e-e-e-stonia: The new BALTIC TIGER

No, this is not stuttered. The title stands for one of the most advanced e-States on the globe. Everything in Estonia revolves around connectivity and how to beef it up. Spiced up with plenty of sci-tech – with all risks accepted. Welcome to a Baltic tiger state!

Estonia Skype

This is where the past meets the future. A medieval town center with cobble stones, constructed by German knights, mixed with concrete structures, leftovers from the Soviet Russian empire: This is how Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, greets visitors from around the world. Charmingly and laid-back, you don’t feel the hustle and bustle of the place.

This little country of only 1.3 million inhabitants, tucked away between Finland and Russia, wants to become one of the global leaders in science and technology. And it has come a long way. Only few people know that the modern communication revolution started here, in former Reval. Remember, how we used to spend fortunes on long distance phone calls? And for how long telecom had wanted to introduce phones with monitors to see our communication partners?

Both were resolved, live conferences with partners from all continents, free of charge. And this technology came from Tallinn. The Skype headquarter makes you feel like amidst Silicon Valley, at the rim of the Baltic Sea.

Its CEO, Tiit Pananen, is one of those modern “hands-on” managers, blond long hair, tall, “just like a Viking”, whispered one of the female journalists, only without horns.

“Did you know that 34 percent the conversations around the globe are handled by Skype?”, asked Tiit, half of which use the video function.

E-stonia Skye CEO

Yes, a communication dream has come true: 320 million people use Skype more than 100 minutes each month, he reveals. And gets into all the complicated techniques how the pictures of the videos are constantly improved with the goal to send them as sharp as possible and in real time, “to see the wonder of all emotions”. A real down-earth person, despite his success and power, who is not afraid of his own emotions and blushes when a journalist asks him about data, which indicates that skype has also triggered a sexual revolution because it enables people to enjoy intimacy over long distances.

This could have been a good story about Skype. But besides of impressive statistics and intentions to further growth this and other questions were not really answered. Most likely there are no official answers because Estonia’s business model ticks differently with apparently little critical reflection. Anna Piperal, marketing and communication professional of the Estonian ICT Demo Center, presents, again, most surprising figures which show: Almost everything is handled electronically in this Baltic country.

All schools are connected to the net, 99.8 percent of money transfers are done electronically (which actually makes real money, bills and coins obsolete), 95 percent of the income tax declarations don’t need paper any more, 93 percent of the population has an e-identity which entails: With your ID you run all your electronic operations and have access to everything.

Estonia waterfront

Compared to these figures still fairly low, but still a lonesome record in comparison to other countries: 24 percent of the vote in the election of 2011 were cast electronically. And, of course, very comfortable for the visitors: There are more than a thousand public places with open access to the internet.

Wifi has become an social right in e-stonia!

Breathtaking: Estonia, until two decades ago a part of the Communist Russia, has become the worldwide hub and a prototype of an e-society. It rests on almost a dozen columns, for example: e-banking, e-pensions, e-schools, e-voting, e-parking, e-police, e-health, e-diagnoses, e-prescriptions and the latest, “because we want to save trees”, argues Anna: e-receipts. Unique in the world:

“In only 20 minutes you have opened your business”, she explains, of course electronically.

While Estonia has turned into a big lab for the totally electronically organized society of the future, which makes it very interesting for many companies, one gnawing question remains: What about the security of the data and the data flows? Is big brother watching, reading, listening? Some journalists raised the question of data security within Estonia. Between citizens, banks, governmental agencies the information flow is so well encoded that abuse is impossible, is the official answer.

Estonia Chips PRODUCTION

Less than a thousand kilometers away at Moscow airport the NSA leaker Ed Snowdon is waiting for a country to grant him asylum. In the US, he could be accused for high treason and eventually end up on the electric chair. After weeks of alarming disclosures it seems that our data is unsafer than ever. No answers in Estonia, only an uneasiness that this question has never been pondered by the political, economical and academic leadership of this country as well as its civil society.

The Skype Headquarters visit was embedded in 14 visits to University laboratories and institutions of the Tallinn University of Technology and the University of Tartu. It turned out a scientific firework, everything was well explained, in mostly perfect English, by friendly and open researchers who seem to be really devoted to what they are doing.

Estonia Robot Fish

No doubt, Estonia is not only being driven by the ambition  to become the most advanced e-society of the world, but the entire country is a hotbed of innovation, with also some very visionary perspectives. Professor Maarja Kruusmaa, for example,  investigates robotic fish. A sea vessel constructed like a fish “could harvest the energy of the ocean”, she explains, such as eddies and use them to move forward.

The next day in Tartu, close to the Russian border, is divided between life sciences and astronomy. Professor Andres Metspalu, Director of the Estonian Genome Center, advocates “a gene chip for every adult Estonian who wants to have it”. He believes that many people would change their habits if they learned their disease risks.

