• Opinion
  • January 29, 2019
  • 6 minutes
  • 1

China and Estonia’s digital governments have heralded a new kind of society

Opinion: Our physical society is rapidly turning into a data-driven environment

digital society

This opinion piece was written by Kay Hooghoudt, a government advisor on digital strategy and cloud adoption. For more like this, see our digital government newsfeed.


As we all know, new technologies are disrupting our way of life. Some of these are for the better, with faster, easier, cheaper goods and services. Others not so much, with breaches of privacy and uncertainty about where all this may be heading.

Yet one thing is for sure: our physical society is rapidly turning into a data-driven environment in which digital will, increasingly, set the nature and pace of our conversations, our transactions, our expectations and our disappointments. In other words, our daily lives.

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In the world of telecoms, media, retail, banking, leisure and transport, it is expected that disruptive technologies are driving services and experiences and rapidly changing our way of life: from cars, to electric cars, to self-steering cars, to driverless cars; and from paper notes, to credit cards, to Apple wallet, to bitcoins.

But what is changing within governments? What is happening to our public services? Let’s look at two examples of distinctive societies in this domain: Estonia and China.

Estonia: digital by default

When Estonia broke away from the Soviet Union in the early 90s, the country was bankrupt and had hardly any fully-functioning infrastructure. Long queues of citizens had to wait for daily necessities, be it food, healthcare, financial services, energy, transport, or public administration services. Each of these required time, resources and finance that had become scarce.

A drastic decision was made to build a new public services infrastructure from scratch, not with paper, but with digital technologies that would mean this could be done in a cheaper, faster, more flexible and more resilient way.

Of course, this was not done overnight, but Estonia is now considered a frontrunner in creating a true digital society in which every transaction is digital by default. This includes making digital signatures legally binding, and even allowing non-citizens to carry out legally-binding transactions in Estonia and the EU without ever having to enter the country.

Interestingly the degree of collaboration between the Estonian government and the private sector makes it one of the fastest-developing countries in the whole EU zone. And, importantly, data is properly secured by the Estonian Government, even with back-ups at its Digital Embassies.

China: a digital trailblazer

Now let’s look at China. Still a developing country running on an ancient infrastructure back in the 90s, China is now becoming a world leader, enabled and accelerated by technology.

In addition to Alibaba (which most of us know as the Chinese Amazon), the largest technology company is Tencents (recently out-stripping Facebook), which delivers WeChat, the app that is most used in daily life and now has almost a billion users.

WeChat is a complete integration of the kinds of services we get from Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple, all rolled into one app. It includes a wallet function that’s starting to replace paper currency and credit cards in China. Interestingly, the app also encompasses public services, such as making doctors’ appointments and applying for visas, housing permits and so on.

Of course, data privacy is completely different in China from the EU or US. It’s just one of the reasons why this kind of “killer-app” can exist there. The downside is a real “Big Brother is watching you” fear of what the Chinese call the Sesame-credit system, whereby citizens receive credits based on their daily behaviours and consumption, allowing them to travel, apply for mortgages and so on.

While these kinds of algorithms and tracking would never be accepted in many western countries, the integration of public services in massively-used apps gives a notion of how digital societies could look in a few years’ time.

While these two countries are very different from each other in culture and approach, both China and Estonia have heralded a new kind of digital society, dramatically changing daily life with faster, easier and cheaper services for citizens. Other countries are not far behind, and the world is watching and learning. — Kay Hooghoudt

(Picture credit: Flickr/Pexels)

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