How Estonia Is Leading the Charge in E-Citizenship

October 2, 2018, 11:20 PM UTC

Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid wants the world to realize that technology makes you free. At the same time, as she told Fortune’s Nina Easton at the Most Powerful Women Summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif. on Tuesday, “Technology doesn’t make you safe; it’s all up to the people using it.”

Kaljulaid told the summit audience about her digital-first republic. Estonians live in an increasingly digital country, with an e-government infrastructure that was introduced in 2001. So-called E-stonia is built on a platform called X-Road, a digital infrastructure that supports both public and private services. Kaljulaid says that the infrastructure works like an app store, where nearly any business or individual that has built a product or service can make it available online.

Using X-Road as a digital backbone, the Estonian government issues each citizen a digital ID or passport. It can be used to access public services, vote, pay taxes, order prescriptions, and more.

“You identify yourself in the digital world just like you do in the analog world,” Kaljulaid explained. “With your passport.”

The small country of just 1.3 million people saves 800 years of working time per year by maintaining its government functions digitally. Kaljulaid believes that X-Road is the great equalizer because it benefits underserved populations, such as mothers with small children or the differently abled, the most, by saving the time and resources necessary to carry out necessary tasks in person rather than online.

The president said she believes that this system works in Estonia, and might not work in America, because Estonian citizens are more likely to trust their government to understand the digital environment. The technology used for E-stonia is up-to-date and safe: For instance, it is blockchain-enabled, storing every citizen’s data in separate databases and documenting every interaction with the data. That system, Kaljulaid said, allows people to trust that they know who has had access to their data and what they have done with it.

This ecosystem of technology and trust depends heavily on what Kaljulaid calls “digital hygiene.” She said that teaching children about technology early is key, just as you would teach them to wash their hands. “You need to teach kids to be safe early and often,” she said.

Next up for the president and her digital-first republic? Online schooling available to all e-citizens, whether inside Estonia’s physical borders or not. Estonian citizens can move and work freely within the European Union, and Kaljulaid said she wants to make Estonian-language primary and secondary schooling available to Estonians everywhere.

Read More

LeadershipBroadsheetDiversity and InclusionCareersVenture Capital