Will ailments also be registered on the electronic ID of every citizen and what does that do to insurances? Metspalu answer was pragmatical:

“We have the obligation to inform people about their risks.” Ignoring it, despite the scientific knowledge, would be like watching someone on the rail while the train approaches and not reacting, he said.

Tartu’s famous historical observatory is a must for any scientific study trip to Estonia. In the 19. century it became the first point in the geodetic arc. The old telescopes takes visitors back to the age of discovery. Nowadays satellites are much more efficient and they look all the way to the edge of the universe. As of May this year Estonia is a space nation with its own satellite, as rocket scientist Mart Noorma proudly pronounced in the observatory.

Estonia E-Sails

The next one will be one with “e-sails”, he explained, panels which use the electrically charged solar wind as a means of propulsion. His colleague, Priit Kull, pitched in and presented a self-deployable habitat for extreme environments, on earth or in space. Both, self-sustaining satellites and habitats have been under study by NASA and ESA, without results so far. Perhaps Estonia will show the US and Europe how to implement these visions. After all, their researchers seem to reach out, in any field for the skies.

Which leads to the question, many times asked: What is the motivation for this strive and excellency? On the way to the ferry back to Helsinki one participant offered an answer:

“Estonians must feel like David against Goliath, surrounded by powerful nations.”

20 years ago the bells of freedom rang. The harsh grip of the Soviet regime vanished. Finland rose and declined significantly during the last years. Now the time has come for the Estonian miracle.

The Baltic Tiger has a heart. This is Jaak Aaviksoo, Estonian Minister of Education and Research. He joined the group for lunch (he is the tallest in the picture below), very unpretentious on this hot summer day, without body guards and entourage. He was so casual that a colleague thought he was a waiter and asked him whether the windows could be opened. He just laughed.

Estonia Minister.neu

Estonia’s second most important decision maker right next to the prime minister is always fully accessible, joins the country’s science journalists for debate on scientific issues and, of course, is part of an “e-Cabinet” which e-estonia.com describes like this:

“The multi-user database and scheduler has cut weekly cabinet meetings from 4-5 hours to just 30-90 minutes. It offers remote participation and paperless handling of all governmental tasks.”

e-e-e-stonia at its best.

Presentation Anna Piperal, Estonian ICT Demo Center

MAJOR FIELDS of Estonian Sci-Tech

  • New photovoltaic cells, CHEAP & ROBUST. Monograin powders lead to monograin layer design. Enn Mellikov, Dept. of Material Science, Tallinn University of Technology, ennm@staff.ttu.ee
  • Optimized fairways for sea traffic, more ECONOMICAL & ECOLOGICAL. Tarmo Soomere, Wave Engineering Dept, Tallinn University of Technology , tarmo.soomere@cs.ioc.ee
  • Robotic Fish: Using the currents and dynamics of the sea – design and technology of future boats.  Maarja Kruusmaa: Center of Biorobotics, Tallinn, maarja.kruusmaa@ttu.ee
  • Upcycled clothes, WASTE REDUCTION 50 %! Reet Aus – Estonian Academy of Art, reet@ausdesign.ee
  • Gene Chip for every Estonian to educate on health risks. Andres Metspalu, Estonian Genom Center, Unversity of Tartu, andres.metspalu@ut.ee
  • Historians’ new tool: Population genetics research. Mari Järve, Estonian Biocentre, marijarve@ut.ee
  • Graphene wonders, one atom thick. Harry Alles, Inst. of Physics, University of Tartu, harry@fi.tartu.ee
  • How plants contribute to climate change. Role of trace gas emissions. Ülo Niinemets, Inst. of Agriculture and environmental Sciences, Estonian University of Life Sciences, yloniinemets@emu.ee
  • Genetic changes make animals produce human insulin and other pharmaceutical substances. Mario Plaas, Inst. of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Sciences, University of Tartu, Mario.plaas@ut.ee
  • Space Nation Estonian: Its first satelite uses electric solar wind sails. Mart Norma, Science & Technology, Tartu University, mart.norma@ut.ee
  • Self-deployable habitat for extreme Environments  (on earth or in space). Priit Kull, Inst. of Technology, University of Tartu, priit.kull@ut.ee


Entire Program of the  Science Journalists Trip to Tallinn and Tartu

Download of the Guide to Estonian Research >>>
a very handy digest for all science journalists:


The two-day study trip right after WCSJ 2013 to Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, and the university town of Tartu was organized by the Estonian Association of Science Journalists and the Estonian Research Council and was funded by the European Regional Development Fund.  The persons in charge Priit Ennet, President of the Estonian Association of Science Journalists (2nd r.), Karin Patune  (r.), Estonian Research Council, and Aare Baumer (2nd l. with Minister of Research, l), Energy Discovery Center, deserve hearty thanks!


Estonia Organizers m. Minister


Photos (c): W.C. Goede, group picture (c) Estonian Assoc. of Science Journalists




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