The Future That Should Be Here Now

I recently shared some thoughts on how surprisingly hard it has been to adjust to how mundane and bureaucratic everyday activities still can be in otherwise tech-advanced Silicon Valley, compared to back home in Estonia. The video from Stanford GSB YouTube channel:

This is probably the longest-prepared short speech I’ve ever delivered, as a finale of a whole-winter-quarter-long LOWKeynotes program at Stanford GSB in 2013. A text version is below the fold, and if you got anything out of watching this, I’m sure you would enjoy all of the videos from my peers in the program. All of the outcomes were worthy of the effort put in, but if you need help from where to start, try the videos from Lukasz Strozek (on digital hoarding) and Evan Moore (on not believing in God) first.

Due to the iterative presentation development process of the LOWKeynotes program, I actually have a much more thorough written trail of how this story came together. Including two versions below, the final draft (which the video version came structurally pretty close if you would rather read) and for historic reference also the first idea cut (scroll all the way down):

The Future That Should Be Here Now – FINAL DRAFT

I am 35 years old and I wrote the first cheque in my life a few months ago. It was for something or another at my son’s public school, and for some reason they were not willing to accept debit card, credit card, Square or PayPal. I didn’t even offer a wire transfer – the only time I’ve tried to do that in the US, I had to take an hour to physically go to a bank branch and fill out 2 sheets of forms. So, I wrote a cheque to the school, pen on paper.

Two weeks ago I went to San Francisco, parked my car on the street — using my mobile phone as any normal person would. I got a ticket 2 minutes later. When I went to the Transport Agency’s [SFMTA] website to challenge it — figuring that if you can pay fines online, proving you’ve done nothing wrong shouldn’t be any harder — I learned I again need to print two pages paper, sign them on paper, get an envelope and a stamp from somewhere, and send it to San Francisco by snail mail to start a few weeks of dialogue just to argue I was actually legally parked. I did nothing wrong and spent a few hours at least on this.

* * *

These little adventures back into the 19th century would be just amusing, and well aligned with the horses and carriage my US bank proudly wears on their logo, if they weren’t so tragic. Today I want to talk to you about…

  1. the miserable waste they generate for the society,
  2. how unjustified these pains are,
  3. the future that should be here now.

* * *

First, everyday frictions cost a lot to us personally and to the society. Why is that when Facebook is 2 seconds slower than usual, you are starting to get anxious — but another hour wasted at the DMV is a necessary evil you’ll just bare with?

Let’s say that we are all spending, on average, 10 minutes a week  on this analogue bureaucracy.

10 saved minutes a week is about 1 full working day a year.

Between 38M people in California alone we’re talking 100,000 human years wasted in a single year. Or, if this “years per year” construct is too abstract, think of it as 1,500 human lifetimes wasted a single year.

If you want to think entire US – add a zero. 15,000 human lifetimes.

And by the way, I’m afraid wasting just an extra, unnecessary 10 minutes a week on things you have to do, rather than want to could be a slight underestimate, don’t you think? The stories I shared above were all several hours each to sort out…

* * *

Secondly, let me remind you, it is 2013 and we are in the middle of Silicon Valley. In the one place that is infamous around the world for creating all these beautiful technologies meant for consumers on the internet. The newest and coolest tools for social networking and search and sharing pictures and buying things and meeting people and listening to music and watching movies — they are often born in the Valley and then expand to take over the rest of the world.

There is no way to argue that these pains of being a good citizen are about lack of understanding of technology, lack of talent or ability to design human-friendly services. Think about it – If Apple designed the DMV’s retail experience, what would it look like?

* * *

I came to Stanford from from Estonia. How many of you have heard of Estonia?

Those of you who raised a hand, let me guess what you’ve heard. Maybe that unfortunate incident when we were occupied by a certain Communist superpower for 50 years? Or that it can get quite cold and dark and snowy so far up North?

What I guess many of you might not have heard is a Freedom of the Net Report published by Freedom House in Washington, DC, United States ranks honourably #2 in the world for internet freedom. Surprisingly, the #1 spot belongs to Estonia.

We have a million people online, which wouldn’t be anything that remarkable if you didn’t consider we have less than 1.3M people in Estonia over all.

The country is covered with high speed wireless broadband and for the large part it is free. 100% of schools and government have been online for a while now.

80% internet penetration is pretty similar to US, but more importantly, let’s look at what that ubiquitous connectivity is used for. *SLIDE* 99% of bank transactions are online. We joke that these 1% of transactions are made in banks by the truly rich – those rich in excess time.

