Way back in the old days—say, five minutes ago—if you wanted to take advantage of what a country had to offer, you had to actually go there. But in the age of “Everything as a Service,” physically locating yourself in the country you want to “reside” seems so old school.
At least, that seems to be the rationale behind Estonia’s efforts to offer something called “e-residency.” As Taavi Kotka, Estonia's CIO, explained in Business Insider last week, "It’s called CaaS. There’s SaaS. We’re Country as a Service.”
Estonia is cooler than you think
Here’s the deal. If you didn’t know—and there’s really no big reason you should have—the Republic of Estonia is a tiny but technically advanced Baltic country of just 1.3 million people. According to Wikipedia, “Estonia is often described as one of the most internet-focused countries in Europe,” and it “boasts “an advanced, high-income economy and high living standards. Unfortunately, the population has been shrinking for decades.
The country’s problem, as Kotka told Business Insider, is that “it’s so far north people don’t want to be here physically. The only way to increase the population was [to] add them as digital ones." So far, the country has almost 10,000 e-residents. “In startup terms, that’s quite significant,” especially since Estonia is still working on the banking and financial aspects of Country as a Service.
What do e-residents get when they sign up for CaaS? It seems that all Estonians get a unique ID that lets them access many public- and private-sector digital services. E-residents get access to those public services, but the country hopes they will eventually set up online companies digitally based in Estonia.
When the banking issues are worked out, the country plans to promote the concept more heavily. But if CaaS catches on, it could seriously disrupt the concepts of citizenship and residency. Just as SaaS changed the ground rules of industry after industry, think of how CaaS could of disrupt current debates over issues such as immigration—or even what it means to be a nation/state.
What will CaaS disrupt?
What happens if large numbers of people physically live in one country, but they digitally access services and do business virtually in another? Questions of benefits and jurisdiction quickly become very complicated.
And what if countries start competing with each other over their CaaS offerings? Would that create new efficiencies and opportunities? Allow for real differentiation about what various countries actually offer? Or would it simply exacerbate the gaps between digital haves and have nots?
There’s no way to tell what happens when technology meets business meets politics in a situation like this. My bet is that something like CaaS is likely get a foothold in various places and in various ways, but its consequences won’t be clear until long after the processes are in place.
For now, though, it’s just another reminder that if you think a particular industry, activity or infrastructure is immune from the changes wrought by the ever-broadening reach of the internet, the cloud and Everything as a Service, you might want to think again.