Hundreds of busts were lined up on the wall of Kumu, the Art Museum of Estonia. You could easily tell the Russians from the Scandinavians, the 60s from the Middle Age, the proletarian from the elites. The Estonian still remembers the tears and blood from its history, one that is filled with occupation: it was occupied by almost every neighboring nation at some point, hardpressed by malicious foreign powers. It became the independent country that we were walking in only in 1991. One could say that Estonia got rid of the shackle of social and ideological conflicts much later than the likes of Singapore, yet within 30 years, it has become the beacon in digital governance and innovation. Does it have a secret sauce that could also work in aspiring players late to the digital party?
One might argue that Estonia has a later-mover advantage, as it was among the last countries that obtained independence and solidified its digital leadership afterwards. However, simply starting late at an advantageous position does not keep one a leader after 2 decades.
In fact, the path to a digital society was an uphill battle. In 2007, a cyber-attack paralyzed numerous government and corporate websites in Estonia including those of the Estonian Parliament and Ministries. It caused severe disruption to economic activities and public services in Estonia.
Resilient to the cyber threat, Estonia quickly recovered and continued taking the leadership in cybersecurity in Europe. Since 2004, it has been driving the establishment of an international cyber security defense center. After the cyber-attack, the negotiation regarding the formation of the center formally started among potential partnering countries. The NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence was eventually set up in 2008. In addition, as a direct response to the cyber-attack, Estonia started testing ways to back up data overseas to safeguard digital services against future attacks. It tested storing data at private data centers with Microsoft and explored the concept of sovereign data embassies in foreign countries. Its first data embassy was planned to open in Luxembourg in 2018.
On a side note, through a chat with friends that we made in Estonia, I guessed another reason for Estonia to contend in the digital arena. Fond of the nature, Estonians cover most of their homeland with greenery. With no intention to that, Estonians might have to figure out an unconventional path that circumvents the industrialization stage and find a source of growth that requires negligible land and natural resources. With the additional supporting high-end manufacturing sector, Singapore might have even better soil for its own digital strategy.