94% of tax reports are filed online. And by the latter I don’t mean that there is a web form you have to fill, but that you click “next-next-submit” to verify a pre-populated electronic data and, in majority of cases, get any returns on your bank account 2 days later.

We put a nationwide digital signature in place since 2001, which means that by today 92% of the people carry digital certificates on their ID card or in their mobile phone. This allows them to legally sign any document or log into any site proving that they are who they claim to be. As one application, in 2005 we were the first country in history to hold nationwide elections on the internet and in 2011, already a quarter of all votes for our Parliament came digitally. But more importantly, as many other parts of the open infrastructure this is not “a government thing”, but something private people and companies can freely use to securely transact with each-other too.

* * *

I am talking about the Estonian example here only because that’s where I’ve spent most of my life. I’m sure there are people in the audience who come from Singapore or South Korea or Finland or the Netherlands – they would have similar stories to share.

The point is not to brag or compete here. Given where we’ve gotten to with the accessible computing power, with the fact that every one of you is carrying it in your pocket right now and you’re always connected: Things that we have to do shouldn’t be so much harder than the things we want to do.

There is a future that should be here now. Because it is already here for many people who have similar or even less tech than you have in Silicon Valley.

When you leave this campus, into businesses or non-profits or government — or just your role as a citizen, I call for all of you to demand that future, or even better – dream it, define it and deliver it every day.

And if you could use some further inspiration, some tiny countries around the world would be happy to share. Thank you.

And for history, this was Week 1:

LOWKeynote on being a digital citizen – IDEA PROPOSAL

  • coming from small Nordic country, tech advanced
  • shocked when coming to US, how big are the differences
    • how people perceive technology
    • how people barely use tech for a good citizen
      • file taxes
      • make a bank transaction
      • sign a contract
      • park a car
  • paint a picture of the world that could be
    • how tech could help people in their daily lives outside of social networks and search engines
    • Digital Society Components (E-Estonia)

UPDATE: re-used the content above to experiment with Medium: the post with inline slides.


  • We did imagined a world with the DMV line redesigned, and Sten was one of the first see and encourage us at StartupSauna WarmUp in Tallinn a while back.
    By today we have created Qminder – the simplest queue management system and giving people their time back around the world. http://www.qminderapp.com

    “Demand that future, or even better – dream it, define it and deliver it every day.”

    Thanks Sten and keep on demanding!

    • Indeed, Qminder plugs well into this storyline. However I think the process design at DMV could use some unpacking from far before a queue of any kind assembles…

  • Some Guy

    I agree that we should think about processes the average citizen faces, and look at how those can be improved. Because of volume, the time saved overall can be tremendous.

    However, I also think you need to look at processes that the average person does every day, not the more rare situations. How many people need to protest parking tickets? The process isn’t online, but there is a form you can fill out and mail it in:http://www.sfmta.com/cms/penf/documents/ARPROTESTFORM.pdf

    You write about how difficult it is to mail something, but I don’t see why. Just about everyone passes a mailbox in the course of their daily life.

    Looking at taxes, the US tax system complexity has nothing to do with technology, but rather the government’s interest (and we’ll assume the people as well) in legislating behavior through the tax system (tax credits for this and that, deductions for something else, etc). The US tax system is overly complex, which can be witnessed by the fact that people need to engage expert accountants or use specialized software (TurboTax, Taxcut) to do them. The complexity comes not from technology, but from the overall system.

    Now let’s look at your DMV example. On the California DMV site, you can renew your driver’s license and car registration without every having to go to their office. You can do it all online or perhaps through mail.

    Meanwhile, on Estonia’s DMV site (http://www.mnt.ee/?id=11342) you can’t renew your driver’s license or registration online at all. Want to sell a car in Estonia? Both buyer and seller need to go to the DMV together. In the US, the seller can just show up with a signed title. Want to turn in old license plates? In my state, I can either mail them in, or there’s a special kiosk at the DMV for this, with no waiting.

    Or let’s look at the Estonian banking sector. How do you get a debit or credit card in Estonia? You have to go to a specific bank branch and pick it up. In the US, it comes in the mail. My bank in the US doesn’t even have branches – I interact with them online and by phone.

    Next let’s look at the Estonian ID cards and the ability to digitally sign documents. It’s not accepted in Estonia by banks as a power of attorney (I know, I tried), nor by notaries. I had to get a notarized power of attorney, and then an apostille, to have a power of attorney accepted in Estonia.

