Wandering stars: are Tallinn's digital nomads building the city of the future?

Wandering stars: are Tallinn's digital nomads building the city of the future?

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Nicole Tan, a 29-year-old content marketer from Singapore, has visited enough places in the last year to make an Instagram follower weep: Jamaica, Miami, Portland, San Francisco, LA, Budapest, Slovenia, Berlin, Luxembourg, Iceland, Romania, Poland, Paris, Amsterdam and Thailand.

In almost all of those places, her working life has continued as usual. “Last year I was moving every other week, or almost every couple of days,” she says. “Time to go, time to go. I had to be at places.”

Tan is one of a growing number of “location-independent workers”, or digital nomads. Like many of them, she often has to fly under the radar because governments don’t recognise the way she works.

She and thousands of other nomads can travel on a tourist visa or work for a local company, but – though governments often turn a blind eye – it’s technically illegal for them to work remotely.

But – in one city at least – that won’t be the case for long. I meet Tan at Lift99, a co-working space in Tallinn. It’s part of Telliskivi Creative City, a hive of colour and enterprise near the main railway station. Once home to the imposing Kalinin electronics factory, the complex now hosts 250 companies, eight restaurants and an arcade of independent shops. There are ping-pong tables. There’s a flea market. There’s a mural showing a skeleton photobombing a hipster’s selfie (a parody of Bernt Notke’s Danse Macabre, a major tourist draw in the nearby Niguliste church).

Danse Macabre parody mural



Photograph: Peter Beech

Estonia has just announced the first official visa for digital nomads. The permit will entitle nomads to 365 days of working in Estonia, including 90 days’ travel in the Schengen area. Since EU citizens can already move and work freely, it is aimed at people from further afield: the US, Asia and Latin America (and potentially post-Brexit Britain). It will be launched in January 2019.

“I think it’s great,” says Tan. “It’s about time we had something like this.”

Famously, Estonia is the state where everything happens online. Internet access is enshrined as a basic human right. Seven-year-olds are taught to code. Citizens can vote, secure mortgages and open bank accounts via the second-fastest public wifi in the world. You can open a business in 10 minutes without leaving your cafe table.

It’s also a nation entranced by the power of startups, where there’s a revolving door between the tech scene and government. As a result, the vaunting utopianism of its digital gurus often finds its way into government policy.

In case you hadn’t heard – and you will if you visit – Tallinn is the birthplace of Skype, whose phenomenal success in the early 2000s was built around a core of work by Estonian developers. It showed the youth of this wintry former Soviet state that great things were possible; like the legendary Velvet Underground gig, everyone who was there went on to start something else.

“It almost feels like startups have taken over the city,” according to Norris Koppel, the CEO of Monese, a banking app. The wall at Lift99 features an #EstonianMafia Wall of Fame, which lists firms that have hit $5m in investment: Pipedrive, TransferWise, Funderbeam, Taxify.

Wall art in Tallinn’s Creative City complex.



Wall art in Tallinn’s Creative City complex. Photograph: Peter Beech

It’s even a startup that is spearheading the digital nomad visa: Jobbatical, which encourages businesses to cast their recruitment nets wider than usual. In the company’s office, which occupies a converted apartment block in Tallinn’s formerly industrial Kalamaja district, amid beanbags, bowls of sweets and motivational wall quotes (“Don’t wait to be asked”; “Go beyond yourself”), the staff of 39 drawn from 15 different nationalities work to link roving digital workers with employers across the globe.

Jobbatical’s founder and CEO, Karoli Hindriks, first discussed a digital nomad visa with Estonia’s youthful president, Kersti Kaljulaid, over a year ago, and harbours a bold dream of a future without national boundaries.

“Borders are not the reflection of policy and politicians,” she said in a Ted talk delivered late last year. “They are the reflection of the borders in our heads. They are the borders that keep us from pursuing our dreams … You, me, us – we are the border guards of our lives.”

‘The world has changed. We’re trying to catch up’

Killu Vantsi at the Ministry of the Interior has the more mundane task of removing the diplomatic clouds from this blue-sky vision.

