By Isabelle Engelke
When I visited Estonia on a spontaneous backpacking trip in December 2019, my knowledge about the country and its people was rather limited. Limited in that I knew, Estonia was a rather small country with a population of about 1,3 Mio. people, I knew roughly about its history as being under Soviet rule gaining independence in the late 1900s and my grandma had assured me that Tallinn had one of the prettiest and charming old towns she had ever seen. Quite frankly, I perhaps expected an architecturally beautiful capital in a country influenced by the bureaucratic system that characterized the USSR during the first post-war decade. However, while Tallinn’s old town did turn out to be one of the most beautiful and well-preserved towns I had ever seen, I couldn’t have been more wrong about the rest of my expectations. Instead, my Estonian experience can perhaps be summarized in one (long) sentence: After eating wild boar and saffron-spelt in a 15th century rich merchants home and strolling around a cozy Christmas market buying wood carvings from people dressed in medieval garments, I, digitally, purchased a QR-ticket and hopped on the public transport (which all Estonian residents seemed to enjoy for free) to later arrive at my gate at Tallinn’s airport where I was asked to take a virtual reality (VR) tour riding a shiny flying unicorn through “the worlds’ most advanced digital nation”: e-Estonia (e-Estonia, n.d. a). Few minutes later, I boarded the plane to Germany and was left wondering how one small nation can be so innovative, digital, and progressive, but at the same time so deeply rooted in its indigenous medieval culture.
The short stay in Tallinn had certainly left an impression and sparked my curiosity. Starting my 4th semester at ITU back in Denmark, I thus decided to look further into the case of ‘e-Estonia’, specifically focusing on their ‘e-Residency’ program. I kept up to date with the case and decided to now take the opportunity to explore it further as part of my Junior Researcher project at ETHOS Lab.
Navigating the field-site and finding my interest
My Junior Researcher journey can perhaps be best described as an exploration of the multiple facets of the e-Estonian case. To better scope my topic, I had started my journey focusing on the e-Residency system, a program launched in 2014 which offers a government-issued digital identity to entrepreneurs all over the world enabling access to the e-Estonian (digital) business environment (e-Residency, n. d.). The program is designed to attract international business and talent to Estonia and promises to have launched the first ‘digital nation for global citizens’ (ibid.). While words like ‘e-Residency’, ‘digital nation’ and ‘global citizens’ paint a futuristic picture raising questions about ‘borderless societies’ and possibly the ‘end-of-geography’, I was left wondering how I can gain deeper insights into the case. Since the e-Residency system promises fully digital services, I decided that the case is best studied online and started my research gaining insights through desk research on the e-Estonian websites. While this allowed me to learn a lot about how Estonia and the media portrays the program and the country itself (depicting the state as an entity which ought to offer fast, simple/seamless, secure and progressive digital services to its citizens, building a fully digital society across borders (e-Estonia, n.d. c)), I felt that my online research could not give any insight into the actual e-Residency program, people’s motivations to join such a program, how they become part of it and how it might change their relationship to Estonia as a country. I thus reformulated my research question asking: Why do people become part of the Estonian e-Residency program and what imaginaries/future visions are tied to the notion of e-Residency? To investigate this question, I had to expand my digital field site and decided to become part of an e-Resident online community on Facebook and examined other social medias as well as online blogs and forums. Ironically, the conversations were hereby primarily concerned with resolving bureaucratic issues in regard to the e-Residency program, a program which promises to significantly reduce the bureaucratic burden as its value proposition. To gain deeper insight into people’s motivation and the very process of becoming part of the program, I felt like I had to actively talk to e-Residents and quickly got in contact with three e-Residents who were willing to share their insights.
