The capital of Estonia serves as a “smart city role model”, drawing the entire country in its wake. The success of its digital transformation rests on three pillars: accessibility, interoperability, and user-friendliness.
History and geography could have conspired to hold Estonia back in its move to digital. But they turned out to be advantages. Forced to reinvent itself after leaving the Soviet bloc in 1991, the small country with a population of just over 1.3 million and an area the size of the Rhône-Alpes Region in France is currently one of the world top digital performers, with 85 % of the population connected to broadband, 100 % of medical prescriptions provided online, all schools connected, and 30 % of Estonians voting electronically.
But beyond the figures, what is particularly noticeable is the way in which Estonia has designed and carried out its digital transition, with its capital, Tallinn – home to over one-third of the country’s population – leading the way.
The winning formula can be stated in three words: accessibility, interoperability, and user-friendliness. The common denominator is the user. The user is the true decision-maker and the artisan of the successful transition, because technology only exists if it is adopted by everyone. Toomas Sepp, Town Clerk and administrative manager of the Tallinn City Office, confirms that it “is important to ensure the citizens are both ready and prepared to use it.” (1)
To achieve this objective, Tallinn and, in its wake, Estonia as a whole, worked to introduce the necessary infrastructure, first (as a priority) in schools and then in administrations and households, all of which, rural and urban, were to have a 100 Mb/s connection by 2015. The focus was also on mobility, with a large number of Wifi hotspots set up in all public spaces.
The rollout was carefully supported by activities designed to help users take the tools and their environment on board. Education was first undertaken in schools, where connected computers were rapidly installed. At age seven, students were given a training programme, not to teach them how to code in order to make them all into coders but to teach them, more intelligently, how the code and algorithms work, as an introduction to digital culture.
Civil servants received introductory training in “design thinking” to enable them to design content and interfaces that genuinely meet user expectations and needs.
The training programme was also designed for top leaders. Today, in Tallinn, the Council of Ministers prides itself on being the world’s first “paperless cabinet”. Senior civil servants in the capital were given an introduction to design thinking to enable them and their departments to design content and interfaces that genuinely meet user expectations and needs.
User-friendliness was identified as a major goal in the adoption of digital technologies. The digital identity card has become the familiar key to the digitalised world. Currently 98 % of the citizens have it. Together with their PIN (Personal Identification Number) code, the card is used to authenticate and sign all types of transactions (bank, retail, and transport) and procedures. Only three types of document are excluded from e-signature: marriage, divorce, and real estate loans.
Motorists in Tallinn who are stopped by a traffic police officer do not need to pull out their driver’s license: the electronic identification suffices to give the police access to all documents. Such smooth services, which are likewise to be found in such areas as healthcare, was one reason why Estonians adopted the digital technologies.
Smooth services are made possible by close cooperation between the public and private sectors, and by a policy that is resolutely geared to open data and interoperability. In 2001, the government introduced the X-Road programme to facilitate communication between the administration’s various open databases. When a data point is created, for example when a birth is registered, it is automatically sent to all social and health departments, etc. This interconnection of databases and the resulting sharing of private data was made possible by a citizen contract based on trust.
In Tallinn, an unabashed smart city, transparency, data security and strict privacy protection are organised and covered by legislation.