Our Head of Client Services, had the pleasure of visiting Tallinn, Estonia with a number of our IT partners and members of the Scottish Government. During the visit he met with the UK Ambassador and numerous technology companies to learn how Estonia’s economy is thriving from investment in digitising many fundamental public services.  

Estonia: Small independent nation to global digital powerhouse

Post-independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Estonia had to build its national infrastructure from scratch. The Estonian government initially approached a couple of the established global IT infrastructure providers to help at the time, but found they did not have the budget to support such sizeable projects. So, the country turned to their local Small and Medium Enterprises (SME). Together they developed robust distributed infrastructure technology that would ultimately underpin the innovative blockchain and cloud based services we recognise today.

Since the country gained independence, it has implemented a great deal of legislation to create buy-in from its citizens. In 2000, Estonia became the first country in the world to declare Internet access as a basic human right. It has built itself into a world renowned digital leader and has been recognised as “the most advanced digital society in the world” by Wired[1]. An impressive accolade. One of the many talented speakers that our group heard from was Linnar Viik, who was one of the instrumental members in implementing many of Estonia’s breakthrough programs. EU countries across the board are looking at what Estonia has achieved. Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, is the most recent world leader to visit the e-Estonia Showroom.

Innovative IDs – tip of the iceberg

Estonia boasts an almost paperless society, with the President claiming not to have signed a single law on paper in his 3-year tenure. On average 5 days per year, per person, is saved by using a digital signature. The fundamental aspect of creating a truly Digital Society, is the use of a single electronic National ID card for all citizens. This ID is recognised by the national secure network (X-Road) and enables voting, 100% e-prescriptions, use of public transport and online tax returns.

We met many IT companies over the visit that are experts in developing e-services for the populous and helping further drive the e-journey. These projects don’t only make efficiencies for the Estonian people, government and public-sector services, but also, for every €1 invested in technology, €5 is saved in government costs, driving a staggering cost saving of 2% of GDP.

Lessons to learn

The UK and Scotland could learn from a number of Estonia’s policies and innovative infrastructure. For example, if the UK government were to implement a national ID card coupled with the equivalent of Estonia’s highly secure and distributed computing platform (X-Road), it could reduce the huge costs of siloed based programmes, and help SME organisations create e-services that the public can really benefit from. Also, there is an opportunity to reduce the proliferation of health based systems only offering patient related data to the trust they are aligned too. This could be replaced with a simple national system where the citizen controls who can access their data. At a time of austerity and growing problems in the UK balance of payments, the ability to save 2% of GDP is surely a process worth exploring.

My most important take away is how we as a nation need to step back and look at the big picture. Trying to establish a digital economy requires some Green Field thinking – look at what Estonia have achieved in a relatively short period of time:

  • #1 OECD Tax Competitiveness
  • #1 European Commission – EU digital economy and society index, Public Services
  • #1 World Economic Forum – Entrepreneurship
  • #2 Freedom House – Internet freedom
  • #1 Barclays 2018 Digital Development Index
  • #1 Global IT report – Mobile Network Coverage
  • #12 World Bank Global Ease of Doing Business ranking
  • #9 Freedom House Index of Economic Freedom

How can we think big picture and drive a transformation like Estonia and save 2% of GDP? How can we support the development of a set of innovative local companies who can go on to export their knowledge globally?

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[1] Wired – Concerned about Brexit? Why not become an e-resident of Estonia – http://www.wired.co.uk/article/estonia-e-resident

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