Estonia tech sector further widens e-services scope

The former Soviet nation of Estonia has celebrated its 30-year restoration of independence anniversary in 2021 and has done so with a digitally-empowered economy where government e-services outpace and outshine many (if not most) of its European and international counterparts.


The United States has its established technology hubs. Silicon Valley, Boston and the Raleigh-Durham research triangle are arguably the most recognised centres of IT excellence. But as well-known as those locations are (and notwithstanding the tech big guns in Austin Texas) Utah’s Salt Lake City has quietly become the new darling of the cloud computing scene with its so-called Silicon Slopes district.

With Dubai’s Silicon Oasis technology park blossoming, many of us probably thought we could pin down where the next global IT zone might likely flourish. But then, Israel’s Tel Aviv and Jerusalem have both ridden in with homegrown tech startups over the last half-decade or so. Ready to confound our human IT hub geolocation senses once more, Estonia has emerged as the Baltic tech tiger that we really should have heard about.

So what shape is Estonian IT development in and where are the movers and shakers to be found?

Skype is Estonian

It may surprise some, but Skype was conceived, developed and built in Estonia, by three Estonians, a Swede and a Dane. Although now acquired by Microsoft as of 2011, the Lift99 IT startup ‘shared workspace’ centre in the capital Tallinn proudly displays the Skype logo alongside the nation’s other IT unicorns.

For the record, those other high-value tech unicorns include the Uber-challenging Bolt ride-share and food delivery business, as well as, playtech, wise, pipedrive and Zego.

Although harbouring a small degree of post-Soviet withdrawn reservedness (Estonians joked that Covid-19 social distancing simply wasn’t a problem for them), the country isn’t shy about promoting its digital prowess. The umbrella brand Enterprise Estonia encompasses Invest in Estonia, Trade with Estonia, e-Estonia, e-residency and Visit Estonia.

But what had given Estonia the impetus to build its nation of digital natives and cloud converts? Ask most Estonians and they’ll tell you it’s because, when Soviet rule did end, independence was pretty much all they had. Blessed with a legacy of educated individuals hardened by a few Baltic winters, Estonia was light on natural resources and commerce structures, so it turned to the digital ones it could cultivate for shorter and longer-term sustenance.

Six-wheeler food robots

Many of Estonia’s IT innovations are manifesting themselves at the consumer level. There are autonomous people-carrying vehicles, cybersecurity protection specialists and there’s the Starship six-wheeler food and package delivery drones. But as headline-grabbing as all-terrain shopping robot drones are, it is the rollout of government e-services that the country has become best known for. So how has Estonia done what it has done and where will it go next?

"We want to bring governmental digital services to the next experience level in our already highly connected society here. So this means individuals being able to interact with their government through a variety of interfaces via virtual assistants. We understand that users may be on their laptop, but equally they might be using a smartphone or perhaps a kiosk terminal of some form, or some type of connected intelligent machine, perhaps even a smart home appliance,” explained Siim Sikkut, government chief information officer (GCIO), Estonia.

Sikkut underlines this ambition by saying that e-Estonia wants users to be able to interact with the government using voice as the most common and most natural interface on whatever is their commonly used device.

"But we do understand that users express intent very differently when using voice compared to typed written commands, so we will need to engineer an appropriate level of enterprise search capability into the way we build our platforms going forwards. This is one place where we are actually bringing our government digital stack to the next level and are open for any and all partnerships, offering our government also as a testbed for trying such solutions out on country-wide level,” added Sikkut.

Share with the group?

As a template for e-success that other nations might use to develop their own digital society initiatives, Estonia has shared its so-called ‘pathfinder’ initiatives with some 60+ other nations. President Kersti Kaljulaid used an international technology press briefing this summer to explain what impact that has had on the job market.

Note: Kaljulaid’s presidency has given way to the newly appointed Alar Karis since the time of writing.

Kaljulaid and team note that where public sector jobs have been digitised and automated, in ‘most situations’ those employees have been snapped up with the private sector. With a population of just 1.3 million, professional service skills are in enough demand to keep the job market afloat whatever shape it takes.

“The French managed to liberalise their labour market to a degree and start some digitalisation efforts in an orderly, systematically prudent way. When previous Prime Minister Édouard Philippe made his first ever international visit – it was to Estonia and I think it wasn’t unintentional. He went back to the French parliament and promised the French people a cheaper and more efficient public sector. When people said ‘this cannot be done’ he said ‘but there’s Estonia!’ as a working example,” said a spokesperson for president Kaljulaid’s official office.

The shape of the digital nation

Looking around the candy store of digital services on offer in Estonia, the nation’s tech evangelists like to point out that it takes just hours (around three) to open a business in the country. Around 99% of patients have digital health records and almost 50% of Estonians used the country’s i-Voting system during the last European Parliament election.

Deeper into its e-services fabric, Estonia has mobile m-parking for car drivers, e-school services to connect parents, teachers and students, it has an e-land registry service, an e-police system to empower connected patrol cars and you can buy a bus ticket with a phone call to connect your national ID card to your fare payments.

At a lower level, underpinning and interconnecting all of the above is the country’s X-Road integration technology. This branded IT product is described as the backbone of e-Estonia and is a centrally managed distributed data exchange layer that works in between information systems.

Prime Minister of Estonia Kaja Kallas supports the themes discussed here wholeheartedly. Described in other media as ‘unstuffy’ and capable of answering questions in English ‘more fluently than Boris Johnson’ at the House of Commons despatch box.

Whereas Johnson is known for his arcane obscurities and occasional lapses into Latin, Kallas is fond of telling people what’s functional, what works and what is (one of her favoured terms) just ‘cool’. Kallas welcomed the same delegation of international tech press as the president during Estonia’s recent ‘Digitally Wild’ e-services showcase and tour, which took in various sites and organisations across the capital Tallinn.

Government gamification

A trained lawyer and former member of the European Parliament, Kallas is savvy enough to know how people actually react to technology in the street.

The country operates incentivisation schemes for people to carry out tax services, apply for driving licences and engage with other state-run services. Non-digital individuals can go to an office and queue up, but it generally takes longer and costs more. So is this the gamification of government services?

Kallas cites a book called ‘Why Grow Up?’ written by Susan Neiman and suggests that nobody should actually be able to decide what aspects of our adult life should be subject to traditionally ‘grown up’ behaviour. She says that if people have a positive experience with any aspect of life, then it’s generally always a good thing.

“I'm a strong believer that you should always strengthen your strengths rather than overcome your weaknesses - because your weaknesses will always be your weaknesses and somebody is always better than you, but your strength can be something that (if you build upon it) could make you number one in the world,” said Kallas.

Agreeing that we could call it a form of gamification if we want to, Kallas says that Neiman’s book offers a futurologist’s view of the way the world changes. She insists that very often we can envisage the way technology will develop, but not how we as humans will use it. For her, if any given technology enables an individual to live their life productively and happily and be able to ‘talk to their country’ (another one of her favoured humanising terms) about national services in an effective manner, that’s a strength and another good thing.

For Estonian IT to attract bigger hitter status in the face of the Silicon Valley behemoths it may need to start hosting some form of wider annual tech startup convention or symposium of some kind. Or, equally, the country may decide to continue its home-grown development focus for the foreseeable and act as its own Proof of Concept (PoC) showcase.

Either way, in the post-Covid era of no In Real Life (IRL) meetings, Tallinn’s tech zone was first back to the table, with appropriate levels of PCR tests and paperwork throughout. As they say in Estonian, terviseks!