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Article November 6th, 2018

by Nortal

How Nortal helped establish e-Estonia

Nortal founder and CEO Priit Alamäe and his company have been inextricably linked to the establishment of e-Estonia, a movement that has put both Nortal and the small Baltic state at the forefront of digital governance.

But how did it transpire that this tiny Nordic country took the leap from decades of communist oppression to become arguably the world’s most digitally forward-thinking nation? Alamäe discussed his ideas in a recent interview with Finnish technology magazine Tietoviikko about what makes Estonia special, what lies ahead and what the rest of the world can learn from it.

Before Nortal, there was Webmedia, the company Alamäe founded while he was a student. He was a digital evangelist even in the late ’90s, long before anyone had even dreamed of coining that term.

“We began to travel around Estonia selling our product, which was at this point really just an idea. In fact, Nortal is still selling the same idea and product,” Alamäe said.

He insists that his company is different from most: “The majority of IT entrepreneurs don’t understand the business side, and the majority of buyers of IT solutions don’t understand the technical side. We want to help them understand each other.”

In large countries, such as Germany or France, the progress of digitalization is slower because of people’s suspicions.

Estonia was at something of a crossroads at the time. The economy was struggling after the fall of communism, there was little industry to speak of and, with a population of just 1.3 million, the country was poised delicately on the edge of disaster. However, what Estonia lacked in numbers, it more than made up for in sheer entrepreneurial spirit and a willingness to try a new way.

Over the past three decades, the country has established itself as perhaps the preeminent success story of post-Soviet eastern Europe.

Size really does matter

In many ways, Estonia’s small size has been a huge advantage in its concerted push for hyper-modernity. In 2005, the “once only” principle was introduced, forcing government ministries and institutions into cooperation. “Once only” means that no institution should ask a person for information that is already held in existing databases. The result was a huge reduction in waiting times, red tape and administrative expenses.

In addition, the Estonian population was uniquely open to change as well as trusting of its new government.

“In Estonia, as well as in Finland, people trust their leaders and are not constantly worrying that their information might be misused. In large countries, such as Germany or France, the progress of digitalization is slower because of people’s suspicions,” Alamäe said.

“In Estonia and the Nordic countries, the culture is quite similar in the sense that people want to understand things before doing them and people speak rather directly.”

The success of the digitalization project also meant that taking the Estonian message beyond the country’s borders has become easier: “We thought Estonians might be considered small and, perhaps, somewhat goofy little brothers. Nowadays, (people from Finland) come to ask for advice from us Estonians. We are told that, in the IT industry, we have an advantage compared to other countries.”

Alamäe believes that the e-Estonia project is still far from complete, however. Having established the foundations, he feels the next big step is to make the distribution and utilization of data even more effective.

He believes people should not need to apply for services from the government, but that the government should anticipate each individual’s needs and know which services to offer them based on the data it collects and processes.

To Alamäe, this represents the ultimate ideal of inclusive democracy.

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