Re-imagined communities

In 1997 the ‘stress consultant’ Richard Carlson made the phrase ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’ into a popular self-help mantra – his bestselling book of that name was cleverly subtitled ‘and it’s all small stuff’. In an age of anxiety, he advised readers how to escape from “the neurotic art of spending much of our lives worrying about a variety of things all at once.” Twenty years later, that advice sounds quaint. Most social media tends to keep us – its ‘users’, a word that, appropriately, hints at addiction – sweating all day. The diminished importance of old-fashioned news has also blurred, if not altogether erased, the line between high and low culture. Our age of ‘infotainment’ bundles political and economic information together with gossip and sports updates until, for many people, they have become indistinguishable. (Solely on the evidence of his Twitter feed, with its misspellings, nicknames for opponents, early morning paranoia and crazed assertions, the current US President is one of these people.)


In 2008 the behavioural economist Richard Thaler and Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein turned Carlson’s insight on its head in the book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Thaler and Sunstein showed that, collectively, what may look like small stuff – such as choosing a pension scheme, or ticking a box for organ donation – could in fact be tweaked to deliver hugely consequential outcomes for an entire society. The UK government’s Behavioural Insights Team (better known as the ‘Nudge Unit’), created four years later, vindicated their thesis and showed that millions of pounds could be saved simply by tweaking the way the government interacted with its citizens. In one case the Nudge team doubled the amount of money the Courts Service collected in fines by sending text message reminders to people who hadn’t paid, ten days before bailiffs were due to visit their homes.

The desirable midpoint between the No Sweat and Nudge approaches has proved elusive, but that hasn’t deterred investors. Driven by the surge in big data and the eagerness of insurance and fitness companies to get Americans more active, a hugely popular US smartphone app called Sweatcoin has monetized its users’ physical activity by offering rewards for the number of steps that they take. In the rather Orwellian description of its co-founder, the app’s “first premise is that physical movement has economic value” – a value that Sweatcoin turns into cash, or at least its digital equivalent. With sufficient Sweatcoins a user can, for instance, get an iPhone X – the Times reporter who reviewed the app rather discouragingly worked out that this would require at least five years of activity at 13,000 steps a day. Further north, the Ontario government has invested $1.5 million in a smartphone app that not only rewards users for activity and other ‘healthy choices’ but serves up government-approved nudges toward healthier behaviour and sound financial investments.

These initiatives, however, pale when compared to progress that Estonia (population 1.3 million) has made towards what it describes as ‘e-citizenship’. Using open software platforms instead of traditional mainframes, and ensuring that each citizen owns their data exclusively, Estonia has leapt into the digital future. In order to expand its tax base, for example, the government launched an e-residency programme two years ago for individuals or businesses that wished to use its state-of-the-art e-services. To date this has attracted more than 3,000 new businesses and 20,000 individuals outside who have signed up for a local digital identity. Once obtained this identity relieves them of the need to fill in forms at banks, hospitals, universities and other institutions. Apart from marriage, divorce and house purchases, practically everything can be done online.

A key part of Estonia’s digital makeover has been the ‘once-only’ principle – the rule that government will not ask citizens the same question twice. A citizen’s age, education, income, residency etcetera is embedded in their digital identity and shared only with their explicit consent. Just as importantly, the data isn’t stored at a central location which reduces the danger of mass security breaches. Instead, it is transmitted with end-to-end encryption across X-road, the government’s data platform. (Decades of KGB surveillance have made Estonians extremely wary of surveillance and intrusions on their privacy.) The resulting reduction in bureaucratic costs have reportedly saved the nation two per cent of its GDP, roughly the cost of its membership in Nato. A former president has even joked that digitization has allowed Estonia to get its national security for free.

Thirty years ago Estonia was a little-known and fairly isolated country with a minority language and few obvious economic prospects. A far-sighted decision to nurture its technology sector ‒ Skype was developed there, as was the peer-to-peer money transaction service Transferwise – subsequently turned it into a world-leader in electronic communication, commerce and governance. It is hard not to look at what has been achieved there without considering what similar forward-thinking in Guyana and the Caribbean could achieve during the next thirty years.

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