How Estonia built itself into a digital paradise


This Saturday, my native country, nestled in a remote corner of the Earth about 500 miles south of Santa’s village, celebrates its hundredth year of independence.

Today, Estonia is probably the most digitally advanced country in the world. As the New Yorker magazine recently put it: “Its government is virtual, borderless, blockchained, and secure. Has this tiny post-Soviet nation found the way of the future?”

It might sound like the premise of a sci-fi movie, but this is the reality of life in Estonia.

Read more: Estonia is leading the way to a digital, globalised future

Last year, I did my taxes online in two minutes from Incheon International Airport in Seoul. In October, I voted in the Estonian elections online from my hotel room in Tokyo. I set up my company Jobbatical (which today works with organisations from 49 countries and has raised $7.9m from investors from eight countries) online in 10 minutes from a cafe in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, while munching on an omelette and sipping a cappuccino.

The birth country of Skype, Transferwise, and the concept of digital citizenship has a lot to be proud of on its centenary, especially considering the painful journey it took to get here. This is the perfect example of a rags-to-riches story at a national level.

Even though Estonia declared its independence for the first time in 1918, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union took away that freedom only 21 years later. During the occupation, 30,000 Estonians were deported, many of them killed in the concentration camps of Siberia. Those deported were mostly the intellectuals of the country – lawyers, doctors, writers – and their families.

I was born during the last decade of the Soviet occupation. Empty stores, poverty, brainwashing propaganda, and fear were all part and parcel of our everyday life. Little did I know back then that the green bananas my dad had somehow managed to find in the late 1980s were actually a sign of changes to come.

Finally, just 26 years ago, the last Russian tanks left the country, putting an end to 50 dark years of Soviet occupation.

This opened up the world for a country reborn from the rubble of the Soviet Union. Every adult citizen received the equivalent of €10 (about $12.4) from the government, and over the next 25 years, Estonia built itself up as one of the world’s most innovative societies.

It is our openness to the world, talent, and innovation that has been behind the success story of our tiny nation. Estonia probably has one of the world’s easiest immigration process for highly skilled talent. A work permit can be obtained as quickly as within 24 hours of accepting a job offer.

Consider this in light of recent developments in the UK and it’s no wonder that in 2017 Estonia became the number one most searched for destination on Jobbatical for talent from the UK.

This was a win for Estonia, but a loss for the United Kingdom. Indeed, such emerging trends are a loss for any country being led by fear and uncertainty towards isolationist policies.

As Estonia marks 100 years of independence, the hope is that our success story can inspire other nations to embrace the opportunity that disruptive technology brings.

By fostering a policy of open and collaborative governance, we have been able to thrive. May that continue to be the case for the next 100 years.

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