On Thursday and Friday last week, the Digital Innovation Forum, hosted by the APEC Business Advisory Council, took place at the Taipei International Convention Center.
Invited speakers included Taiwanese and overseas experts who have made innovative contributions to the field of network applications.
One speaker was former Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves. As president, Ilves led Estonia’s efforts to develop an open government and find ways to overcome obstacles in the nation’s difficult geopolitical environment.
Ilves’ experiences could prove beneficial for Taiwan.
Estonia’s population is only 1.32 million. The nation regained its independence when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. Since then, Estonians have made good use of their late-developing advantage in technology.
During Ilves’ 10 years in office, he led Estonia’s transformation into a global model of digital governance. Located on the doorstep of a powerful neighbor, Estonia has been willing to defend and empower itself, leveraging technology to develop innovative businesses and quickly growing its economy to become a developed nation.
Taiwan has a similar geographical position to Estonia’s: They both have unfriendly, powerful nations as neighbors. Taiwan’s existing foundation in information and communications technology makes it possible to achieve the same kind of industrial development. In the past few years, Taiwan has also oriented itself toward having an open government, although its achievements have been few.
Last week’s forum provided an opportunity to learn from other nations’ experiences, but are we in Taiwan willing, at a national level, to apply Estonia’s experience of using technology to govern a reborn nation?
Having spent a decade at the helm of Estonia’s reforms, Ilves is the best person to advise us on this.
Taiwan could learn from Estonia’s experience in developing an “e-residency” plan.
Launched in 2014 under Ilves’ leadership, the plan welcomes individuals and companies to become non-permanent residents of Estonia. The nation gains access to simple professional assistance, while the residents identify with Estonia in a conceptual way, without having any obligations.
Thus far, about 40,000 individuals and 5,000 companies have become “e-residents” of Estonia, including a number of world-famous experts. Even Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe became an “e-resident” of Estonia in 2015.
This kind of identity as a virtual resident fits well with the features of the Internet world. People who meet online and find that they get on well can form communities where they exchange views and gradually develop into civic forces — and what is true for individuals also applies to nations.
Small nations that are overlooked by the world’s mainstream media can seek recognition that transcends national boundaries. Joining traditional international organizations under a national title is no longer the only way for nations to gain influence. In the age of the Internet, using broader and more flexible definitions of sovereignty and citizenship can garner recognition in the international community. The “e-residency” concept could be an especially valuable lesson for Taiwan to learn.
Estonia’s system of governance is not only significant because of its level of implementation, but also for its historical significance. Compared with dictatorial or oligarchic societies, the Internet brings liberation and autonomy, as well as sharing and cooperation.
Taiwan’s freedom and democracy are precisely the fertile ground that nurtures a networked society.
Taiwanese non-governmental organizations invited knowledgeable people from around the world to visit Taiwan. In doing so, the nation demonstrated how the Internet can nuture creativity.
Meanwhile, China is taking its use of the Internet to the opposite extreme.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) government is using the far-reaching capabilities of the Internet and digital technology to maintain law and order, and to keep everyone under control.
Overseas, Beijing is using digital networking to exert sharp power, sharpen its trade weapons and disrupt the world order. This kind of closed and destructive networked society based on a monolithic value system goes against human nature and is a dead end.
Taiwan’s and China’s choices about how to apply technology, and their different attitudes toward a digital society, can be compared with Estonia’s story of building a networked nation.
The forum has shown Taiwan some options for repositioning itself in the Internet world.
Hochen Tan is a retired civil servant.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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