“To be honest, the workforce in the globalised world is very mobile,” she says. “The rules for visas and work permits are based on the classic work situation, where you live and work in one place, but the rules have not gone together with developments in the work field. So it’s time, we think.”

Roving trade, you could say, is in Tallinn’s blood. In the 850 years since it was first marked on a map by an Arab geographer, the city has played host to merchants of every stripe, drawn to its coastal position linking Europe and Russia. Since the 12th century, it has been conquered by Swedish and German armies; Russia has occupied it three times, for a total of 250 years. It’s a city that understands open borders.

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The last time the Soviets rolled in, they stayed for most of the 20th century. So, after gaining independence in 1991, Estonia fought its way out of the resulting slump by turning to the west – and by investing heavily in digital infrastructure.

Its much-publicised e-residency scheme, launched in 2014, offers citizens everywhere access to its online platforms without them having to actually live in the country. E-residents can start a business, process payments and sign documents online, just like ordinary Estonians.

An event with the famed Skype team at Lift99.



An event with the famed original Skype team at Lift99. Photograph: Harry Tiits Photography/ Lift99

It is clear that Tallinn wants to court a specific type of person: the world’s laptop-wielding transnationals.

Even the job title given to e-residency’s head marketer smacks of Silicon Valley: “chief evangelist”. “It’s something a lot of tech companies have,” says Adam Rang, who holds the post. “We like to think of ourselves as a government startup.”

His pitch is well-polished. “People say e-residency is trying to change the world. We say no: the world has already changed. We’re trying to catch up,” he tells me at Tallinn Creative Hub. Formerly the Tallinn City Central Power Station, this brooding industrial monolith was used by Andrei Tarkovsky in his 1979 film Stalker.

“We made sure Estonians can do everything online – long before digital nomads were even a thing,” says Rang. “So it makes sense that, if we’ve got those opportunities, we should offer them to non-Estonians as well.”

The programme initially set the grandiose aim of 10 million “digital citizens” by 2025; it currently has 40,000, and has revised its target to 20,000 e-residency companies by 2021. Meanwhile, it is pushing ahead with a LinkedIn-style social network and an app, to be launched this summer.

Officially, e-residency is not a route to full residency, but “there is a path”, Rang says. “Once e-residents travel here and start doing business with Estonian companies, it becomes very easy to take the step to live here as well.”

In November, the number of monthly applications exceeded the country’s birth rate. At a time when Estonia needs to attract 440,000 immigrants just to retain its current population size of 1.3 million, e-residency and the digital nomad visa could be seen as clever border policy: with 65 million citizens going spare in the age of migration, it’s a diplomatic sleight of hand to select the digitally savvy among them.

In fact, you could argue that one aim is to reduce Russia’s influence by loading the city with western entrepreneurs. Tallinn remains home to many Russian-speaking Estonians, left over from the industrial immigrants shipped over to labour in huge Soviet combinant plants. Large numbers live in gloomy brutalist blocks in areas that are a byword for social problems, such as in the deprived Lasnamäe district. Though Russian-speakers make up 36% of the city’s population, the distrust they face from ethnic Estonians has been slow to subside. Young Russian-Estonians are twice as likely to be unemployed, while Russian schools in Tallinn have been refused the right to teach ethnic Russians in their own language.

Memory here is long. Just 30 seconds’ walk from where Vantsi and her team fine-tune the country’s borderless visions are the underground cells at Pagari 1, where Estonian nationalists were interrogated by the KGB. “I don’t know an Estonian person who doesn’t have a story of somebody in their family being directly affected by being killed or being tortured, so it’s pretty raw,” says Daniel James Coll, a British Lasnamäe resident who recently ran for local government on a platform of improving infrastructure and healing divisions.

Sunset in the Soviet-era Lasnamaë district.



Sunset in the Soviet-era Lasnamaë district. Photograph: DmitriMaruta/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The city reflects this continuing mistrust. “You go to parts of Tallinn and you’ll see places that are as managed and well-kept as the best part of smaller English towns. And then you come here, and you’ll see that these crossovers are falling apart, and there’s no signage on the roads, no lines on the roads. The government just don’t bother putting money into it. It happens on every level,” says Coll.

