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How an Estonian digital nation emerged from the embers of Soviet rule

Estonia’s minister for foreign trade and IT tells Computer Weekly how the country went from having no governmental infrastructure in the early 1990s to acquiring the label “digital nation”

In the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union withdrew from its occupation of Estonia, the country had nothing in place to support a new government. In 1991, the Soviet Union officially recognised the Republic of Estonia as an independent nation, ending more than half a century of rule.

Estonia was left with no infrastructure to support its government, but a combination of the scientific legacy from its former occupiers and the determination of Estonians has since seen the nation emerge as a global technology power.

The country’s citizens can access all government services online, and were able to do so long before people in other countries. As a measure of its tech advancement, Estonia is even working to provide each citizen with his or her own government services digital assistant, which will make applying for a marriage certificate or registering a birth as easy as asking Alexa.

Today, Skype seems to have made more of an impact on Estonia in its 17 years of existence than the USSR had on the country in over half a century of occupation. Tour any tech company in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, and you will inevitably rub shoulders with former Skype executives.

The Soviet legacy is less human. Converted buildings such as the former KGB headquarters, now flats, or the former train repair workshop, now a “hipster” hotel, are seemingly all that remains.

Skype, now owned by Microsoft, was formed by two Nordic entrepreneurs in 2003, but its software was created by Estonian tech professionals.

Estonia’s minister for IT and foreign trade, Kaimar Karu, another former Skype employee, said: “We like to say that Skype is Estonian. The money was from Scandinavia, but the brains were from Estonia.”

But before Estonia produced the conditions for tech professionals to create the technology behind one of the most successful tech startups of all time, there was the small matter of creating an IT infrastructure and put a country on top of it.

Left with nothing in terms of government infrastructure, the country’s new leaders made an early decision to build on the scientific legacy left by the Soviets and the determination of Estonians to harness IT to replace the infrastructure removed when the Soviets left.

Lucky position

Karu told Computer Weekly: “We were in a very lucky position when we regained independence from the Soviet Union. Most nations in the recent past have not experienced having nothing, but that is essentially what happened in Estonia in terms of infrastructure to support the government.”

This happened at a time when the use of IT was on the rise, so, according to Karu, it was natural to look at it as a potential area for the country to focus on.

But it certainly wasn’t a standing start when it came to tech development. One important legacy of Soviet rule was a wealth of scientists in Estonia’s universities. Its education system was strong, especially in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects, so Estonia had the people to focus on IT.

“So knowledge about how to use computers in a reasonable way was here, the need arose and we needed to do something about it,” said Karu. “We thought: why not do it digitally?”

The Estonian characteristic of stubbornness was another advantage, said Karu. “If something is not working, we have to figure out why – and we don’t give up,” he said.

Today, the government’s tech teams have a very different challenge – to replace some legacy from the Soviet era.

“Now we are in a situation where others were a few decades ago,” said Karu. “Where some countries had to rebuild from having legacy frameworks and infrastructure, we had nothing, so we had to build from scratch.”

Read more about IT in Estonia

After nearly 30 years and with the onset of digital transformation, the challenge right now is keeping the momentum going. “How do we replace parts of a plane while it’s in the air with passengers inside?” said Karu.

“We have legacy systems here and there. All the ministries started building their own IT systems at one point and there was some centralisation to find commonly used components. So I wouldn’t say there are legacy systems, but legacy components within systems.”

In many countries where there is a clear divide between IT and the business, this kind of challenge regularly runs into problems when these two sides clash. But in Estonia, the workforce is made up of people who understand IT and how it can be applied in various business and societal scenarios.

Karu said he couldn’t guess how many people work in IT for the government because “the line is blurred between the business teams in government and the IT teams”.

He added: “We have technicians that do business analysis and we have business analysts that do some coding.”

Tiger Leap project

A significant proportion of Estonia’s current working population owes much of its tech understanding to the country’s Tiigrihüpe (Tiger Leap) project in the mid-1990s which saw it invest in developing its computer and network infrastructure, including a particular focus on education.

People aged between 35 and 45 can be referred to as the “Tiger Leap generation”, who are comfortable working with technology and understand its capabilities and limitations.

But to make digital government thrive, Estonia is now educating older citizens who missed out on the Tiger Leap, said Karu. “We have, for instance, been using local libraries as hubs for training elderly people,” he said. “This was easy because they go there anyway and have friends there.”

The country is determined to leave no one behind, added Karu. “I don’t think we have many people left who would be unable, for example, to use online banking or cannot or do not want to use computers to read the news. The trick was to make things community-focused, so it wasn’t a central programme coming from government.”

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