How 20 years of digital transformation made Estonia a model for dealing with international crises


At the turn of the century, Estonia embarked on a mission to technologically transform our society; we would go on to become world-renowned for our digital-first ethos.

This mission has seen Estonia rise to become one of the most digitally advanced nations in Europe, making itself home to numerous tech unicorns and leading the way in innovation and digital transformation across the world. Now, with the Covid-19 pandemic demanding a global digital-first strategy, we are looking to share our expertise and help governments look forward at the ways in which digital transformation can prepare us better for future challenges.

We hope that Estonia’s digital transformation, through avenues of digital governance and the development of a thriving business sector, can act as a starting point for nations around the world to explore new routes to developing more resilience to international crises.

The digital government model

In the year 2000, the Estonian government made a decision that would impact on its future position as an innovation hub in years to follow; it made a commitment to digitally transform Estonian society. This started with a commitment to rolling out internet access far and wide – every classroom had a computer by the end of that year, and internet access was declared a human right in 2001. The Estonian cabinet has been paperless since 2000 and demonstrates one of the most advanced digital-governance models in the world.

If the UK were to adopt such a model, it could see a revolution in healthcare that further streamlines admin processes within the National Health Service, taking digitisation in the organisation to the next level. Through implementing a digital governance model, doctors could benefit from even easier, centralised access to patient history and be better prepared as we move out of this unprecedented time.

Extending a nation’s influence through digital governance

Having committed to a digital governance model 15 years earlier, when the Estonian government announced plans to establish the first “government start-up”, e-Residency, in 2014, we already had access to tried-and-tested digital-identity technology, as citizens are all issued with one inside Estonia. E-Residency is a government-issued digital identity and status that provides business owners from all over the world with access to our transparent digital business environment. E-Residency allows digital entrepreneurs to manage their Estonian business from anywhere, entirely online. The success of this campaign exceeded all our expectations; in fact, we recently announced that the scheme has generated over one billion euros Euros for the economy.

The e-Residency programme was a step towards improving relations with other countries through digital means. This was a step outside of internal commitments to digital transformation, and has supported a business sector that was already thriving. Moving out of the current crisis, models such as ours can offer a real, viable solution to some of the challenges faced by governments across the world as a result of the pandemic and must be given due consideration.

In the UK, adopting such a model could give businesses from overseas a much needed incentive to bring their business to the UK – this would also provide a necessary boost to the economy in the wake of coronavirus and the county’s exit from the European Union. We have seen first-hand how digital governance is a means to reinstate relationships and explore new avenues – this can provide essential support for countries as they look to recover and open up their economies once more.

Collaborating to strengthen countries’ digital prowess

As national crises surface, nations come together and collaborate. Since 2007, we have looked to extend our hand to the rest of the world to help develop cyber security initiatives, and have held a prominent role in leading international cyber security efforts – particularly those focused on establishing rules for behaviour in cyberspace. In 2008, the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence (CCDCOE) was established in Tallinn. Today, the CCDCOE is responsible for identifying and coordinating education and training solutions in cyber defence for all NATO bodies across the Alliance, with 25 member states. For the UK, exploring avenues such as these could help avoid the extensive costs associated with cyber attacks, and plant the necessary foundations for a future digital society. Having strong cyber-security initiatives also acts as an incentive for businesses to bring their companies to the UK, where they know the necessary protection is in place.

Estonia has also been a frontline innovator for online voting and digital identity, and we are now hoping to serve as a use-case for further crisis prevention following the Covid-19 pandemic. During the crisis, Estonia was fortunate to adapt better than most to a remote-working environment, benefitting from the support of a well-established technological society. This extended further into remote learning, as Estonia, (we are actually the leading nation for education in Europe), rolled-out e-learning platforms that helped parents and students alike with the transition to lockdown and the principles of social distancing. The initiative was supported by Startup Estonia and co-organised with the Ministry of Education and Research, Estonian Union of Educational Technologists, Good Deed Education Fund, Innove, HITSA, and Education Nation. We hope that these initiatives serve as a benchmark for other countries, encouraging them to support businesses conduct remote working and learning for children who are stuck at home.

In Estonia, we champion innovation. It is for this reason that the natural step during this crisis was to organise the “Global Hack”, an online worldwide hackathon, which took place from April 9-12. More than 800 people across 30 teams participated in the hackathon, challenging themselves to create big ideas to help combat the crisis and position Estonia well for the post-coronavirus world.

First prize was awarded to Berlin-based start-up SunCrafter for its “solar-powered hand disinfection station, which uses ultraviolet light to inactivate bacteria and viruses”. Another company created from the hackathon, and also founded by an e-resident, was Serw, a video consultancy company which provides a platform for conducting freelance work with billing and scheduling systems integrated into the platform. The global hackathon proved that by coming together and looking to technology as a means of finding solutions to the new problems the world is facing, we can achieve great results.

Moving forward, it is essential that we look to existing technology that has been a pillar for success during the current unprecedented situation and look to innovate further in these areas. Taking a collaborative approach to innovation (with a digital-first ethos) is essential in the mission for our societies to become more resilient and better prepared for unforeseen circumstances. Digital governance has proved itself to be one key factor in the success of the Estonian approach to the pandemic, and by partnering this with the most innovative solutions from around the world, we can all benefit from greater adaptability and resilience.

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About the author

Siim Siikut

Siim Siikut

Siim Siikut is government Chief Information Officer for Estonia.

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