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Erika Piirmets: my beyond digital e-Estonia

Beyond digital

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We reflect on our journey as we mark the 15th year of showcasing our digital nation. Last month, we celebrated this significant milestone and unveiled our updated e-Estonia messages. Erika Piirmets, our digital transformation advisor, shares personal stories of how she resonates with our new messages.

 

e-Estonia: beyond digital

Significant changes in societies and cultures seem too grand and unachievable until they become a natural part of everyday life. After close to three decades of shaping the digital services and ecosystem, creating trust between stakeholders and users, and offering added value through streamlined, convenient e-services, Estonia is reaching a stage of maturity. Digital has become such a natural part of our everyday lives.

Estonians are born with a digital gene. One of my friends teased me with an anecdote, asking me, do you know how Estonians text (we were sending messages, so I thought he was laughing at my vocabulary), but he goes:

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Kids are born programmers; eID is injected into our fingers, and building unicorns is a pastime. The reality is more complex than that. Digitalisation, like any societal change, has taken a while and has passed the regular phases of transformation – objection, acceptance, reskilling, trial, and slow adoption of relevant transactions. 

Imagine telling your friend you will give them “a smartphone call” instead of “calling them”. Wouldn’t it be bizarre if you had to clarify that you would take “an automobile drive” instead of “I will drive there.” Nobody expected you to take a horse. Similarly, in Estonia, “I will send you money”, meaning “I will use online transfer” and not cash in an envelope. Or “I will drop my signature on that document” means digitally signing.

The e-Estonia Briefing Centre hosts over 7,000 guests every year, all coming to familiarise themselves with the most digital society in the world. But for us Estonians, it stretches beyond digital. It means that the digital is no longer the focus but a lifestyle shaped by and for the people.  Our society integrates with reliable services that operate sustainably and respond quickly to people’s changing needs and expectations. 

 

Living the digital future

I am from a generation that has yet to discover traditional processes. My first encounter with a digital state was to enrol in national exams in the final year of high school. I have not signed a work contract by hand; I have only signed it digitally. I have never seen a paper tax declaration form. And I have never been to a physical polling station to cast a vote. My experience with my state has been, by default, digital, running on a solid digital infrastructure compiled of state-issued mandatory electronic identity, cross-sectoral data interoperability, and built-in security at every level of the digital state. This is making heads turn; while many governments are issuing their first digital IDs, Estonia has already celebrated its 20th anniversary. While the world is carefully looking into i-voting, Estonia has enabled all online elections since 2005. While countries race to launch more e-services, Estonia will pass a milestone to become a 100% digital society (currently only divorce is not handled digitally, but this will change by the end of 2024).

Gradual cultural change has been behind living the digital future that many only dream about, but for Estonians, the digital future is the present.

After primary school, I remember giving up the paper diaries with a lovely horse photo on the cover to go to e-Diary solutions, like eKool and Stuudium. When I turned 18, I pursued my driving licence. The theoretical exam was online, but I still had to drive some tricky roundabouts of Tallinn and excel in parallel parking. Future generations may get their licences from a GTA-like simulation.

I also suffered a significant misfortune when, after years of efforts to be an aspiring dancer, I injured both knees. It was excruciating, but it hurt not knowing whether I would recover to dance again. Being just a 17-year-old, I remember undergoing an MRI test, logging into my Health Portal and viewing the 360-degree view of my knees. I did not understand a thing; I remember thinking only how cool it looked to get such a unique sight of my joints.

Later, of course, a very kind orthopaedist sat me down and convinced me to go to physiotherapy instead of invasive surgery that would most likely leave me with a plastic knee by the age of 30. I spent half an hour rotating my knees on my health data portal. It might seem silly, but seeing a visual representation of my current and, potentially, future knees, hit home and made things realistic.

Every Estonian has a story – who applied for university remotely, got their car bought or sold in 3 minutes, and named their kid in the maternity ward waiting room before even physically meeting them. We have all been living in the digital future, which has been taking place for decades.

 

Innovating for a future-proof tomorrow

Although innovation and technology accompany us in everyday life, we have always been thinking about what is coming next and how to prepare for it. Estonia is known for a results-driven mindset – a romantic dreamer is not how you would describe an Estonian. A pragmatic doer is a much better fit. Our future-proof tomorrow is built on a top-tier education system, a business-friendly environment, and innovative thinkers. We are committed to designing solutions that anticipate change and tackle pressing societal issues, including environmental sustainability and AI readiness, building our own AI-driven Estonian-speaking (mind you, there are only 1M Estonian speakers in the whole world) chatbot; all before ChatGPT was cool and gained its enormous popularity. 

However, a doer’s mindset has also helped Estonia survive the Soviet occupation, where food was scarce, Estonian language and traditions were prohibited, and Potemkin’s mindset of showing up instead of improving things was prevalent.

