Welcome to the society of the future
In no other city in the world are people as thoroughly digitally-minded as in Tallinn, Estonia. How does that change a society?
Tallinn: Can knowledge be opened up to everyone?
Since the 1990s, this diminutive country with just 1.3 million inhabitants has systematically pursued a digitalization strategy. Its stature in cyberspace has long since surpassed its physical boundaries. Kaevats calls the substance of his work “the cool stuff,” which in his view mainly refers to public administration. In this story, we will meet a number of characters like Marten Kaevats and get to know a city so immersed in the digital world that many things still being debated elsewhere have long since become old hat in Tallinn. People there are working on things others haven’t even thought of yet.
Whereas other nations are starting to put forms online for their citizens, Tallinn is getting rid of the concept of submitting forms altogether. “In the future, we will put big data and artificial intelligence to work to save citizens the time they spend filling out forms,” says Kaevats. “Our systems independently identify who is eligible to receive a child subsidy, for example. Ten minutes after the birth of their child, parents receive an email congratulating them and specifying the amount that will be transferred to them and when.”
Our attempt to make the virtual world in Tallinn tangible takes us to the e-Estonia showroom. We wait on a blue couch to be picked up by our tour guide. A door suddenly opens up in a nondescript wall, and Federico Plantera, spokesman and media representative, enters the room with a smile. “Welcome,” he says, “Is this your first visit here?” The showroom is an exhibition focusing on the present; this is where Tallinn brings cyberspace to life. In one of the rooms, which is as cozy as a living room, five rows of seats face a large screen. Various objects are scattered around the room: a small bicycle, plants growing under artificial light, a model depicting a digital parking system in miniature form. A small, grey box with rollers turns out to be a robot being used to test a parcel delivery service in Tallinn.
During the EU Digital Summit in September 2017, these robots delivered candy to the heads of state attending. Federico Plantera gives us an extensive lecture on e-services such as a digital ID card, electronic patient file, online voting, digital citizenship, and tax returns at the click of a mouse. What is still science fiction elsewhere is already science fact here. The 24-year-old Italian arrived in Tallinn as an Erasmus student and never looked back. “There is an incredible feeling of community here. Hierarchies are very flat or don’t exist at all.” Whoever wants to do something just does it.
e-Estonia’s showroom is located in the Ülemiste neighborhood, the city’s digital heart. The quarter possesses cult status as the place where Skype was largely programmed. To date, this is said to have generated over 100 spin-offs. It’s lunchtime and people stream out of their offices, returning with sandwiches and salads. During the Digital Summit, two autonomously driven buses ran not far from here. Within just a few months, a system had been developed to transport the Summit’s many guests from the ferry terminal to the city center.
A completely normal city with a digital option
One of Krimmer’s fields of research is e-voting. Estonians have been voting online since 2005. How that works is demonstrated in a YouTube video by Taavi Roivas, who was Prime Minister in 2015. In an election period, citizens can vote as often as they want - in the end, the only decision that counts is the very last one. Krimmer says that the procedure is firmly established, but voter partici-pation has not grown demonstrably because of this method. “The expectation that this move would boost political participation has not been met to date.”
Without a strong basis of trust, you can’t build a digital society.
And something seen even among the youngest Estonians. Jakob Westholmi Gümnaasium is an old school in the Kassisaba neighborhood. It has heavy floorboards and creaky wooden doors - but a small card reader sparkles at the front entrance. This is where students and teachers register to gain access to the school building. During class, all of the children work on tablets along with schoolbooks and fountain pens. The current topic of study is projected next to the blackboard.
The attendance and lesson plan book is digital and can be checked by parents at any time online. eKool developed the corresponding app. The company just moved into a new office in Telliskivi, Tallinn’s creative quarter. Telliskivi is a former industrial complex right in the center of town. This fertile ground for ideas produces ateliers and studios, and an alternative café attracts young people. Tanel Keres, Managing Director of eKool, developed the cloud-based management system for schools along with his team. Teachers use the system to enter grades, homework, absences and the topics of study. Parents can inspect this data, contact teachers and no longer have to call the school to report their child sick. Keres has two school-age children himself. He knows precisely what they are learning at school at any given moment, when they have a test or the next parents’ evening is scheduled - and would receive a message if his children were to not show up for class. The digital attendance and lesson plan book has been used by virtually every school in Estonia since 2002. No one worries about data protection. “Teachers can’t call up their students’ grades in other subjects. Plus, a log is kept every time a profile is accessed,” explains Keres. The app saves teachers work time, making the school day more efficient and transparent.
Installation “Data Shop”
On the evening before leaving the city, we visit Spanish artist Mar Canet in the Arsi Maja cultural complex. The building appears abandoned and somewhat neglected. Electric cables criss-cross the facade, pipes lead nowhere, an old spotlight clatters in the wind. Studio 312 is bursting with boxes and cabinets, and a rhythmic clicking can be heard. Along with Varvara Guljajeva, Canet formed the artistic duo Varvara & Mar. He is sitting at his desk answering emails. A coworker in the room is taking pictures of tin cans as part of an installation entitled “Data Shop”, symbolizing a store for buying and selling personal data.
The cans each contain a storage device with the artists’ personal data from Facebook, Google Takeout, Visa and Mastercard. The label reveals the contents. “Our artistic work explores the relationship between humans and machines,” says Canet. He describes the question of what happens with the data, who collects and uses it, as the “force field of a digital society.” The rhythmic knocking is getting louder. Two metronomes are swinging out of sync. They are attached to a device that recorded the duo’s heartbeats for six months. The artists’ heart rates determine the metronomes’ rhythm. Whenever the pace slows, Mar says: “Now we’re sleeping.”
A world in which physical location is irrelevant, because the entire world can be accessed from anywhere.
Facts & figures
Audi Electronics Venture GmbH develops concepts for highly networked vehicles with intelligent data transfer. The company also generates solutions to protect the security of data during transfer and storage, with the aim of letting customers reap all the benefi ts of a safe yet highly networked car.
Technology service provider EasyPark has developed a Smart Cities Index ranking 500 cities according to 19 criteria such as transportation, environmental protection, citizen participation, car sharing, Internet speed and quality of life. Tallinn placed 76th. Copenhagen took fi rst place ahead of Singapore and Stockholm.