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Estonia: developing the new digital nation

Estonia – not so much a country, more a state of mind? This small Baltic state is bust developing itself into a ‘new digital nation’ with virtual citizens from around the world. “e-Residency is a transnational digital identity available to anyone in the world interested in administering a location-independent business online”, as Estonia’s official e-residency website explains. Anybody can apply for an e-Resident’s digital ID card, which costs 100 euros (subject to background checks).

The Estonian strategy is an interesting twist on the age-old battle for talent. In the past, you had to try and persuade people to physically move to a new location in order to benefit from their brainpower and tax revenues. In the contemporary network society, physical movement is no longer necessary – you just have to become part of a new digital nation instead. The e-residency programme is more than a useful way of generating revenues from sales of ID cards. It also creates connections between Estonia and a global army of highly-skilled workers. Those connections can be leveraged in many different ways, including stimulating tourist visits, the creation of physical as well as digital companies in Estonia, and the development of skills and knowledge related to governing a location-independent population.

As Anna Blue points out in her recent analysis, the e-residency programme provides a form of soft power, the kind that small countries like Estonia can wield to their advantage. Not only does Estonia make itself new friends around the globe with the practical advantages of its digitally welcoming stance, but it also stimulates interest in this “small, somewhat-unknown country”. Our love of the underdog and the unfamiliar can be a powerful tool for smaller places to profile themselves on the global stage, as we outlined earlier in the case of the small, unpronounceable Dutch city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. While globalisation provides us with the dubious benefits of cheap hamburgers and endless streamed entertainment, most people still feel the need to be attached to somewhere that seems like home, and many people prefer the small and the local to the vast and the global. As I have discussed elsewhere, the home-grown globalisation strategy of IKEAization seems more comfortable for many Europeans than the global advance of McDonaldization, as described by George Ritzer. Estonia seems to be following the IKEA example, developing itself as a ‘country as service’ which provides comfortable, customised accommodation for the growing army of location independent workers, or ‘digital nomads’. What will Estonia’s next move be? Perhaps an e-vaccine passport would prove a popular service.

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