Meanwhile, cracks are forming in the digital facade. The country’s top banks have been closing the accounts of e-residents en masse, triggered by a wave of money-laundering accusations in the Baltics. On Facebook forums, debates multiply about where exactly e-residents are taxed and what the scheme entitles them to.

“Right now, we’re a bit like savages. We just offer something, without knowing what the consequences might be,” says business lawyer Sten Luiga. “Government officials like e-residency, because they have something to speak about when they visit their colleagues abroad. But it is almost impossible to understand what Estonia really gains from it. And people are becoming sceptical because there are no answers.”

Luiga is concerned that upscaling the project so rapidly makes it hard for Tallinn’s banking and legal communities to anticipate the risks. “The programme has been run as a startup, because our government is young and enthusiastic so they try to impress. However the government, a responsible government, can’t act in the way that startups act. Nine out of 10 startups don’t fly. You can’t shut down the only government we have because it didn’t fly.”

Even more scathing about the state’s e-topian vision of a “borderless digital nation” is Dario Cavegn, a Swiss journalist at ERR, the Estonian national broadcaster. He scribbles on a piece of paper in the office’s cafeteria to show how it easy it would be for e-residents to move money out of the country through loans, default on their debts, and open another company within minutes. “You don’t know what people are using this kind of setup for. You have no idea,” he says. “The government provides a legal framework, but they haven’t taken into consideration what happens once a system like that is freely available.”

In other words, it’s classic startup behaviour. With a startup, you develop a “minimum viable product”, Cavegn says, and go to market as soon as you can in a bid to attract buzz. “It’s like these guys don’t realise the real-life implications of what they’re doing, and that nothing is actually quite that simple.” He chuckles. “I would really like to know: if e-residency is so important and if everybody’s been waiting for this, where are the masses that were supposed to come kicking down our door? Where the hell are all these people?”

Digital destiny?

Even the sceptics seem to agree that Tallinn is on the right track, though. The city’s youth are broadly excited about the tech scene, which they consider Estonia’s best chance of prosperity; the country’s movers and shakers are young, energetic and full of ideas (Estonia’s prime minister is 39, its president 48).

A terrace at one of Telliskivi’s numerous cafes.



A terrace at one of Telliskivi’s numerous cafes. Photograph: Peter Forsberg/Alamy Stock Photo

“Estonia had 20-odd years of independence before the second world war and the Soviet occupation, and then the utter omnishambles the place was after 1991, and they pulled themselves out of it by the boot straps,” Cavegn says. “The whole digital thing was a lifeline.”

It’s also clearly true that more people could work remotely than currently do. In the UK, a recent poll showed that 60% of 18-35 year olds were actively looking to move abroad, and with little prospect of them owning their own homes, nothing is really stopping them.

Out of its post-Soviet ruin, Tallinn has rebuilt itself as a borderless digital city of the future, moving with a speed and flexibility that older bureaucracies lack. It’s a place where ideas progress smoothly – sometimes too smoothly – from corporate thinkspace to reality, and which is cleverly positioned to attract the wandering digital workers who are predicted to number a billion by 2035.

Tech idealism and state government aren’t natural bedfellows, however. Startups run on a rhetoric of irrational daring: if you can dream it, you can do it. Governments, on the other hand, have to work responsibly to protect every member of society. For all its advances, Estonia still struggles with the worst income inequality in Europe.

Similarly, it’s a grand aim to conjure up a digital nomad hotspot from scratch. Tallinn has a long way to go before it catches global magnets such as Medellín or Chiang Mai, where the coconut cocktails are on tap and the sun rarely stays hidden for long. In the Estonian capital on the day the new visa was announced, it was -11C.

But the culture here is of a shoot-for-the-moon optimism. “The streetlamps might be rusty and the roads might not be quite right, but what they are planning to do is running,” says Coll. “And they’re just going to keep going until it works.”

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