My first interviewee was an Indian-born and well-travelled freelancer active in the film industry who spent the Corona pandemic in Romania and was seeking work as many production companies (such as Netflix etc.) were not able to produce new content due to social distancing rules. Along with his co-founders, he thus decided to start a media and film tech company developing technical tools which could assist film makers. In the hopes of finding a way to scale his start-up globally from the European region, he decided to become an Estonian e-Resident and register his start-up with the Estonian state. My second interviewee was a Spanish IT professor who started developing apps in his free time and chose to become an e-Resident as it allowed him to market his apps as a side business, with low costs and seamless and non-bureaucratic processes when filing his taxes etc. My third interview was with a Nigerian doctor who wants to launch a start-up focused on environmental activism, seeking to reduce pollution in his hometown. His motivation to become an e-Resident was driven by the financial benefits of administrating the finances in the European area, the Estonian ‘label’ which he believed to create credibility and trust, the potential support from European business advisors and the hope to raise global awareness about environmental issues in Nigeria by conducting business ‘across borders’. As becomes clear, the three e-Residents had very different perceptions of what it meant to be an e-Resident and different motivations to be a part of the program. Nevertheless, they all shared a common vision, or imaginary about the world which resonated with the way the e-Residency was marketed online. All interviewees imagined that digital technologies could lead to a faster, smoother, and easier way of doing business, erasing the ‘burden of traditional bureaucratic processes’, as well as enable increased accessibility to opportunities through interconnectedness. While these were interesting findings, the fact that the e-Residency program turned out to have little to do with ‘residency’ itself, and all things one would associate with digital residency, but could rather be considered an ‘e-Business’ platform which is made available by a state instead of a commercial company, I found myself slightly disappointed and revisited my initial scope and research question.
Figure 1: e-Estonian digital public service structure (e-Estonia, n.d. b)
With a natural curiosity about the broader e-Estonian system, of which the e-Residency system only constitutes a small part (see Figure 1), I decided not to focus on the e-Residency system from a user perspective but shifted my focus towards the broader digital infrastructure and the incentives and imaginaries embedded throughout its historical development. Why was the Estonian state so focused on becoming this ‘digital’ and ‘agile’ state which they seek to run almost like a start-up? I thus decided to explore the wider e-Estonian system through online research of both news articles and existing research in the hopes of finding another interesting angle.
A turn towards Digital Infrastructures, Digital Identities and Democracy. From Cyber-Security to Democracy: Legitimizing e-Estonia’s digital infrastructures
Through my online research, paired with reflections from a course I was taking alongside the Junior Researcher program, “The Digital State”, and several conversations with friends and co-students, my attention was turned towards debates about the technical design of Estonia’s digital infrastructure and how it connects to certain social structures. The idea that the way technologies are designed is linked to specific forms of social organization is certainly not new. Winner (1986), e.g., posed the example of solar energy being considered a far more ‘democratic’ technology due to its decentralized and accessible nature in comparison to other centralized and complex energy systems such as coal, oil and nuclear power. In a more contemporary text, Dencik & Kaun (2020), e.g., point out how the architecture of contemporary platform infrastructure challenge the fundamental democratic values of the welfare state (ibid.). Estonia itself, and more and more articles about the e-Estonian state have stated Estonia to be “the ultimate digital democracy” arguing that the design of their digital infrastructure is built upon the concept of transparency which enables mutual accountability between the state and its citizens (Berson, 2018). Wanting to look more into the technical set-up and Estonia’s vision behind their digital infrastructure, I joined a conference (AIxGov) discussing the latest GovTech innovations in which the former president of Estonia, Kersti Kaljulaid, held a 15-minute presentation sharing Estonia’s take on ‘how to secure the government of the future’. At the center of her presentation were notions of trust, reliability, transparency, and democracy as well as the importance of creating a system which
effectively issues credible digital identities which can verify people’s identities across national borders. According to Kersti Kaljulaid, the most trustful and reliable technologies are those technologies which she considers to be ‘democratic’, e.g. 5G networks and GPS. In her presentation, Kaljulaid furthermore openly addressed the importance of ‘democratizing systems’ arguing that decentralizing digital identities and thus power, as it is done as part of the e-Residency system, is the solution to creating trustful, reliable, and democratic governmental services, placing a blockchain-inspired digital infrastructure at the forefront of e-Estonia’s development.
