sild agreed that private investments from the banking and telecommunications sectors had played significant roles in digitisation, with almost no government support or engagement at all.

4. Exchange ideas with other governments

However, the creation of a digital society in Estonia has not only been solely a success story. The panellist said there are opportunities to innovate. Proud Engineers’ Kask said that Estonia should continue interacting with other countries to share ideas and learn about new concepts.

“It’s important to exchange ideas, to talk to each other and with government officials worldwide,” said Kask.

According to Lauringson, who directs the e-Estonia Briefing Centre, about 90,000 people have visited to learn more about Estonia’s digitisation efforts. “e-Estonia is the best-known brand of Estonia,” she said, adding that the impact of digitisation on both the government and private sector in the country has been “huge and difficult to measure.” Visitors are mostly interested in how Estonian e-governance works. “The fancy show about the ID card doesn’t give them much,” said Lauringson. “They want to see how the system is built and how we e-govern.”

5. Don’t expect quick success

Lauringson has told them not to expect quick success and said that within Estonia, more could be done to improve the skills of state employees. “We have done well in engaging Estonian citizens in the digital society but have not focused on our government people,” she said. Last year, Estonia rolled out a Digital Competence Initiative. As part of the initiative, courses in digitisation have been offered to state employees through the country’s e-Governance Academy.

“For 20 years, we have been engaging society but haven’t paid attention to high-level officials,” Lauringson said. “They are still a target group.”

6. Being a digital native requires a revolution in thought

Regarding educational outreach, Ilves has been heavily involved with creating a master’s program in digital administration at the University of Tartu, where he has given lectures. Ilves said that the program is intended for senior civil servants to understand the nature of transitioning to e-governance, and is geared especially toward students from developing countries. Ilves noted that digitisation has also entered an era where it is no longer focused on moving paper documents online but rethinking how to build services without a link to legacy systems. He called this perspective being a digital native and said it will require “a revolution in thought.”



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