Estonia: From Soviet Rule to Digital Leadership (Esloania Study Tour Part 2)

Do you know where Estonia is on the map? Honestly before this study tour, I sure didn’t. And If I didn’t know where the country was, you can bet that I didn’t know about the digital revolution that defined the past two decades of Estonia’s growth.

A Baltic country which gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Estonia’s back was truly against the wall. Resource constrained and counted out, Estonia sought to digitally transform their society, not because of innovation for innovation’s sake, but through necessity. Freshly liberated, the country saw its development as a blank canvas to invest in an efficient, secure, and transparent information technology ecosystem that saves time and money.

Cobblestone Streets of Tallinn’s Old Town

Today, every Estonian has a state issued digital identity, and can conduct their healthcare, voting, tax filing, and many more social services entirely online. Currently, their government strategically utilizes blockchain into their digital infrastructure for the essential use case of increasing cybersecurity. Their vision is to become a secure e-state, coined e-Estonia, with automatic services available 24/7.

Our first meeting in Estonia was with a series of government officials that included Kristo Vaher, CTO for Estonia and Head of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, and Sandra Sarav, the Global Affairs Director in the Estonian Government CIO Office and Counsellor for EU Digital Affairs. They were as excited as we were to meet them, and we are so appreciative that they made time in their schedules for us!

Personally, those meetings for me were inspiring. We learned about Estonia’s organizational structure between their government ministries and IT, as well as their frequent usage of consortiums between academics, and the private and public sector. These collaborations all shared a common theme, development with efficiency and a shared vision. It was refreshing and hopeful. Their philosophy with the private sector was so apparent when I heard this quote from them – “don’t reinvent the wheel, if someone else knows how to do it better.”

It was revelatory to watch one of their government officials take out their e-Estonia ID card, push it into a card reader built into their laptop, and literally in seconds bring up the digital representation of their citizenship centralized on one platform. A task that through experience, might take me days to successfully accomplish as a U.S. citizen, and would be fragmented across various sources.

Visit to Estonian Government

In the following days, we would also meet with two companies that provide the “plumbing” behind e-Estonia’s digital infrastructure.

Guardtime: The company that built e-Estonia’s blockchain backbone to help them manage the security and integrity of government records, networks, and systems.

Cybernetica: Who developed most of the critical e-government components for Estonia including, the secure data exchange platform X-Road, for Estonian personal data, internet voting software, and piloted the Estonian ID-card.

Cybernetica Presentation

After getting to know the “plumbing” behind all of the data transfer for e-Estonia, I was impressed by their grounded view of blockchain, used as a security component, and not the silver bullet that the hype would suggest. Also I was comforted to see that there doesn’t need to be a tradeoff between personal data privacy and technology development.

As much as I would like, I’m not sure that the U.S. has the same factors that catalyzed Estonia’s digital transformation, but Estonia’s blueprint is worth following. I hope to leverage the same lessons in partnership between private and public sector in my future career. The future of nations is digital, and e-Estonia is leading the way.

Additionally, our week in Estonia was full of charming activities. We had many hearty meals in medieval halls in Tallinn’s Old Town. There were polar plunges in the Baltic Sea and hot Finnish saunas. We also trekked across Lahemaa national park and explored the natural landscape of Estonia!

As we wound the trip down, Esloania’s four unbelievable student organizers: Sonal Singh, Aditi Shankar, Shaurya Agarwal, and Dickson Li, as well as Chanh Phan, our Sloan student life advisor, deserve a huge shout out. They planned a trip that surpassed my loftiest expectations. They curated a fulfilling schedule of companies and activities that was run as reliably as a Swiss watch! I was always told how powerful the MIT brand was, and they leveraged it to secure meetings with companies that rolled out the red carpet for us. I am so privileged to be a part of this study tour, because I firmly believe an experience like this was made possible because of MIT, through its students, the faculty, the institution, and its culture.

Medieval Style Meal at Olde Hansa

This was an unforgettable two weeks. Partying in the Alps, wandering medieval cobblestone streets, and the long dinners talking about technology, philosophy, ambition, and family.

What will I remember the most? Append only logs with consensus amongst multiple parties on a shared ledger. And the Esloanian crew that I have developed a lifelong bond with, that all started from a common drive to understand innovation, which is so emblematic of the MIT Sloan experience.

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