In the course of researching the e-Estonian case, I had previously come across the idea of decentralization, however, it never seemed to play such a central role that it would be worth pursuing this notion further. Rather, in my previous research, I had found that Estonia’s move towards a blockchain supported digital infrastructure was argued to be an attempt to increase the state’s cyber security in response to a cyber-attack which left a long-lasting effect on Estonia’s IT infrastructure development. In April 2007, Estonia experienced two nights of riots which arose due to Estonia’s attempt to relocate a Bronze Soldier statue which had significant value to Estonia’s large ethnic Russian community, representing the Soviets victory over Nazi Germany as well as the ethnic Russian’s claim to equal rights in Estonia (McGuinness, 2017). During these nights, a large-scale cyber-attack, which was assumed to be orchestrated by the Kremlin, affected the countries’ digital infrastructure paralyzing Estonia’s banking system, governmental communication and media outlets causing a ‘wake-up call’ in regard to cyber-security for the Estonian government (ibid.).
The modes for legitimizing e-Estonia’s digital infrastructure thus seem to have shifted from securing the countries cyber-space from cyber warfare towards building a ‘democratic’ infrastructure which decentralizes power and offers a reliable way of issuing digital identities, enabling the state to provide the right service to the right people. The outcome of the Junior Researcher program for me was thus finding a new angle which I want to potentially pursue further as part of my master thesis: Taking on a rather comparative perspective studying how different governments legitimize the technical design of their digital infrastructure in relation to their social structures. While this topic still constitutes a far too large scope, the process of finding this topic has certainly taught me several things about doing research and I feel better equipped to now tackle the scoping process of my newfound topic.
Concluding thoughts on my research journey
At the start of the Junior researcher program, I set the goal of simply spending more time researching a topic that had interested me for a longer period as well as finding a potential research angle for my master thesis. Even though I entered the project with the expectation that it will be more of an ‘exploration of interests’ rather than the ‘perfect research project’, the JR journey turned out to be much more of a rollercoaster of ups and downs than I initially expected. Throughout my research, I was constantly confronted with new opportunities as well as barriers, hopes and excitement for interesting findings as well as disappointments and countless dead-ends and eventually I came to realize two things about conducting research:
First, there will probably never be an ‘end’ when researching a topic and one could perhaps endlessly continue finding new angles and avenues as well as new topics. While endlessly researching a topic might be exciting as one always generates small and interesting new findings, it can also be a deeply disappointing experience as one never actually finalizes a project. Here, it can perhaps help to plan out the research journey and set deadlines for different phases: When do I stop collecting data? When do I stop analyzing my material? And when should I stop seeking for more ‘exciting’ findings, but rather go more into depth with what I have already found?
Secondly, I came to see research as a reflective practice where findings not only arise through the ‘planned’ research itself, but rather through the constant engagement with one’s experiences, also outside of the actual research project. The most effective reflections hereby arose through discussions with my fellow junior researchers and the creative engagement with the topic while preparing and executing the ‘Pitch & Plays’ which allowed us to gain insights from a group of professors. Any research, I believe, could benefit from sharing rather unfinished findings and thoughts with people, allowing a different perspective on the topic and generating ideas for how to deal with the limits of certain approaches and field-sites. I will certainly make use and hopefully initiate such discussion sessions when working on my thesis in my last semester of my studies.
Berson, G. (2018). e-Estonia: the ultimate digital democracy? [online] Available at: https://medium.com/@geoffrooy/e-estonia-the-ultimate-digital-democracy-f67bc21a6114 [Accessed May 5th 2022]
Dencik, L., & Kaun, A. (2020). Datafication and the welfare state. Global Perspectives, 1(1).
e-Estonia (n. d. a). This is the story of the world’s most advanced digital society. [online] Available at: https://e-estonia.com/story/ [Accessed April 24th 2022]
e-Estonia (n.d. b). Building a digital society. [online] Available at: https://e-estonia.com/solutions/ [Accessed April 28th 2022]
e-Estonia (n.d. c). Enter e-Estonia – the coolest digital society. https://e-estonia.com/wp-content/uploads/e-estonia-200121-eng.pdf
e-Residency (n.d.) What is e-Residency? [online] Available at: https://www.e-resident.gov.ee [Accessed April 24th 2022]
McGuinness (2017) How a cyber attack transformed Estonia. [online] Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/39655415 [Accessed May 5th 2022]
Winner, L. (1986) Do artifacts have politics. Daedalus vol. 109, no. 1.