When it comes to integrating digital technology into the fabric of society, the tiny Baltic nation of Estonia seems to have it down pat.
In fact, its population of 1.3 million appears to serve as the perfect sample size to test a variety of solutions.
This change did not come overnight. After regaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Estonia embarked on a journey to rebuild its economy. And it found that going digital was the easiest way to go.
For Daniel Schaer, commissioner general of the Estonian pavilion at Expo 2020, creating a business-friendly environment goes hand-in-hand with deploying digital technologies – a concept classified as digital dividends by the World Bank.“Going digital brings not just dollar benefits, but also socio-economic benefits,” explains Schaer.
“This means, for example, increasing access to markets for people who cannot participate for whatever cultural, geographical, social or economic reason,” he says. “It is very easy to apply technologies and create a divide because its only accessible by certain groups, something we want to prevent.”
Under the ‘e-Estonia’ movement, the country has established several digital services for its citizens, including electronic voting, virtual learning for schools and universities and e-healthcare records.
Underpinning these facilities is a digital 'e-identity', a mandatory national identification card equipped with a chip that provides access to all e-services.
Estonia also offers solutions such as a nomad visa and e-residency. The latter is a first-of-its-kind initiative that allows individuals to start businesses in the country without living there.
Schaer says that going digital is also helping to save time, which can instead be dedicated to socialising.
“Take for instance the digital signature,” says Schaer. “We estimate that the Estonian citizen is saving approximately one to two weeks of queueing and bureaucratic efforts by just signing documents digitally. This is just one example, but it makes a huge difference. We are also working on artificial intelligence (AI) solutions that will in the future also do the filling out for you.”
In recent months, Estonia has also been working closely with the World Health Organisation (WHO) to develop trial electronic vaccine certificates, called VaccineGuard.
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Each person in Estonia that has visited a doctor has an online e-Health record that can be tracked. Identified by the electronic ID-card, the health information is kept completely secure and at the same time accessible to authorised individuals. KSI Blockchain technology is being used for the system to ensure data integrity and mitigate internal threats to the data.
The healthcare system also provides solutions such as e-ambulance (quick-response solution that can detect and position the phone call for the ambulance within 30 seconds and send the emergency ambulance to the necessary point) and e-prescription (centralised paperless system for issuing and handling medical prescriptions).
Education and research
The digital revolution in Estonia aims to implement modern digital technology more efficiently and effectively in learning, teaching, research and to improve the digital skills of the entire nation. For example, it includes ensuring that every student receives the necessary knowledge and skills to access modern digital infrastructure for future use.
The education system incorporates a number of solutions including:
The Estonian Education Information System(EHIS) state database that brings together all the information related to education in Estonia. EHIS stores details about education institutions, students, teachers and lecturers, graduation documents, study materials and curricula.
Web applications eKool and Stuudium, which serve as a collaborative platform for parents, teachers and students to keep track of evaluation scores, grades and homework
The Estonian Research Information System (ETIS), a national information system that concentrates information on research and development institutions, researchers, research projects and various output in Estonia
e-Schoolbag, a portal for digital learning materials, developed by Ministry of Education and Research. The portal contains materials for basic, general and vocational education, comprising digital learning material arranged by keywords on the basis of the curriculum.
Transportation and mobility
Estonia has been making strides in the field of mobility, becoming the first country in the world to legalise testing self-driven vehicles on all national and local roads within the country. Work is underway to create a full legal and cyber-risk management framework for using fully autonomous vehicles in regular road and traffic conditions.
Other advances include a mobile parking solution and border queue management to allow drivers to reserve time slots for passing through border checkpoints, thereby eliminating the need for physical queues.
Nearly 99 per cent of government services in Estonia are available online round the clock, including voting. In 2005, Estonia became the first country in the world to hold nation-wide elections using this method, and in 2007, it made headlines as the first country to use i-Voting in parliamentary elections.
Trust in the government is critical in establishing national digital systems, says Schaer.
The 'X-road platform' forms the backbone of Estonia’s digital ecosystem. Similar to a “lighter version of blockchain”, the platform allows information providers to choose what data they provide, who is allowed to access it and the right to withdraw the information if needed.
“I own my data,” he says. “I can decide what to do with it – that is how we have created the trust.”
Estonia takes its cybersecurity seriously, as evidenced by the presence of a Nato Centre of Excellence for cybersecurity in Tallinn, which was formed after a series of cyber attacks on Estonian organisations in 2007.
Schaer also emphasises the need for better 'cyber hygiene', a habit instilled in Estonia’s citizens when it comes to surfing the internet. Partner company CybExer Technologies will provide an interactive test site for cyber hygiene at the Estonian pavilion.
A space to learn and share
Estonia’s presence at Expo 2020 will be housed within an Expo-built structure, modified to communicate its message to the world.
“With this edition of the expo, we really feel like we are going back to the roots of World Expos,” says Schaer. “It is all about introducing ‘cool things’ at a global platform.”
The pavilion’s first floor will highlight the key opportunities and services offered by Estonia in the digital arena, serving as an example for other nations and firms to learn from. Visitors will be greeted by a 'visual technology wave', featuring spheres that represent digital components such as the internet. The walls surrounding the area will play videos that further add to this digital message.
“We have been called the most advanced digital society in the world, and the goal is to tie in all of the components to that story,” says Schaer, highlighting how the country’s participation at the event is being coordinated by its 40 pavilion partners, rather than only the government.
“These partners come from a variety of industries, including education, financial technology, transport and consumer goods,” he says. “The capital city of Talinn and Estonia’s second largest city Tartu are also pavilion partners and will share their lessons on smart cities.”
There will be solutions from many of the partners within the exhibition space, including an autonomous, AI-powered robot bartender by Yanu; zero-effort electronic indoors gardens by Click & Grow; and digital product design focused on augmented reality experience by Mobi Lab.
The second floor of the pavilion will allow for a deep dive into individual topics and offerings from Estonia, including one-on-one meetings and briefing sessions.
“When I was asked by Expo to present the one thing that everybody should come to our pavilion to see, I said it is difficult to narrow it down to one element,” says Schaer. “It is about the whole story. We do almost everything digitally, except getting married or divorced. For that, you still have to visit us physically.”
Not restricted just to its own borders, Estonia is keen to share its lessons and insights with the world, and especially with Africa. In its run-up for candidature to the UN Security Council, Estonia met with high-level delegates in several African nations to discuss opportunities for cooperation in the area of information and communications technology and e-governance. On 1 January 2020, Estonia became a non-permanent member of the council for 2020-21.
“We are open to talking about not just the positive things we do but also the challenges that we face in our journey,” says Schaer. “And we are very open to learning from other countries, something we are currently curating with Expo.”
Schaer draws parallels between the successes of Estonia and the rapid developments that the UAE is undergoing.
“Our effort in Estonia has always been focused on avoiding the issue of legacy systems and software,” says Schaer. “And this is something that the UAE recognises as well. It is important to be as forward-looking as possible in this journey to digitalisation.”
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