    If you look at the San Francisco city government’s website, the online services available to citizen largely reflect the types of activities they will need, like reporting a broken street light, or paying a parking ticket. How do you report a broken street light in Tallinn? There’s no form for it last I checked (just a general contact form – avaldus). Sure, you can request a building permit online in Tallinn, but how often does the average citizen do that? Here’s a list of services from the city of San Francisco: http://www.sf311.org/

    I agree with you that there is plenty of room for improvement, especially in the tax system. However, I think the time being wasted in the US is not as bad as you say, and the Estonian “e-country” isn’t so automated and smooth as people think either.

    • Thanks for the thorough and critical read and response! I am far from claiming Estonia is a perfect example (let alone how Tallinn is governed – even if they do have a “report a broken streetlight” hotline), as I underlined this just happens to be the example I know.

      Some of your counterexamples are actually quite interesting – as I have received debit/credit cards by mail in Estonia if that’s what I want, never visited DMV to buy a car and am yet to run into a something I needed but couldn’t do with the ID-card (have not tried power of attorney stuff)… I think there is a whole another topic embedded here: which of these annoyances are generic and which just a factor of being an alien? I know my student-visa based, social security and credit history-less presence makes me less of a human in CA anyway, when dealing with banks, telcos, IRS or whoever. To some extent this is fine, I understand I am a guest and this state should not be designed for me, but its citizens foremost. Yet, I for sure I would want the generally digital Estonia be much more welcoming for anyone coming from outside.

      Oh, and I apologize, but “what’s difficult about sending snail mail” is quite an amusing positioning of the question for me – much like “what’s difficult about taking a boat across Atlantic”. Why would anyone ship large volumes of atoms if shipping the exact same information as bits is possible? To burn more oil, cut trees for paper and create non-productive jobs (lifting bags, opening envelopes and retyping info?) in the entire supply chain? For sure it is not to transport information actually required for the process in the most efficient way for citizens, customers or taxpayers…

      • Some Guy

        Fair enough on the alien vs citizen in a country. I do have an Estonian ID card (and isikukood), but I am not a citizen, so maybe things are by nature going to be more complicated for me.

        I agree that snail mail is not the most efficient if things can be done otherwise (and I agree SF should accept online appeals — my state does for example). What I meant is that snail mail is not that difficult to use, and in fact I think the US postal system works remarkably well if you consider the cost, delivery times, and volume of mail they handle daily. The way I interpreted your post is that you found the process difficult to find a stamp and mail a letter, and it shouldn’t be.

        Estonia has an excellent postal service, in that pretty much the whole country is next day delivery. I was always surprised how Estonians wanted to meet to give me some item or piece of paper that could have been easily mailed, apparently out of distrust in the efficiency of the postal service there. I always found it to work perfectly, which cannot be said of some other countries in Europe in my experience.

        The reason is bring this up is that I think a functioning, efficient postal service is one of the necessary elements for businesses to flourish, and I consider it part of a country’s vital infrastructure just like highways and electricity.

        • Yeah, indeed, there is the legal status, and then just the mental models that develop when you grow up in a certain environment. Maybe I would be gentler on mailing cheques if I had seen my parents and grandparents do it without ever raising an eyebrow… But then again, maybe that’s where some external feedback becomes useful, both ways.

          Re: postal service, I do agree as well that it is part of an important infrastructure, and the larger the nation, the more complex to run an efficient system (thinking just of the outrage USPS suffered over deciding to kill Saturday deliveries of letters – a fully rational decision IMHO). And e-commerce is a perfect example – you need feet on the ground to deliver the atoms you bought, but for sure you don’t need them to place the order (information), close the transaction (information) and move the money (information). But I guess we’re in agreement here anyway.

          And for me the personal snail mail friction is not the lack of mailboxes, but the fact that I’ve chosen not to own a printer (one can _almost_ study paperless at Stanford), I don’t stock a stamp or envelope for 99% of information-based transactions in my life. So every time one (irrationally) comes along, I reserve the right to question why. As I believe 5-10 years from now there will be more rather than less weirdos like me. 🙂

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  • Andrew Atkins

    Interesting topic (saw it after someone shared it on Facebook), but I would argue that the premise upon which the presentation was built on is a bit flawed.

