In 1991, Estonia regained its independence from the Soviet Union, but the battle to a new age had just begun. Less than the roughly half of the 1.4 million population had a telephone line. Their connection to the outside was rudimentary at best. Today, thanks to young leaders and an ambition to become a free, democratic state, Estonia is a world leader in technology. With free Wi-Fi available to everyone everywhere and considered a human right reserved for all citizens, Estonia is a country to look to for the future of technology.
Technology has become the identity of Estonia. Not only can everyone access the internet, but Estonia’s schools, business transactions, and private record system are run electronically. By 1997, just 6 years after it was established as an independent country, 97% of Estonia’s schools had internet. In 2011, 94% of tax returns were made online, and voting electronically has been the norm for years. Prescriptions are prescribed electronically, no need for an illegible scribbled doctor’s note, and legal documents can be signed via smartphone. And to make daily life even easier for its citizens, Estonia has set up systems to pay for bus tickets and parking in big cities with just a few taps of a phone screen. But perhaps most accommodating of all is the ID card system, which has been in use since 2002 and helps citizens access all these services. 90% of Estonians use it as a public transport ticket, and to vote online, transfer money, pick up prescriptions, and access any and all information on their state record. The best part is that there isn’t any information on the card itself, it only serves as a key to access the database. And even then, citizens must enter in the correct code. If anyone views files without permission they are flagged, and anyone can challenge suspicious behavior happening on their account.
Estonians wrote the code for Skype, Hotmail, and Kazaa (a file-sharing network), leading the way for other entrepreneurs with fresh ideas. In 2000, Estonia’s government created Enterprise Estonia as a means to support entrepreneurs nationwide. Enterprise Estonia’s mission is to increase the well-being of society through stabilizing the growth of companies, and thus jobs, and enabling the export of new products and technological developments. EAS has representatives in major parts of the U.S., Europe, and Asia, among other regions to aid with their nationwide efforts. In addition, Estonia is the first country to offer e-residency, which allows people to register a business and conduct banking transactions in Estonia. This opens up business opportunities in Estonia for people and investors all over the world. For instance, EAS helped Mark Kofman, founder of Import2, a startup that makes business to business data transfers easier, to start his company in 2012. It’s helpful when entrepreneurs can collaborate and learn from each other, and with Enterprise Estonia, personal conversations with the founders of businesses like Skype encourage entrepreneurs worldwide to join the network.
Estonia has built a promising future for its citizens, saving the economy with a young determined government. In less than 2 years, Mart Laar, prime minister in 1992, and his government gave Estonia a flat income-tax, free trade, effective currency, and privatization. Estonia built a paperless country from the ground up, and Toomas Hendrick Ilves, president of Estonia, credits much of this not to leaving legacy technology behind but by not conforming to “legacy thinking”. Education has been an important key to their success, and in 2012, they developed a program called ProgeTiiger (“Programming Tiger”) to teach five-year-olds basic coding skills. Estonia is setting the stage for future entrepreneurs, training and supporting ideas every step of the way. No one knows for sure what will emerge next from the Baltic country, but we can rest assured that it’ll be something groundbreaking, something inventive, something ‘New Age’.