Is Estonia Leading the Way to the Future Digital World?

Lucas Vallecillos / VWPics via AP Images

Although you might not be able to find Estonia on a map, physical locations are less important in this country’s vision of the future. For The New Yorker, Nathan Heller visits this small Baltic nation to see how they’re transforming themselves into a borderless digital society.

Health records, banking information, student and car and voting registration, police reports, court cases ─ they’re all linked across digital platforms. To reduce breaches, the information is held locally, but a government-owned platform ultimately links data, even to other countries who use the platform. The goal isn’t to simply improve efficiency, it’s to save money and encourage business that will generate money. Having a porous digital society that uses a remote model attracts investors and entrepreneurs to Estonia, both physically and as e-residents. Heller’s story starts with Taavi Kotka, the chief information officer who helped roll out the e-Estonia project. As they spoke, a robot mowed Kotka’s lawn. “Everything here is robots,” Kotka told Heller. “Robots here, robots there.” But digitization has less to do with automation than it does with embracing the transient nature of labor in the European marketplace.

“I am President to a digital society,” she declared in her address. The leaders of Europe were arrayed in folding chairs, with Angela Merkel, in front, slumped wearily in a red leather jacket. “Simple people suffer in the hands of heavy bureaucracies,” Kaljulaid told them. “We must go for inclusiveness, not high end. And we must go for reliability, not complex.”

Kaljulaid urged the leaders to consider a transient population. Theresa May had told her people, after Brexit, “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” With May in the audience, Kaljulaid staked out the opposite view. “Our citizens will be global soon,” she said. “We have to fly like bees from flower to flower to gather those taxes from citizens working in the morning in France, in the evening in the U.K., living half a year in Estonia and then going to Australia.” Citizens had to remain connected, she said, as the French President, Emmanuel Macron, began nodding vigorously and whispering to an associate. When Kaljulaid finished, Merkel came up to the podium.

“You’re so much further than we are,” she said. Later, the E.U. member states announced an agreement to work toward digital government and, as the Estonian Prime Minister put it in a statement, “rethink our entire labor market.”

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