Estonia shares secrets of its tech success

Estonian Vice-President Taavi Roivas says in transforming the country into a digitally advanced nation, the government put in a lot of effort to teach people to go online and was helped by technological advances.
Estonian Vice-President Taavi Roivas says in transforming the country into a digitally advanced nation, the government put in a lot of effort to teach people to go online and was helped by technological advances.

Estonia may be known as the digital leader of Europe, but the secret of its success is not necessarily cutting-edge innovation.

Take its lauded national digital identity system, which allows citizens to access a wide range of services, including banking, e-prescriptions and even voting in an election.

Estonia did not invent this system but took it further, said Estonian Vice-President Taavi Roivas, who is here to promote business cooperation.

"We took it from the Finnish experience. The Finns didn't use it so much... We took the Finnish solution and developed it further," he told The Straits Times in an interview.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had cited Estonia's digital identity system as a role model, noting that Singapore's SingPass system is not as extensive.

Mr Roivas said Singapore, too, can adopt best practices from elsewhere and go further with them.

"We shouldn't be afraid of copying something or taking something that is already there," he said, adding that the Estonian government and firms are happy to share their experiences.

Asked how the country of 1.3 million people has transformed itself into a digitally advanced nation, Mr Roivas said the government put in a lot of effort to teach people to go online and was helped by technological advances. Many find it easier to use smartphones than computers.

When Estonia introduced its digital identity system around 2002, only a few thousand people used it to access services online, said Mr Roivas.

A critical mass was reached around 2005 and 2006, when banks, seeing that the digital identity system was more secure than conventional Internet banking, started to require customers to use their electronic identity for transactions involving more than €200 (S$323).

Today, accessing services online has become a way of life. The use of technology has led to greater convenience and transparency, he said, quoting the saying, "You can't bribe a computer".

The greater efficiency also helps Estonia to save an estimated 2 per cent of its gross domestic product a year.

"The biggest saving is actually time," said Mr Roivas. While he is in South-east Asia for 10 days, he can sign off on documents electronically and does not have to wait until he returns to Estonia.

The country, which borders the Baltic Sea, has made waves for offering e-residency services to non-residents. Such virtual residents can register businesses and access services, such as banking, without being in Estonia.

The service has drawn more than 25,000 applicants from around the world since it was launched in 2014, including 93 from Singapore.

Estonia has also made a mark in cyber security. It hosts the Nato Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence and advises other states in this area.

Its expertise was forged out of necessity - in 2007, it faced society-wide cyber attacks following a controversy over the relocation of a Soviet-era statue of a soldier.

"We managed to defend ourselves and it gave us a valuable lesson on how to do it better and how to be ready for all sorts of attacks," the Vice-President said.

Despite taking cyber security very seriously, Estonia spends relatively little on it compared with bigger states, said Mr Roivas. "One of the secrets behind the success of the Estonia government is that we do things very effectively."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 20, 2017, with the headline 'Estonia shares secrets of its tech success'. Print Edition | Subscribe