Podcast 🎧 and blog: Why did Estonia succeed with its digital transformation

24.02.2021 | Adhele Tuulas

Digitalisation holds a promise of wide-ranging economic and social benefits – from greater efficiency and transparency to more harmonious interactions between the state and its citizens. Estonia is considered to have cracked the code in delivering on this promise, making the country’s experience a compelling case study around the world.

To a great extent, Estonia’s success is a story of luck and timing. But hindsight has allowed the architects of the digital state to extract a blueprint to support digitalisation in other countries. With Linnar Viik, our Programme Director of Smart Governance, we reflect on the components that benefited Estonia’s digital transformation and the mindset that can help any country succeed.


Hindsight perspective on digital success

Photo by Jelena Rudi


There are many angles from which Estonia’s recipe for success could be approached. One of these is looking at the external conditions that directed the country on its digital path. After regaining independence in the 1990s, Estonia started rebuilding its state at the same time that big technological shifts were taking place. Linnar Viik reflects that Estonia was lucky to arrive at the game of digital just in time for the dawn of a new era of tech.

“We started from PC architecture, not mainframe computers. The reason was that we were actually so poor that we could not afford to purchase a mainframe solution,” Viik funnily admits. Yet, this alignment of circumstances ended up creating a technological momentum that favoured development going forward.

While this part of the story may indeed reflect the luck of timing, Estonia’s experience also reveals the basic components that have proven to be at the core of every digital society:

  • Access to technology;
  • Competence to use the technology;
  • Services, based on the available technology and competence.

Successful digitalisation is about strategically combining the application and development of these components within the social context of a given country.


National digital transformation as a social process

Photo by Renee Altrov


Much like any recipe, how you mix the ingredients tends to matter as much as the right ingredients themselves. Digitalisation requires a mindset shift and the careful consideration of local context. “This entails the acceptance of digital transformation as a long-term innovation process, which is unique for every country,” Viik emphasises.

From the one side, this is about the combined efforts of the public and private sector in establishing necessary infrastructure for creating digital services for the people. But the other side – and arguably, the more important one – is the citizenry. The state needs to craft its digital strategy to directly meet the needs of the people. How digital services are adopted in a given society is dependent on factors such as trust and digital skills, which are placed in a wider cultural context.

States may rightly focus on the solutions they want to implement – from digital identity to the provision of online tax services. But in reality, all solutions differ by country in terms of their use, prioritisation, development, and how they are adopted and received by society. According to Linnar Viik all of this unravels through an ongoing social process of debate and refinement, which help states progress to different levels of digital development.


Next big thing?

With a view to the future, the tech world is conditioned to always be on the search and pursuit of “the next big thing”. As such, that has also been the question asked by officials from around the world. But according to Linnar Viik, it is not about the next big thing. “It is about incremental improvements every day – we are a living example that small innovations deliver more, mean more and make a bigger impact than one big thing over a short time period,” he maintains.

When it comes to Estonia’s future ambitions – as captured in our national AI strategy for example – this observation is a case in point. The next step is not about plugging in all planned solutions on one big launch day. Estonia’s vision builds on the culture of innovation that has developed in the country for the past 20 years. All its strategies create a framework within which small steps can be taken to eventually achieve big digital shifts – an approach that is open for adoption by any country looking to digitalise.


Photo on the header by Renee Altrov.