estonia-the most digitally advanced country in the world

To understand how a society can completely transform itself by enabling internet access for its citizens, Estonia presents a great case study. Estonia, as a country with a population of 1.3 million, has one of the highest technology adoption rates with over 80% of citizens connected to the Internet as on 2013 (World Bank: Internet users (per 100 people), 2014). As Estonia declared Internet access as a human right in 2000 and took the necessary steps to increase Internet penetration with efforts like the Tiger Leap program[3] and EstWin[4]; Estonia enjoyed improved GDP and happiness index rankings. In less than 15 years, Estonia’s GDP grew by 4 times from 5.67 Billion USD in 2000 to 24.47 Billion USD in 2013. In 2013, over a fourth or 27% of services exported by Estonia were ICT based (Word Bank: GDP Ranking, 2014) amounting to 1.48 Billion USD (World Bank: ICT service exports (% of service exports, BoP), 2014). As of 2013, 99.6% of all banking transactions in Estonia were done online (Republic of Estonia – Information Systems Authority (RIA): Facts about e-Estonia, 2014) and in the 2011 elections 15.34% of eligible population voted online (Vabariigi Valimiskomisjon (VV): Statistics on eVoters, 2014).

Most Estonian (and world) researchers, academicians and general citizens believe that the Quality of Life in Estonia has improved as the country implemented and the necessarily ICT measures that transformed a crumpled post-soviet country into a highly advanced digital society.

Numerous studies have repeatedly shown how countries with higher adoption of Internet like Estonia have resulted in better educational systems, improved democracy and government services and higher economic development than countries that were late or non-adopters.

Estonia wasn’t a very early adopter. In fact they started investing most of their resources on ICT only after 2001.

On the other side of the planet; India, a developing country with a population of 1.3 billion or roughly 1000 times that of Estonia‘s, has one of the lowest technology adoption rates with only 15% of its population with access to Internet (World Bank: Internet users (per 100 people), 2014) and only about 5% of India’s service exports are ICT based (World Bank: ICT service exports (% of service exports, BoP), 2014). This may seem like small numbers in percentage but India has over 300 million+ internet users (the third largest digital population in the world) and its ICT exports amounts more than 100 billion USD. This is roughly 66x times that of Estonia’s ICT export.

As on January 2015, the sad truth remains that over 60% of the world population do not use the Internet.

As the non-users miss out on this basic human right, the online population of the world is losing out on their creativity and contribution. In a recent study conducted by Mckensy in collaboration with Facebook (on behlaf of Internet.org), it was stated that out of the 4.4 billion people in the world who lack internet 3.4 billion non-users come from just 20 countries (McKinsey & Company, 2014). What’s even more interesting is 2.3 billion or approximately 50% of the offline population come from just 5 countries – China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh[5].

The huge digital divide in developing countries brought in a lot of corporate and governmental research into understanding the barriers of enabling internet access in people’s lives and measures on bridging this digital divide. Unfortunately, existing research focuses on this issue with a narrow lens of government bodies trying to plan infrastructure or telecom companies looking at how to increase coverage.

Neither of these two types of bodies have an approach like Estonia – „contextualization“ and „usability“ as a focus while planning or researching on how to increase internet adoption.

As Mcksennsy points out, In developing countries, the problems lie beyond hardware availability and network coverage. In what I consider as possibly one of the most important studies in understanding the nature of the digital divide, McKennsy’s extensive research pointed out that digital divide problems are affordability, contextualization, user capacity and infrastructure. (McKinsey & Company, 2014)

India has 840+ Million Cellphone users but only 300+ million internet users. Strangely, the world’s highest number of non-internet users come from the same country that produces some of the cheapest smartphones and has one of the widest network coverage by kilometer square in the world.

There is much our government and corporates can learn from Estonia for the #digitalindia program proposed by India’s prime minister – Narendra Modi. We don’t just need infrastructure – it’s time to educate, improve policies, address affordability, train teachers to use ICT etc.