The first question most people ask when they visit us at the e-Estonia Briefing Centre – oh, those halcyon days when that was still possible – : “Why did digitalisation start in Estonia?” These thoughtful, well-informed and curious delegations that I get to talk to on a daily basis, however, still come with their own expectations as to what my answer to their question might entail.
“Is it because of Estonia’s Soviet past?” Well, yeah, but no. I am certain that the drive for a transparent, incorruptible digital bureaucracy was inspired in part by the deficiencies of the Soviet model in this regard. Still, Estonia is not the only country that regained its independence from the Soviet Union during those tumultuous few years and we don’t exactly see a Post-Soviet “digital belt” spanning from Estonia to Kyrgyzstan.
But here is the question I hear the most frequently: “Is it because Estonia is so small?” Let’s dissect that one. Let’s talk size.
Is Estonia even a small country?
I would argue that Estonia is humungous, relatively speaking. To give you one example, the Netherlands, Denmark and Estonia have very similarly-sized land masses – 41,000, 43,000 and 45,000km² respectively. When we talk about population, however, the contrasts become more apparent with populations of 17.4m, 5.8m and 1.3m respectively.
So yes, in terms of total landmass Estonia won’t challenge Canada anytime soon, but in terms of population density Estonia ranks 148th in the world, just below the United States of America (145th, containing bustling regions such as Alaska and the Midwest) and ahead of Brazil (154th, with the sparsely populated Legal Amazon region making up 59% of the country’s landmass). This means that, relatively speaking, Estonia is not small at all – it’s just sparsely populated – and that is a completely different challenge in its own right: governing a big country with only little manpower at your disposal.
Is digitalisation cheaper for small countries?
A small population also means a relatively small GDP – especially when your country is recovering from 50 years of Soviet planned economy. Why does this matter? Well, suppose you are a vendor selling server hardware. To whom would you give the biggest discount – a private customer, a mid-sized company buying 200 systems, or a country that will make a bulk order worth millions and millions of Euros? I think you can see where I’m going with this. Estonia could never make the kinds of orders that a far bigger country would need to make – and thus, for the hardware that was imported from abroad, Estonia didn’t get as favourable pricing conditions as a bigger country would.
Is digitalisation more prevalent in small countries?
Overall, there are very few reasons to believe that small countries have an easier time digitalising their public services:
- There are digitalised countries with an incredibly high population density (such as Singapore) as well as an incredibly low population density (such as Estonia);
- Some have a very high GDP per capita (such as Denmark) and others with a low GDP per capita see digitalisation as a way to improve their situation (such as India);
- Some see digitalisation as an extension of their forward-thinking mindset (such as Sweden) whereas others use it as a tool to fight corruption (such as Ukraine).
To borrow a line from one of the most prolific educators of our time, John Green, we can see once more that truth resists simplicity. Mono-causality appeals to many of us because it supposedly offers us a clear-cut way to improve our situation, but rarely can it be relied upon to truly change our nation for the better.
If you want to find out more about all the different aspects that are necessary to build a digital society like Estonia has, get in touch with us and order an online presentation at the e-Estonia Briefing Centre – and if you’re ready to act on all this knowledge, we’ll connect you to those companies that made this digital revolution happen in our country as well!
Digital Transformation Adviser at the e-Estonia Briefing Centre