Smart can be Simple: A view from Estonia

The small nation of Estonia has taken giant leaps of faith in using technology to give a new meaning to the phrase 'at the click of a button'

Estonian flag

In mid-February an interesting research was conducted in Estonia, where people were asked about the e-services on offer. Based on this, the most popular e-services in Estonia are e-prescription – where any pharmacy can access a prescription online, with no need for patients to carry a physical copy; online income tax declaration and fee payment toward government services. I would personally add e-school (a fully private service in Estonia) to the list, which allows me to track how my daughter is progressing on a daily basis. The Estonian Foreign Ministry has witnessed the first signs of change as well, with the Embassy of Moldova in Tallinn recently submitting its VAT refund application, digitally signed, and requiring no paper copy. Offering digital signatures and digital authentication that are legally recognised across the EU, Estonia’s e-residency programme that opens e-residency to all foreigners above 18 has also been operational for over two months now. E-residency was also introduced to the Indian audience via few articles in mainstream media and I am pleased to note that we have seen a keen interest for e-residency in India, with many applications already received. We should soon be ready to issue e-residency through our embassy at Delhi, doing away with the need to travel to Estonia for that. You can digitally – and safely – sign documents wherever you are around the globe. This goes a long way in the ease of doing business. Also all other online services are available for e-residents that, for example allow you to establish a company in 13 minutes without leaving your office in Delhi, Mumbai or any other place in the world. As for the freedom to do business we were ranked 8th in the latest Economic Freedom rankings (by the Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal), moving up from the 13th position from a year earlier. The freest economies are still Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia, but Estonia ranked second in Europe, after Switzerland. Thus, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s initiatives to improve India’s Ease of Doing Business ranking are crucial. The Estonian economy is mostly about small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and when they look abroad (including toward India) for opportunities, this is the first criteria they look at. The current discourse around smart cities in India has also shined a light on things like on M2M (machine-to-machine) and the internet of Things (IoT). When compared with e-governance, a fully integrated concept of such things is still in its infancy. What does it all mean and how must it all be coordinated for the greatest synergies? In Estonia too we are trying to figure this out. What is obvious is that this needs a solid, supportive infrastructure and security framework. But does it necessitate or require a central role to be played by the government, as in e-governance, or can the private sector do the needful? Estonia held parliamentary elections last month - in March. In an election, electronic voting takes place a week before Election Day, and I cast my vote. As you might know, Estonia is the only country that has introduced internet voting (all the way back in 2005), where we had taken a leap of faith. About 30.5 percent of votes were cast over the Internet in the latest election. Here I’d like to quote Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, President of the Goethe Institut, and one of the many foreign experts we have consulted over the years about what they think: “A walk to the polling station to me is a much clearer statement of support for democracy than the click of a button. I am convinced, though, that a generation from now – and possibly much earlier – the way we vote today will no longer be standard.” Finally, I want to share some news from Bergen, Norway, where Estonians are currently building the highest fully-timber house in the world, which has 14 floors. You might not know this but Estonia is the largest timber house exporter in Europe. The forest is almost the only natural resource we have. The small but beautiful guard house in front of the Estonian embassy in New Delhi is an Estonian timber house and I hope to see many more in India soon.