Estonia built one of the world’s most advanced digital societies. During COVID-19, that became a lifeline

estonia prime minister

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Jana Silaškova, e-Governance Project Manager , Estonian Association of Information Technology And Telecommunications (ITL) & Masao Takahashi, Head of Institutional Membership; Member of Executive Committee, World Economic Forum


  • Estonia built one of the world’s most advanced digital society long before the COVID-19 pandemic, providing services such as electronic voting, online learning in schools, digital bureaucracy and healthcare.
  • When the coronavirus crisis struck, this investment paid off as Estonia’s digital public services continued mostly uninterrupted.
  • Public-private partnership and trust in public institutions are the secret of Estonia’s success. Citizens embraced the digital revolution because it was transparent, fair and to the benefit of all.

In early March, Estonia declared a state of emergency, closed its borders and entered a full lockdown to stop the spread of COVID-19. But while other countries scrambled to deal with school closures and the disruption to vital services, Estonia simply continued to use the thriving, resilient digital infrastructure it had spent decades developing. Digital classrooms, online teaching materials and a huge range of online public services were already in place. Even more crucially, Estonians knew how to access and use them.

The small Baltic country has built one of the world’s most advanced digital societies. In the coronavirus crisis, this has turned out to be a life-saver. Some public services continued as before, because they were already online. Others were quickly adapted to the new situation.

Estonia’s success is about much more than technological innovation. At the heart of its transformation lies trust in public institutions, and a belief among Estonian citizens that everyone will reap the rewards of technological progress. Such broad support has led to a digital revolution that holds lessons for countries everywhere, and offers inspiration for re-thinking public services for a more resilient future.

E-governance to the rescue

During the lockdown, 99% of government services remained available online in Estonia. Online options already existed for everyday procedures such as registering businesses and properties and applying for social benefits. Certain benefits such as family benefits are even triggered automatically by events such as the birth of a child and its registration.

Image: Government ICT

Digital health records and e-prescription services freed up Estonian doctors, nurses and administrators for the fight against the pandemic. Strong public-private partnership have facilitated contactless options in everyday life, including at border crossings.

Such seamless online services are possible because Estonia has pioneered the use of digital identity. Official decisions are confirmed with a digital stamp, and individuals can sign with digital signatures. These digital versions are equal to physical stamps or signatures under Estonian law.

Estonia’s government has enthusiastically embraced digital life. Even before the crisis, the cabinet was able to hold digital meetings, with members using their electronic identity to attend. In the 2019 parliamentary elections, voters cast 43.8% of votes electronically. During lockdown, the government organized a global online hackathon, asking people to tackle COVID-linked problems. The results included an automated service for pandemic-related questions, and a platform that matched volunteers with people needing practical help.

 

Virtual classrooms

In Estonia, 87% of schools were already using e-solutions before the crisis. Estonian teachers are trained in digital education and internet safety. The country set itself the goal of digitizing all its educational materials as early as 2015. It came first in Europe in the 2018 PISA test, which measures teenagers’ educational achievements around the world, and attributed that success partly to its digital strategy. Wireless internet access is available almost everywhere in Estonia, and almost always free. Along with seven other Nordic countries, Estonia provided free digital education tools to support other education systems during the COVID-19 crisis.

At the start of lockdown, schools lent computers and tablets to students so they could access their virtual classrooms from home. Many IT companies and private individuals also donated second-hand devices to pupils.

This is in stark contrast to many other countries around the world, which frantically tried to switch to digital education after schools and universities shut down. In England, a study found that four in ten pupils were not in regular contact with their teachers during the closures, raising fears that millions of children were falling behind in their learning. In the U.S., many children in public schools were also missing out on education. These educational gaps could have far-reaching social and economic consequences, making Estonia’s example all the more urgent.

Estonia’s digital resilience extends to higher education. When the world went into lockdown, the University of Tartu in Estonia switched to remote teaching in just one day, because all the digital technology and materials were already in place.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

The World Economic Forum was the first to draw the world’s attention to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the current period of unprecedented change driven by rapid technological advances. Policies, norms and regulations have not been able to keep up with the pace of innovation, creating a growing need to fill this gap.

The Forum established the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network in 2017 to ensure that new and emerging technologies will help—not harm—humanity in the future. Headquartered in San Francisco, the network launched centres in China, India and Japan in 2018 and is rapidly establishing locally-run Affiliate Centres in many countries around the world.

The global network is working closely with partners from government, business, academia and civil society to co-design and pilot agile frameworks for governing new and emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous vehicles, blockchain, data policy, digital trade, drones, internet of things (IoT), precision medicine and environmental innovations.

Learn more about the groundbreaking work that the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network is doing to prepare us for the future.

Want to help us shape the Fourth Industrial Revolution? Contact us to find out how you can become a member or partner.

Building trust

Countries all over the world have been rushing to emulate this digital strategy. But Estonia’s digital success didn’t happen overnight. It was the result of decades of investment and experimentation, and is about much more than technology. The key ingredient is trust. Estonians trusted their government to build a digital system that would serve and protect all of them.

Marten Kaevats, the National Digital Advisor, recalls the early days of the country’s digital transformation in the 1990s, when Estonia’s independence had only recently been restored. At the time, digitization was not just about technological and economic progress. It was also about building a vibrant democracy:

“When we started to build a digital society back in 1995, the aim was to create a society with more transparency, trust and efficiency,” he says. “In this process, with every step of the way, our citizens came to value the services and saw they were secure and efficient. This was a key element to ensure wide uptake of all government-provided online services.”

Privacy is enshrined in a number of laws and regulations. Estonian citizens own their personal data, including health data, and can check online who has looked at it. Public officials cannot look at or use this data without reasonable justification. Citizens can also block access to their health data.

Public data collection follows an “only once” principle: officials ask for each piece of information, such as a change of address, only once. Other public authorities then retrieve this information from a central registry, without having to approach the person again. This is particularly useful when it comes to benefits, as it means people don’t have to fill in the same applications repeatedly.

Image: World Economic Forum

A digital stepping stone

Digitization was never a goal in itself, but a tool to make life simpler and better for all Estonians. This required putting in place laws to ensure its beneficial use, and it also required a steady political will. As Doris Põld, an Estonian ICT Cluster Manager, says: “Digital-minded leadership that makes digitalization a priority is essential”.

In the current crisis, trust and foresight have paid off. Estonia’s success is often presented as a groundbreaking digital project. But it is really about a shared vision, inclusiveness, fairness and respect for individual rights. These values are at the core of Estonia’s social contract, and also form the basis of our public-private partnerships. They will endure far beyond this crisis, and help us all build the more resilient societies of the future.

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