Monday, August 12, 2013

What makes Estonia different?

Soon after the collapse of the Berlin wall, the Soviet Union imploded in the early 1990s. In the chaos and power vacuum that followed, a number of Soviet 'satellites' dropped out. Among them were the three tiny Baltic states - Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

Even before the last Soviet troops had pulled out, all three became a part of the European Union in 1994. All three had access to new technology and markets, yet, two decades later, there is only one state in the former Soviet Union that emerged as a sturdy economy and a technology leader  - Estonia.

Estonia transformation is quite fascinating. This country, about the size of Haryana state (~44,000, with a population of just 1.3 million, is now the most "wired" and among the best e-governed countries in the world. One of the best known Estonian products is something that is likely to be on your own toolbar - Skype.

How did Estonia achieve this transformation, in less than two decades?

By all accounts, at the center of the Estonian transformation were two men -- Toomas Hendrik Ilves and Linnar Viik. Not unlike the bullet-train revolution in Japan, this transformation too rested on a tech-savvy political head (Ilves) working closely with a techie with a vision (Viik).

Ilves came from the Estonian equivalent of an NRI family. It had fled the country as soon as USSR took over in the mid-1940s. As a result, Ilves did his schooling in Sweden, and then in USA. Having imbibed a good dose of the Scandinavian work-ethic and having seen the way computers were transforming America, a little nudge from CIA is perhaps all that was needed to take him to a leadership role back home.

However, unlike most US implants (think Karzai), Ilves seems to have been just the right person at the right place and the right time. Soon after he took over as the first president, his focus was on getting the  big picture right. Tariffs were abolished, prices freed, tax made ultra-simple, foreign players were brought in to take over many industries.

Then came in Linnar Viik with his Project Tiigrihüpe ("Tiger Leap"). WiFi hubs came up all over the country. All schools in Estonia were linked up with high-speed networks. Children were encouraged to learn programming when they were 5-6 year's old. in 2000 Viik helped Estonia become the first country in the world to adopt a system of e-governance, changing its cabinet meetings to paperless sessions using a web-based document system, with ministers able to take part from anywhere.

The Tiigrihüpe  logo said it all -- a cheerful, toothy tiger, cheerfully leaping through a boxy computer screen, into the world beyond.
Why is it that India's own 'tigers' are huddled in isolated sanctuaries across the country?




The Guardian (2012): How tiny Estonia stepped out of USSR's shadow to become an internet titan, 15Apr12 --
- Linnar Viik, a lecturer at the Estonian IT College, a government adviser and a man almost synonymous in Estonia with the rise of the web.
- Not bad for country where, two decades ago, half the population had no phone line.
- Why only Estonia? -- the country's ethnic Estonian majority feel Nordic, rather than Slavic or eastern European. In the early 90s, this meant they looked to tech-happy Scandinavia for both inspiration and investment.
- From the early days, government philosophy was not to hire programmers, but to use the services of private companies, which in turn increased the competitiveness of the Estonian IT sector
- Acta, the hugely controversial international agreement that opponents fear will curtail the rights of individual internet users.

* Linnar Viik - Estonia's Internet Guru --
- Blog -

Project Tiigrihüpe ("Tiger Leap") --

* Economist (1999): ESTONIA'S LAST CHALLENGE, 11Mar99 --
- Estonia's first government of radical reformers (average age: around 35) took office in 1992, only to be ousted two years later
- The incoming reformers, by contrast, have their sights set on overhauling the machinery of government.

* Farivar, Cyrus (2011): THE INTERNET OF ELSEWHERE - The Emergent Effects of a Wired World, Rutgers University Press, 2011 ---

* New Yorker (2013): Annals of Technology --

India - States - area-wise:

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