FUTURE PROOF: World's most advanced digital society

THE importance of being digitally-enabled and Internet-savvy became painfully clear to everyone around the world when the Covid-19 pandemic forced almost all countries to enter into some kind of lockdown.

Suddenly, everyone became homebound with businesses, schools and government agencies shutting down during the height of the crisis.

Many workers scrambled to learn how to use Zoom and other collaboration apps in order to work effectively from home.

Housewives had to learn to order groceries through the Internet or mobile apps. Kids had to study via e-learning. And any dealings you had with the government, well, you had to try to get it done online, which isn't always the easiest thing.

It's safe to say it's been a struggle for all concerned, as societies around the world coped with doing things digitally and remotely.

One country that had no problem at all doing almost everything online was Estonia, a tiny nation of 1.3 million people, which is without question, the most advanced digital society in the world.

Long before Covid-19, Estonia had already gone fully digital, providing government services, schooling, voting and healthcare online.

Like many other countries, in March, Estonia shut its borders and imposed a lockdown to try to curb the spread of the virus.

But unlike other countries, there was virtually no disruption to daily life because everything was already Internet-enabled and its citizens were all used to doing everything online.

During the lockdown, some 99 per cent of government service remained available online.

Whether you wanted to register a business or apply for social welfare benefits, you could do it online. Digital health records and e-prescription services freed up the front-liners like doctors and nurses to treat those who were infected.

The government continued its business as usual. Even before the lockdown, the Cabinet was able to hold digital meetings.

In Estonia, even voting is done online. In the 2019 parliamentary elections, some 43.8 per cent of the votes were cast electronically.

E-schooling? No problem. Since 2015, the country had decided to digitise all its education materials and the teachers there are all trained in digital education.

Once the lockdown began, schools lent computers and tablets to those students who didn't have such equipment. Connectivity was not a problem as free Wi-Fi was available throughout the country.

The transition to e-learning was also seamless for tertiary education. Once lockdown began, the University of Tartu, the biggest and most prestigious university in Estonia, was able to activate remote teaching within a day.

Indeed, Estonia could be a good benchmark and reference point for countries wanting to create a more digitally-advanced society. But this transformation didn't happen overnight in Estonia. It's worth looking at how they progressed through the years.


The country gained independence in 1991, following the breakup of the Soviet Union.

From the start, its leaders decided that IT would be the key to the country's success. In 1994, the first draft of Principles of Estonian Information Policy was created. This was basically the strategic outline for IT development in that country.

However, it was only in 1996 that the country's digital transformation began in earnest, with the help of Tiger Leap Foundation, a government-backed investment body, which initiated the development of a nationwide IT infrastructure.

One of its first projects was to bridge the digital divide by providing free computer training to adults.

Meanwhile, kids were taught basic computer programming in schools as early as the age of seven.

In 2000, Estonia introduced online tax declaration. Today, declaring taxes online takes only a few minutes and about 98 per cent of the population declare their income electronically.

It was also that year that a mobile parking system was introduced and today, some 90 per cent of parking fees are paid via mobile phones.

Just a year later, in 2001, Estonia developed a data-exchange platform called "X Road", which enables state organisations and businesses to exchange and store data securely.

Estonians don't have to re-enter data when using public e-services, such as filing their taxes, as most of the information is already in the database.

Thanks to X Road, today some 99 per cent of all public services in Estonia are accessible online around the clock.

By 2002, Estonia had emerged with a digital ID system that allows its citizens to securely verify themselves when using public and private e-services.

Estonians use this digital ID system to pay taxes, do their banking and access their health records online.

Online voting became a possibility by 2005 when Estonia became the first country in the world to adopt online voting for local and general elections.

But being such a highly digitised society has its risks. In 2007, the country experienced a massive cyber-attack that affected banks, telecommunications networks and public services.

The government responded with a concerted effort to enhance IT security. As a result the country is now a leader in cybersecurity.

Estonia is currently home to both the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence and the European Union's IT Agency.


In 2008, the country created a nationwide system that integrated data from all the healthcare providers in the country.

Two years later, in 2010, an e-prescription system aimed at reducing paperwork for prescription drugs was launched. Today, 99 per cent of medical prescriptions there are handled online.

One of the country's most ambitious projects is its e-Residency programme, launched in 2014.

It's a unique initiative that allows people from anywhere around the world to start businesses in Estonia without having to step foot in the country.

The attraction of this programme is it can serve as a launching pad for companies looking to do business with the European Union.

To date, more than 50,000 entrepreneurs from around the world have applied for e-Residency.

With everything operating online, the country had to come up with a way of ensuring digital continuity should another massive cyber-attack, like the one in 2007, happen again.

It created the world's first "data embassy" outside the country, in Luxembourg, where the nation's critical databases are backed up in a high-security data centre.

The benefits of such massive digitisation are obvious: Cost savings and efficiency. But there's also another benefit. It helps to eliminate graft. "You cannot bribe a computer," Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Estonia's president from 2006 and 2016, was fond of saying.

Estonia has shown the rest of the world just how digitally-enabled a society can become. But achieving this requires many factors to come together.

In Estonia, the government, the private sector, the academic institutions, the health sector and crucially, the citizens of that country, all cooperated to make the digital transformation work.

Any country that wants to achieve a similar transformation would need to get these factors to work together too. It can't be just a government effort.

Source: New Straits Times

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