Adopting a future-ready mindset is our starting point, as we are aware that those who don’t will be left behind. So, at the launch of a digital-minded government, a permissive legal environment became crucial to support testing and validating innovative ideas – from eID, Parliament’s e-cabinet, KSI blockchain, or self-driving vehicles. Often, foreign visitors cannot hide their surprise by asking about the cute delivery robots roaming the Tallinn streets en masse. “Do people not violate or try to destroy them?”

Having robots as efficient carriers on the street makes so much sense and is a natural part of our city scene, just like electric scooters are. How on Earth could you harm such a lovely dumpling? Not only do the robots say hello to you, but Estonians lift them out of potholes and snow piles and stop the traffic on a zebra crossing to let them over the street.

 

Straight to business

Thanks to a highly educated workforce and cutting-edge digital capabilities, Estonia stands out as a global business hub. You may have heard Estonia referenced as a Startup Nation, and our impressive fleet of ten international unicorns makes us the number one stable of unicorns per capita in Europe, among them Skype, Bolt, Wise and Veriff. There is nothing special in the water that breeds unicorns, but it is the environment we cultivate.

We eliminated all bureaucratic hurdles to starting a business. The process can be completed online in minutes (the world record holds at 15 mins and 33 sec). Estonia’s open economy is characterised by adaptability and innovation. But also, a tight-knit ecosystem nurtures new entrepreneurs, connecting them to a business network and unlocking doors to exponential growth opportunities.

We are not just stopping at creating an accessible business environment but breaking stereotypes about how businesses are run. What if you could subscribe to a government that best fits your entrepreneurial needs? With the e-Residency program, we revolutionised it by breaking the glass ceiling of economic growth. International businesses legally registered in Estonia could fill your state’s budget, but perhaps the founders never even set foot in Estonia. 100K+ e-residents globally have paid over 60M € worth of taxes in 2023, the e-residents who have “subscribed” to use Estonian government services and ecosystem to build their international businesses.

We believe nothing should get in the way of a good idea. We offer a transparent, stable, and functioning business environment to do what you do best – grow your very own unicorn.

 

Digital society is a team sport

Estonia’s digital state is built on partnership and trust between the state, private sector, academia, and civil society. Innovation serves everybody, and the objective has been to eliminate borders in different sectors. There is one Estonia where all the stakeholders contribute to growth and improvement.

Shared responsibility and teamwork inspire innovation but also offer a stronger value proposition. Take the state-issued electronic ID that is widely used in private sector services today. One key, one technology, one habit for the individual to ensure safe access to a wide range of services from the state and companies.

Neuroscience for speech Neurokõne and translation Neurokõne functionalities, AI component depository AI components, or genome-based patient-centric medicine Estonian Biobank are only a few examples of innovation born thanks to cross-sectoral expertise. However, daily collaboration is the key to a secure digital society where there are no borders in cyberspace. For that reason, cyber command integrates into our defence capabilities. Estonia is given a unique exercise possibility to prepare for cyber-attacks, for the expertise to be equally in the public and private sector, spread across society.

A valuable push in developing the most advanced digital society has been the mindset to act faster in adopting innovation and be bold testers. Thanks to digital-minded leadership, through collaborative efforts and sharing knowledge across industries, we ensure the delivery of high-quality services to the customer (the citizen).

 

Democracy has a digital spirit

The digital age brings new possibilities for intuitive e-services. Still, it also comes with a higher risk of cyber criminals trying to get your data and more extensive exposure to misinformation dissemination. Our commitment to digital democracy is empowerment through transparency, inclusion, and accountability.

We strongly believe digital societies should be built on openness and trust for technologies like i-voting and citizen’s initiative platforms to enhance participation and give individuals a clear voice. As we progress, utilising adequate digital tools is paramount to protect democracy. E-democracy has the potential to make political participation more accessible to a broader range of people, including those who may face barriers to participation or are inactive members of society who might need a lower entry-level to make their voices heard. It can also provide enhanced transparency in the government by making information more readily available to the public.

 

Come and experience it all for yourself

In the digitalisation era, the focus has quickly shifted from the human experience to an overly digitalised environment because technology is so available and prevalent nowadays. What we must remember is the person amid all this technology. We want simplified lives: time for hobbies, close relationships, meaningful work, and to leave a legacy. To simplify life, people have chosen technology; from the industrial shift to today’s tech era, we have optimised processes. Beyond digital is shoving the said processes to the background so that you can focus on what matters – leading a meaningful and comfortable life.

We welcome public and private sector delegations to our Briefing Centre. Learn more about our services and book your visit.

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The Briefing Centre is conveniently located just 2 minutes drive from the airport and 10 to 15 minutes drive from the city centre.

You will find us on a ground floor of Valukoja 8, central entrance behind the statue of Mr Ernst Julius Öpik. Photo of the central entrance.

Valukoja 8
11415 Tallinn, Estonia