Voices of Digital Communities

Learning How to Fall

Sports and recreation frequently lead to falling down.  Whether it's American football or the equestrian arts, gymnastics or judu, you are going to spend ...

by / March 27, 2009
Sports and recreation frequently lead to falling down.  Whether it's American football or the equestrian arts, gymnastics or judu, you are going to spend some time laying on the ground and trying to figure out how you got there.  That's why good instructors teach you first how to fall, so that you will be able to get up again.

Intelligent Communities have a lot of experience in falling as well as rising.  None has probably witnessed so long a fall or so thorough a rise as Tallinn, the capital of Estonia.  From World War II until it gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Estonia endured 50 years of totalitarian rule and economic central planning.  Yet by 2005, Estonia had been admitted to the European Union and The New York Times was calling it "a sort of Silicon Valley on the Baltic Sea."  Even in the current economic crisis, Estonia is one of the countries helping to bail out its fellow Eastern European nations, rather than being on the receiving end.

Learning How to Fall 1.jpg You can find the story of Tallinn's rise as an Intelligent Community on our Web site, because it was among our Top Seven Intelligent Communities of 2008.  Tallinn is on our 2009 Top Seven list as well and we will soon publish an updated profile, following a visit by my colleague John Jung at the beginning of April.  I look forward to reading what he posts about his journey. In the meantime, as I follow the grim economic news, I have been thinking about how Tallinn pulled off such a comeback.

One thing leaps out from the data.  Estonia in general and Tallinn in particular are incredibly open to the world.  History probably helps.  Tallinn has been a seaport with close ties to Finland and Sweden for centuries.  Within a decade of independence, Estonia had passed model laws opening up its banking and telecom sectors to investment from foreign companies and established rules for electronic commerce, privacy and public access to information.  As a result, Finnish and Swedish companies came to dominate both communications and finance, which are the lifeblood of a modern economy.  Imagine how that story would play out in public in some places, including my own country.  But the people of Estonia seemed to take it in stride.

Learning How to Fall 2.jpg The other amazing thing is how fast and furiously the people of Tallinn adopted the modern digital lifestyle made possible by this investment.  In 1991, Tallinn was a place where ancient factories churned out low-quality hard goods for Russian markets.  Within fifteen years, seven out of ten residents of Tallinn were working in the service sector, from consultancy and accounting to advertising and design.  Broadband penetration is now at 48% for households, 96% for businesses and 100% for government.  Government has gone online with a vengeance, from an e-meeting system for the Council to an e-school platform for education, and the Estonian X-Road middleware platform (recipient of an ICF 2008 Founder's Award), which dramatically reduces the time and cost of building e-government applications.  The Tallinn-based company Skype announced on March 24 that it had become the largest provider of international phone calls in the world.

Somehow, Tallinn and Estonia came out of the long period of occupation ready and able to prosper in the Broadband Economy.  It may even be that the skills learned behind the Iron Curtain - patience, adaptability, and learning to do a lot with little - were key ingredients in their success.  Which is another way of saying that knowing how to fall can be the key to rising again. 
Robert Bell Co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum

Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research and content development activities. He is the author of ICF's pioneering study, Benchmarking the Intelligent Community, the annual Top Seven Intelligent Communities of the Year white papers and other research reports issued by the Forum, and of Broadband Economies: Creating the Community of the 21st Century. Mr. Bell has also authored articles in The Municipal Journal of Telecommunications Policy, IEDC Journal, Telecommunications, Asia-Pacific Satellite and Asian Communications; and has appeared in segments of ABC World News and The Discovery Channel. A frequent keynote speaker and moderator at municipal and telecom industry events, he has also led economic development missions and study tours to cities in Asia and the US.