Greater Manchester has been urged to look towards Estonia for inspiration in its bid to become a digital heavyweight.
That was the message from Estonian politician Arto Aas, who was the keynote speaker at Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham’s second Digital and Tech Summit last Friday.
Nearly 200 people packed into Federation House in Manchester for an update on the mayor’s first digital summit in July.
Estonia only has a population of 1.3 million people and took the decision to embed digital in all areas of the country.
Aas, who is the Minister of Public Administration, said Greater Manchester could replicate a lot of the digital successes in Estonia.
“Of course all countries are different, have different backgrounds, different history, different legislation, but if it’s possible in Estonia then it’s possible here,” he told BusinessCloud.
“You must have strong leadership and you must know where you’re going. I know the Mayor has a very ambitious plan. That’s good, that’s a start.
“You have many advantages, you have business here, you speak English. I think many times other governments say we cannot learn from Estonia because they are so small and it’s easy for them.
“Maybe it is easier to make changes in Estonia because we’re quite small and flexible but when you look at other big countries you can see that change is posible. You should focus on solutions, not on reasons why you cannot do it.
Aas said Estonia has a good relationship with neighbours Finland, Latvia and Sweden and says it sees itself as a new Nordic country because its political culture, entrepreneurship environment and business culture is very closely linked to Scandinavian countries.
“We have this one strong field of expertise in IT and digital solutions. We have been building a digital society for 17 years and in many things we are probably front runners in the world.
“We didn’t build this digital society in one year, it has taken a long time to create and it’s a continuous improvement. Every year something new happens and something old dies.”
The politician said individuals can file their tax accounts in the same time it takes to boil an egg.
“It’s like an attitude or a culture that you must always improve and find new ways,” he explained. “For a private person to declare their taxes it takes three minutes, it’s all done digitally. 96 per cent of people are doing it electronically and 100 per cent of companies are doing it electronically.
“We don’t stop here; we are looking forward to some new solutions, because this is almost the only advantage Estonia has in the world. We don’t have natural resources, we don’t have huge companies that’ll make us rich, so we must find other ways.”
Estonia has also taken a digital first approach to healthcare.
“99 per cent of our public services are online,” he said. “In healthcare for example, 95 per cent of the information is digital already so you control your own data. If you allow it, all the doctors and hospitals both private and public can see your data. You don’t have to carry your bags or prescriptions.
“If a person does not want to share this information, then they can lock it. You own the information, not the hospitals or government, you are the owner of the information. You decide whether to share it or not. And you can also see who has been looking at your information and why.
“We were the first country in the world to introduce e-residency, it’s not citizenship but it provides entrepreneurs the possibility to start a company in Estonia.
“We are a tiny country, we don’t have enough people, we don’t have enough entrepreneurs, we would like to attract more talent and more businesses to come to Estonia, because we have a very competitive tax system and this digital infrastructure and it’s really easy to come to Estonia and start a business.
“It takes 50 minutes to start a business online in Estonia, that’s why we invented this e-residency, it takes approximately one month and you’ll receive an electronic ID card and then you can use the services in Estonia without being a citizen.
“The programme just celebrated its third year and we have more than 27,000 e-residents from 143 countries.”