Old Town Tallinn, Estonia Credit: Credit: Mark Litwintschik via Flickr

What a Distant, Post-Soviet Republic Can Teach Charlottesville about Governance and Growth

Picture Estonia.

That’s right, you can’t. Small, European, vaguely former Soviet. Do they wear funny hats? We’re not quite sure.

Nonetheless, Estonia exists. Right there between Latvia and the Gulf of Finland, with its easy-to-pronounce but hard-to-spell capital, Tallinn. Coming back to you now? Of course it’s not.

But actually, Estonia is fascinating. And it is really important. No, not just because of its famed “Kiek in de Kök” and other such medieval treasures, but because Estonia happens to possess, in high concentration, the most coveted resource of the modern world: innovation.

In Estonia, internet access is a human right. Computer programming is taught from the first grade forward – and school enrollment is at 100 percent. Every citizen has a digital identity – unforgeable, ineradicable, and tremendously convenient. They can vote online, and have universal medical records. Most Estonians also file their taxes online. It takes about five minutes.

Estonia offers a powerful example of what Charlottesville could accomplish by enthusiastically embracing technology and looking the future in the face.

The country does not subsidize state-owned industries. It has low tariffs, no trade restrictions, and no special privileges for entrenched investors. Incorporating a company in Estonia also takes about five minutes. Since 2014, the country has started offering “e-residency,” allowing people all over the world who are willing to register their identities legally and openly to conduct business with minimum friction. Resident aliens are afforded the same protections as citizens.

And the astonishing thing is that Estonia simply chose to be this way, with enviable foresight, over the past 20 or so years since the fall of the Iron Curtain. One of my favorite futurists, Alec Ross, is so obsessed with Estonia’s self-made identity as the most open and techy country on the planet, that he devotes an entire chapter of his recent book Industries of the Future to this overlooked corner of the world.

Exciting times for Estonia! But what is its story doing here at Charlottesville Tomorrow? Estonia offers a powerful example of what Charlottesville could accomplish by enthusiastically embracing technology and looking the future in the face.

Here is my favorite quote from Ross’s piece:

[Estonia’s Prime Minister Toomas Hendrick] Ilves thinks that the advancement of robotics serves Estonia well by giving the small countries of the world the chance to compete on the global stage with actors like China and India. He told me, “It will increase our functional size tremendously because people don’t have to do things the machines can do.” … How does a little country like Estonia compete in the same global marketplace as China, which has a labor force a little more than 1,000 times the size of its own? It takes advantage of the fact that robots enable a relatively small workforce to produce higher levels of output than would be the case in an all-human workforce…

Estonia has demonstrated how innovation in the industries of the future can do more than just generate wealth and employment; it can enhance our civic and political life. In this respect we should stop asking about the next Silicon Valley and start asking about the next Estonia.

Charlottesville will never be a New York, Washington, D.C., or even a Raleigh. We don’t really want to be those places, any more than we yearn for an Empire State Building to come sailing down onto Tonsler Park. But Charlottesville does want to remain prosperous, vibrant, and full of possibility in an increasingly competitive digital economy. Our city can remain an enclave for big ideas and hit way above its weight by excelling in fields where technology is a multiplier of human capital, such as robotics, data, and genomics. We don’t need to be the Silicon Valley, where every prospector with a dream and a good shill goes to find money. Charlottesville just needs to produce smart citizens with relevant skills, and to be the kind of place where those people can pursue their projects with minimal hassle.

A couple ambitious thoughts on how Charlottesville could emulate Estonia’s strengths in the Piedmont:

Too pie in the sky for your taste? How would you make Charlottesville more Estonian? Or would you rather Charlottesville took a different trajectory?


Carolyn Zelikow is a Program Associate with the Aspen Institute Future of Work Initiative. Led by Honorary Co-Chairs Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) and former Gov. Mitch Daniels (R-IN), the Initiative is a yearlong nonpartisan effort to identify concrete policies that will strengthen the social contract in the midst of sweeping changes to America’s workplace and workforce. Before Future of Work, Carolyn managed a pair of event series called Aspen Across America and Aspen Around Town, worked with the Aspen Ideas Festival, and helped to organize the Aspen Institute Summit on Inequality and Opportunity. Before joining Aspen, Carolyn was Assistant Director of Tom Tom Founders Festival. She graduated from the University of Virginia in 2012 with a B.A. in English Language and Literature. Raised in Charlottesville, she now lives in Washington, D.C. Opinions expressed on Charlottesville Tomorrow’s website are her own.