Estonia is a small country in northern Europe that has about as many people as Hawaii; it became a global leader in technology, though. Here’s the valuable lesson for the world.

Estonia, a former Soviet republic, is now often considered one of the leading digital centers of the world (some call it “E-Stonia” as a result). People vote online, people do their tax returns in moments via mobile (and get their refunds in 48 hours), and the whole culture is digitally-savvy. There are many reasons for this, which I’ll leave to people smarter than me: The Economist, the BBCUSA TodayThe Guardian, and The Atlantic. There is a cultural/psychological element to how this all came about — i.e. they needed to emerge from Russia’s shadow, which caused them to really prioritize the idea of digital connectedness — and a more functional element as well — they invested time and money in infrastructure, and that could pay off in the long run (as they might draw some of the best minds from Europe and possibly even the U.S.). Here’s the contrast with the U.S. approach, as shown in The Atlantic:

Still, Estonia is a start-up country—not just by life stage, but by mindset.

And this is what United States, along with many other countries struggling toget the Internet, could learn from Estonia: the mindset. The willingness to get the key infrastructure right and continuously re-invent it. Before you build a health-insurance site, you need to look at what key components must exist for such a service to function optimally: signatures, transactions, legal frameworks, and the like.

Ultimately, the states that create these kinds of environments will be best positioned to attract the world’s increasingly mobile citizens.

Now, there’s a lot of context to this discussion — Estonia has 1.3 million people. The United States has around 330 million people. It’s a lot easier to focus on infrastructure around 1.3 than 330, for sure. But the true lesson in Estonia’s technological rise is actually about the mindset of what’s important. Doesn’t it often seem like crucial things that are important for the future of a nation — education, health care, commitment to technology, etc — are largely glossed over in the United States in favor of more immediate results-yielding (or revenue-yielding) projects? It does to me, and I don’t say that in terms of “Man, I’m leaving the U.S. tomorrow!” I’m not. It’s a great country and capitalism, while flawed in aspects, is a great system in terms of fostering innovation and choice. But when you read things about Estonia being “the tiny engine that could” in a way, you begin to think about the United States’ mindset. Are we too focused on the immediate and not focused enough on setting up for the future?

Ted Bauer