    One of the key questions the presentation started with was why do the banks in the US still use checks? The banking system in this country is hundreds of years old. Sure, that by itself is not the reason not to innovate, but it just serves as a reminder of how complex the problem may be. Estonia has perhaps a handful banks, if that, all of which built its infrastructure in the country in the last 18 years or so. The clearing system and the corresponding infrastructure in the US (http://goo.gl/bI7fe) handles money movements worth almost $500 trillion per year. There are so many players in the ecosystem of funds movement that you simply cannot redesign the ecosystem in a few decades. Estonia started from a blank sheet in the early 1990s, so you really end up just comparing apples and oranges. Yes, money movement is involved, but it’s a totally different scale, and a different set of problems, which you can’t simply change by changing legislation or by funding innovation at a single bank.

    Your anecdotal encounter with the public school is not surprising at all. First, you can just use online bill payment to make a payment. Very electronic experience–doesn’t clear until a few days and although the bank actually issues a check to FED from the user’s perspective it’s a simple online payment. You can do it from your iPhone too if you’d like. Another thing to remember is that public schools do not accept payments as part of their daily operations, so having a Square-enabled device or some other POS device as part of their daily operations is probably not their top-most priority. Also, it’s a reconciliation problem. It’s easier for the older generation administrators to put a checkmark on paper and track who has paid than to start cross checking student IDs on a banking platform. They would also have to factor in the credit card fees, etc. Also, they are not in the business of making your life easier.

    The second question that was raised was along the lines of: “How could any federal or local government plicate something like he e-Estonia platform?” I think you “preached” to the wrong audience. The entrepreneurs (or at least the type that would build solutions for the problems you describe) are usually motivated by revenue. The revenue source is determined by the government’s (federal or local) willingness to fund these types of projects. Funding has to be competitive, only then can a problem attract the best ideas. So the flaw is not so much in the lack of willingness to innovate in this area (the role of business schools graduates, IT community) as it is in the lack of willingness to fund the innovation (by the politicians). I would argue that the only reason Estonia was able to build the ecosystem, in addition to their willingness to invest into the incubator projects (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiigrih%C3%BCpe), was simply because they had carte blanche prior to 1991 and the country has the adult population of less than 1 million. Although it is unclear how much of that funding was just given by the EU; so no big sacrifices were necessarily made even by the local politicians and government. Many of these projects were and probably still are funded by the EU tax payers.

    Finally, the comparison of efficiency and turning those minutes into lifetimes is cute, but I’m not sure how it really illustrates much. I would argue that 10 minutes of daily bureaucracy is actually pretty good, depending on how much you deal with the public sector. The same argument can be made about reading or writing emails, responding to blogs (pun intended), consuming news content, etc., even eating or going to bathroom. Lots of lifetimes are “spent.” Just like schools are not in the business of making your life easier, the same goes for local governments. Did anyone in this thread think for a minute why protesting of tickets is not available online? Just a wild guess: it is there to lower the incentives of doing so in the first place; because people on average are whiners (especially the generation Y–the self-entitled brats), so the government would want only those to protest who truly feel that they were wronged. Put the service online and you’ll need a small army of people to process the claims because they would be too numerous.

    • Thanks for putting in time for the lengthy addition to the discussion. I am a bit confused about the link between “premise of the talk being flawed” statement and the following arguments, though. US and Estonia different – for sure, for good reasons a few of which you listed. For sure I did not hold an assumption this is a 1:1 comparison, or that the solutions should be identical. To a large part I was speaking exactly about the differences as they can be seen by a simple user – and suggesting maybe there is stuff to learn from each others, not to settle with status quo as the inevitable…

      And I do disagree strongly with counter-innovation suggestions like “public services need to be broken because that’s how they’ve always been, it makes the life of bureaucrats easier and change is complex”. This is only human, of course, we get a fair share of that back in Estonia too – and progress can only be made once enough people zoom out to remember who exists for whom in this picture: customers for the bank or vice versa? State for the citizens or the other way around? You might not like the “self-entitled brats of gen Y”, but if you’re a public official elected or hired by them (among others), you better get used to understanding what kind of services they expect.

      And yeah, extrapolating time waste can be argued around, but it does stand as a common technique in assessing potential ROI of user experience improvements. And as a small nuance, your examples of “reading emails, consuming news and responding to blogs” are all mostly examples of things that you do by choice, things that you want to do. Paying taxes or renewing a licence are things that you have to do (leaving aside a passive-agressive “go live somewhere else if you don’t like them”), changing for me the premise for how much time waste forced upon users should be tolerated. Another distinction I tried to get across with this speech.

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