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Florian Marcus is a Digital Transformation Advisor at the E-Estonia Briefing Centre, a government-funded organisation created to raise awareness abroad about the digital way of life in Estonia and help other countries replicate similar processes and services that have changed the way people live. 

Its goal is to cut down on bureaucracy, making sure that people can do as much as possible from the comfort of their homes, prioritising time-location independence and less stress. 

In Estonia, 99% of government services are online, apart from marriage and divorce, which is scheduled to go digital next year. From registering your pet to receiving child benefits, its people are constantly connected, making life far more accessible and less stressful.

In terms of transport, this technology also has a major impact on many different areas, ranging from ride-hailing apps to database management of roads and public networks.

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In Tallinn, public transport is free for registered residents. The question is, how does the bus know that you live in Tallinn? Well, when you tap your public transport card on the terminal, the road authority has the right to check whether you live in a postcode associated within the city. This is possible because the public transport card is using the personal code that each citizen is issued by the government. This eliminates the time-intensive process of people notifying the transport authority of Tallinn that they no longer live in the city or have just moved to the city. 

In addition, there are two bus lines that already operate with autonomous shuttles throughout the summer, although they still require a human operator for safety precautions. Unlike other areas of the world, this is on public roads and does not only exist in closed testing environments. A very positive message for the future of automated driving in Europe.

Estonia is also a pioneer of smart mapping systems and road analysis, that can instantly identify any accidents, infrastructure issues or wet and icy roads, so that people can plan their route effectively. You can also see every single road accident since 2012, making city planners’ lives much easier. Through this, they can identify major problems in certain areas and find solutions. 

How to Execute Change

This is all very exciting stuff. However, the idea of these things isn’t something new. Of course, autonomous vehicles are still not on our roads in mass production, but many different companies around the world have been talking about them for some time.

The difference here is the execution. Due to its openness, trust and forward-thinking philosophy, the city of Tallinn already has autonomous vehicles operating on public roads. Other cities around the world may have the technology ready to go, but cannot overcome the huge issues found with regulation. 

So why is Estonia one of the only countries that is doing this? 

“The reason why we went digital when many other countries did not, is that Estonia felt the pain of not having enough money or man-power as a post-Soviet nation,” answers Marcus. “To bridge this gap, we needed to focus on self-service and online solutions.”

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In 1994, the parliament passed the first bill as a digitalisation strategy and, in 1999, introduced the first online server for tax purposes. When you look at central and western Europe, there is an awful lot of time spent on thinking about how to solve the solution, but it seems like most people preferred the process of solving the solution in their heads, rather than the actual implementation of the solution. 

“Many countries have the know-how and definitely enough money to pay for all of this change,” continues Marcus. “For Estonia, it is about the mindset and the openness to try, perhaps occasionally fail and then succeed.”

It appears that many countries work on creating a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist yet. People are focusing on areas that they shouldn’t be focused on at present. Cities need to look at the most significant problems and address them with the most accessible and seamless innovation. In short, we need to get our heads out of the cloud and start to replicate Estonia’s way of thinking. 

The whole point of well-done digitalisation is that it is invisible. Unlike Estonia, which is an extremely digital culture, industrial countries such as the UK, Germany and Japan try to create physical solutions that aren’t necessarily the answer. 

“These countries look at products and services such as trains and bikes and think ‘let’s make them more digital and electrified’,” adds Marcus. “This isn’t the solution to the structural and underlying problems that we will see over the next decade with AI and automation.”

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Avoiding Crab Mentality

The influx of ride-hailing apps has put immense pressure on cities around the world. The likes of Uber and, of course, Estonia’s Bolt, have popped up in urban areas and completely dominated the market. Despite this, governments are having issues with managing these companies through regulation. 

In London, we are seeing huge battles between the government and ride-hailing apps, as they try and ban these services, as well as places like Berlin who are dealing with a flood of e-scooters in a similar fashion. 

As you can imagine, Estonia does things differently. In 2017, the government decided that these apps will not go away and tried to form legislation to support the services but also manage them effectively. 

“This is nothing new, as the taxi industry has dictated prices on its own terms in the past. We have to legalise these apps, but also find the framework that ensures that these companies pay the correct tax and also look after their associates.” 

When it comes to scooters, you can go to any city around the world and find them in bushes, lakes and, well, in all sorts of places you can imagine. This has been a huge problem for cities that cannot do much to stop people, mostly drunk, from vandalising these services. 

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“With this, it all comes down to humans and the way society perceives these e-scooters and e-bikes,” says Marcus. “In Estonia, people are more mindful of technology. Perhaps because they have lived through decades of suffering and poverty; there is still a modicum of taking care of the things around them. Of course, we still have things like graffiti and rubbish on the street, but its comparably better than other places.” 

Overall, we as a society are the main barrier when it comes to future transport solutions. You could throw all the technology in the world into a city, but all it takes is someone who is intoxicated or generally having a bad day and the whole service can be ruined. 

But this doesn’t mean that we cannot progress. If new technology and services, from e-bikes to autonomous vehicles, are implemented seamlessly and communicated with people who live in the area, there will be fewer problems. There will always be slight teething problems, but it is all about making these innovations the norm as quickly as possible. 

“The government was very clear from the start,” says Marcus. “They didn’t regulate the number of scooters from the start, but it gave very clear guidelines on where to ride them. This established the product’s role in the wider ecosystem, making sure they were used only in dedicated areas.”

“If you look at other cities, they never really established where they could be used, which created problems early on.”

This sounds very basic, but it illustrates the importance of communication. Otherwise, you have a hot pot of innovation that can quickly turn into a crab-in-a-bucket mentality and, fundamentally, make things a lot worse. 

Moving forward, cities around the world must change their way of thinking. Once this is achieved, we can collectively move forward and support the revolutionary products, technology and services that will improve our day-to-day lives.

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