Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Estonia:You barely spend time being a citizen

I’d been evangelizing Estonia for so long, I almost forgot how impressive the story was for me when I heard it the first few times.

I was reminded, however, when I saw the beauty of the story through the eyes of my parents, my sister, and her boyfriend.  They were en route to St. Petersburg and Lithuania (from whence my paternal grandfather emigrated), but had heard me badger them about Estonia so much that they decided to make a stop and visit the E-Estonia showroom in Tallinn.

Simply put, They. Were. In. Awe.

Our presenter, Indrek Onnik (shout out to the Managing Director, Anna Pipperal and the coordinator Teele Jarvelill) blew us away with a ton of amazing facts, including:
  •  Average time to pay taxes....4 minutes. That’s right. 4 minutes
  • Gov't expenditures reduced by equivalent of 2% of GDP thanks to all digital signatures
  • ·Average time to set up a new business in Estonia: 18 minutes
  • ·When it’s time for your license to get renewed, you get an SMS with a  link. You go online…CAN CHANGE YOUR PICTURE IF YOU WANT…and then renew it, in seconds.
  • If the police (or anyone) does a search of your personal information..you know about it and, if you are curious about why it happened, you can inquire.
  • You can vote online.
  • You can pay your taxes online and have your refund within the same week.

The only 3 things you can’t do online? Get married, get divorced, or sell your house. They need you show up in person so that they know you aren’t being coerced.

The land registry is online.

In fact, the country has something called “a Data Embassy,” which is a real-time back up of all the information about the entire country in a secure facility outside of Estonia?

In case the Russians invade again. Essentially, the whole country is backed up to the cloud. Seriously.

By their estimates, the citizens of Estonia have gotten back 2 whole weeks of time from bureaucratic nonsense that they can devote to more productive things.

As the CEO of Jobbatical, Karoli Hindricks, said: “You barely spend time in being a citizen.”

The Estonian tax authority is the most efficient and effective tax collection service in the entire world.

I could go on and on, but suffice it to say, it’s light years ahead of what the US or, heck any country can actually provide.

Oh…and it’s all mobile-friendly/mobile-enabled.

They have some guiding principles that will run near and dear to the heart of any technologist:

  • No legacy systems…technology is refreshed every 13 years, at a maximum
  • The country is “digital by default”
  • User-friendliness
  • Omni-channel
  • 24/7
  • open standards
  • single point of entry
  •  “once only”…you don’t give your information to more than one place.
It’s hard to explain to the average American what’s going on here because the paradigm is so radically different to what you are used to.
Just take a look at this page and get a feel for some of the services that Estonia provides digitally in a secure way (you’ll have to take my word for it, but NATO’s cyber defense command is here for a reason).

In some respects, this is the essence of Estonia’s challenge. It’s not a technology challenge. As Andres Kutt, the lead architect for the Information Systems Authority said (video), "we've solved the issues of breaking down silos.” 

Estonia has a marketing challenge.

It’s the single most advanced digital country in the world and not enough people know about it or appreciate the epic achievement that it represents.

Taking e-Estonia to the world
To its credit, the country isn’t resting on its laurels. The e-residency programme which has 12,000 members (of which I am) represents an effort to do a few things.

·       Create a trusted digital identity that can be accepted worldwide. After all, when you become an e-resident, Estonia has certified that you are who you say you are.
·       Make Estonia the preferred based for anyone wishing to do business with low hassle in the EU
·       Generate tax revenue and jobs in Estonia
·       Create a community of pro-Estonia ambassadors with a vested interest in the country’s success…which could be critical in the event of a national defense scenario

So, they are leveraging (or attempting to) all of this infrastructure for economic growth, increased social trust, and national defense.  How’s that for a trifecta?

I was joined on this trip by a friend of mine, Heikki Nakkari, a Finnish national with whom I attended the International University of Japan and hadn’t seen in 20 years. His perspective was invaluable as much of the inspiration for the Estonian e-miracle (as I have just coined it!) came from Finland.

The only thing is…Estonia did it better than the Finns did!

Our next two stops were Jobbatical and Teleport, both companies that represent Estonia’s new view of the world.

You see, Estonia has about 1.3 million people, so when the wall fell and the Soviet Union fell apart, they quickly realized that there was NO way they would be able to prosper as a country without looking outwards. 

So, a borderless world with open trade was the way to go.

Jobbatical and Teleport (founded by Sten Tamkivi, one of the early people at Skype) are both founded on the premise that talent is-and should be-mobile. 

Jobbatical seeks to connect talented people looking for international work experience with companies looking to bring in international talent.  Say, for example, you’re a developer or a marketer who wants to work in SE Asia…not for a few years, but for a year. They’ll connect you.

Meanwhile, Teleport approaches the same issue from a slightly different angle.

They are saying, “ok, you’re a talented developer or marketer or whatever, given the things you care about…other people like you, or parks, or cost of living, where in the world SHOULD you work?”

In a world of inter-connectivity, locations compete for talent and the very idea of a nation-state is up for challenge.

If you think about it, Estonia is preparing for this.

Essentially, they are saying: “how can we scale to have 10 million people invested in our economy without actually having 10 million people living here?” 

It’s genius, if you ask me.

There was a great slide in the e-Residency program presentation by Ott Vatter, the head of Product and Partnerships, showed Estonian e-Residency as an equal to Uber and AirBNB…a corporation that doesn’t have physical inventory but adds incredible value.   

To me, that is spot on.

It’s getting late and I’ve got a full day of more meetings in Estonia tomorrow and there’s SO much more to discuss and pontificate on including:
  • ·       The 80-20 rule to software development. In short, they are agile developers who take a lot of “little bets.”
  • ·       The tolerance for government-led innovation in Estonia based on a strong track record of performance and delivering
  • ·       software as a liability
  • ·       government info systems as innovation driver-an extension beyond the traditional two of only land and people
  • ·       the potential pitfalls of e-Residency
  • ·       Estonia as e-Narnia

Our last meeting was with Erik and Kaspar, the co-founders of the EResNetwork, the premier community for e-Residents worldwide.

These guys are very much the face of Estonian innovation, recognizing that the power of a diverse e-Residency network is going to be a good thing for their country and, possibly, the world.

That positive attitude and optimism was something we encountered time and time again.

You hear about what happens when government is truly an enabler of business and doesn’t get in the way of civil society.

In Estonia, you get to see it firsthand.  It’s pretty impressive.

More to come.

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