e-Estonia welcomes digital nomads

It is the dream of many a freelancer to fly around the world working wherever they lay their hat — and laptop. Fancy working as a graphic artist on a beach in Bali sipping daiquiris while emailing Los Angeles?

While the Covid-19 crisis has restricted international travel, it has also highlighted the possibilities of remote working. But local employment and visa laws restrict options for freelancers. “There’s no legitimate way to work as a digital nomad,” Karoli Hindriks, chief executive of Jobbatical, a talent relocation company, wrote in Sifted.

Until now that is. Last month, Estonia passed a law offering one-year visas to freelancers who spend part of that time working from the Baltic state. That is particularly tempting for those fond of romantic medieval cities, song festivals and smoked eel. For those who prefer the sun, Barbados is also offering year-long welcome stamps for working holidays.

Estonia is hoping that 2,000 people might take advantage of its scheme. “Through our e-residency programme we can give them a corporate entity which they can run from a distance as they travel around the world,” says Siim Sikkut, Estonia’s chief information officer.

Estonia’s move is another example of the innovative mentality that has animated the country since regaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Its first post-independence government built secure digital infrastructure — known as X-Road — and launched a compulsory national identity scheme, laying the foundations for e-Estonia, as it has become known. 

The tiny country of 1.3m people claims the record for the highest number of tech unicorns per capita with companies such as Skype, TransferWise and Bolt all achieving valuations of more than $1bn. Hailed as the Silicon Valley of digital government, Estonia has also won international acclaim for digitalising almost all public services, enabling people to vote, pay their taxes, order prescriptions and sign contracts online. 

Despite this progress, Mr Sikkut says the digitalisation of public services is a never-ending process, responding to changing priorities and the latest technologies. “The Covid crisis provides new challenges and gives us a kick in the butt to innovate,” he says.

As in many other countries, Estonia is rethinking how it delivers online healthcare services as a result of the pandemic. The government is also exploring how it can best apply artificial intelligence technology to public services.

Faced with an outflow of young people from the country, Estonia is doing its best to welcome foreign entrepreneurs. Its e-residency programme, which enables individuals to establish a legal presence in Estonia, has already been taken up by 70,000 people. Entrepreneurial refugees from Brexit Britain are high on Estonia’s target list.

Rainer Kattel, a professor at University College London, says the efficiency of Estonia’s public services has become a source of competitive advantage. “You can export public services beyond your own country,” he says.

However, as an Estonian, who grew up in Estonia, Mr Kattel was struck by the contrast between the country’s international image as a digital pioneer and his more disappointing experience as a citizen. He has subsequently studied the impact of Estonia’s digital initiatives and concluded that they have not had such a positive impact on society as commonly portrayed. 

Although Estonia scores highly in digital governance, it only ranks seventh overall in the EU’s Digital Economy and Society Index. Public dissatisfaction with healthcare and education services remains high while civic engagement with Estonia’s minority Russian population remains low. “If you look at education and health they are very long-term projects. You cannot just switch systems from one day to the next,” Mr Kattel says.

Estonia’s hacker mentality, like that of Silicon Valley, may be great for initiating projects. But without a longer term strategy it may not always translate into deeper societal gains.