By Peter High, published on Forbes
Estonia is, perhaps, the most digitally advanced society in the world. This Baltic region country with less than 1.5 million citizens has been occupied frequently through its history, including by the Soviet Union between 1944 and 1991. In the aftermath of independence, particularly progressive leaders decided to leverage advanced technology as a means of simplifying the lives of citizens. As early as the mid-1990s, the government made radical moves to eliminate paper in its interactions with citizens, forming the basis of what would become an almost entirely digital society.
Taavi Kotka was an Estonian CEO of one of the largest software companies in the Baltic States, Nortal. He left the company in late 2012, and he was under a non-compete agreement for two years. He used the time to join the government, and in the process, helped usher in some more remarkable change. The changes he and others enacted would have profound impacts on the efficiency of and value derived from healthcare, banking, education, voting, law enforcement, among other areas. He also spearheaded the Estonian e-Residency program, which has allowed Estonians abroad and non-Estonians, especially so-called digital nomads, to take advantage of these superior services. As Kotka explains, the degree to which Estonia has become digitized actually enhances its security. He describes all of this and more in this far-ranging interview.
Peter High: Estonia is perhaps the most digitally advanced, technically competent country in the world, and for the past four years, you have led much of that work. I wanted to start with the genesis story. Why Estonia? What are the secret ingredients, either in the combination between the government and the citizenry, or other structural advantages that were there that made this change and transformation possible?
Taavi Kotka: That is a good question, but it was not me. It was set up almost 20 years ago after we broke apart from the Soviet Union. It was clear, especially for the private sector, that Estonia is a huge country geographically – we are bigger than the Netherlands, or Switzerland, or Denmark – but there are only 1.3 million people living here. For the private sector, it was clear that it is impossible to physically serve all the people living in Estonia. It is not economically feasible to have a bank office in every small town, for example.
High: And roughly when was that taking place? How long ago?
Kotka: The internet was born in the 1990s, so the push started 1995 or 1996.
High: Remarkably early.