Wicked Ideas
Skype headquarters, Talinn, Estonia. (photo courtesy of Hemmings House Pictures)

Estonia: Big Lessons From A Small Country

At the 2014 State of the Province dinner held in Fredericton January 30, New Brunswick Premier David Alward announced the creation of the Brilliant Labs project. Funded by both the government and private sectors, it will provide grants to students and teachers so they can create projects through coding, robotics, and the arts. The plan is to stimulate creativity in schools and to grow entrepreneurship in the province, he said.

The program builds on a previous project. Coding Kids is a pilot project that teaches computer programming to students across the province and is led by David Alston, CMO of Introhive.

The Brilliant Labs project is a smart first step. It will put some badly needed money in the hands of both teachers and students, and it will start to prepare students for the future.

But it is just that – a first step. New Brunswick needs more than just this one project if we are going to stem our economic decline and turn the province around. We need a change in culture and we should be looking towards a tiny Baltic nation for inspiration.

Estonia is home to just 1.3 million people yet it is considered a world leader in the use of technology. Internet access is considered a human right, the country enjoys one of the world’s fastest broadband speeds, and medical records are stored online. People pay for parking spaces via their cell phones, file their taxes in less than five minutes online, and register businesses through a government website.

Computer programming – a basic skill in this new age – is taught alongside math and history and children as young as seven are being introduced to the basics thanks to a program called ProgeTiiger or Programming Tiger.

Huh. Children in the first grade are being taught to create games and to write computer code. Hmmm…

Last December, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who once lived in Vancouver, BC, spoke with CNN’s Isa Soares. He credited the country’s success with starting from nothing. Quoting from the interview:

“We did, in the 1990s, look around us and see a lot of things that we needed to do in the world,” he said. “We were behind in many areas. When it came to IT… we were starting more or less at the same base as everyone else. We started with a tabula rasa, a clean slate,” he told CNN.

Estonia now generates one per cent of its Gross Domestic Product from IT solutions, Ilves said.

All of this success adds up to three advantages for Estonia – a civil service that is lean and agile saving taxpayers money; citizens who have the tools needed to take advantage of a robust economy; and a business climate that attracts and fosters investment and growth.

Consider a small sample of the data. In 2013, 19,166 new businesses were created in the country, a three per cent increase over 2012, according to data released by Estonia Statistics and published in Baltic Business News. And 2200 of those businesses were self-employed. Tehnopol, a business hub in the capital city Tallinn, has more than 150 tech companies.

Still not convinced? Consider this accomplishment. Estonian programmers developed Skype, the internet-telephone that is now used by corporations worldwide. In 2005, it was sold to eBay for $2.6-billion.

In New Brunswick, it is a different world as presented in two publications. Last year, the province’s unemployment rate was 9.7 per cent, as published in the Labour Force Survey December 2013 by Statistics Canada.

And in November, the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council, a think-tank dedicated to studying the region’s economics, released its annual report. The APEC does not have much good news. New Brunswick’s real GDP growth is expected to grow by 0.9 per cent in 2014 and we don’t have any major projects scheduled for the year.

Estonia? The country’s economy is predicted to grow by three per cent in 2014, better than both Germany and France.

None of these ideas changed Estonia over night; it took a decade of solid change before the country began to see success and the drive towards prosperity is still happening in the Baltic nation.

And change will not happen in New Brunswick overnight. It will take time and effort by politicians, teachers, and citizens.

But East Coast people are no strangers to hard work. In the past, we built the province from a rural economy to a world leader in shipbuilding and other technologies. We can have it again. We only need to answer one question.

Do we want success?

Mike Parker

1 comment

  • Speaking with business leaders, citizens, teachers, students, and officials in Estonia was beyond inspiring. They had set their mind to something and they had crushed it. Yes, crushed it because what I saw there was an economy that was digitally about 10-20 years ahead of anything else on the planet. And on top of that everyone was talking from the same play book regardless of where they worked or what position they held.

    They were taking advantage of their size. They act agile & entrepreneurial. They take immense pride in what they’ve accomplished and they aren’t stopping any time soon.

    The Estonian people remind me so much of the people in the Maritimes. They are small enough to have that magical one degree of separation. They have a vibrant startup sector. They’ve had some recent big tech successes. They have teachers willing and wanting to innovate in terms of using new approaches. They have a strong tech & business community willing to mentor and share. They have a wonderful culture and a great quality of life. They like to work hard.

    So what’s is the difference. They have had and continue to have a very very clear vision of what they want to be. It’s a society utilizing it’s greatest natural resource – the minds of its citizens. And it’s a society underpinned by the most advanced e-government I’ve ever seen. Just google about their e-identity platform and how it’s helped them provide world leading features to their citizens while driving costly manual and paper processes out of the system. It’s really quite something.

    And I believe we can do the same thing here. There is really no reason we can’t. We can start with a simple, yet bold, vision and customize it as we go – “Be the Estonia of North America within the next 5 years.” Big hairy goal? Yup. But we have an advantage that Estonia didn’t have – we have a framework we can borrow from a little country with big ideas. We CAN do it. Frankly we have reached the point where we must embrace a very big vision because we can’t expect to wander about and stumble into greatness.

May 2018
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