Europe's Coolest Cities Tallinn, Estonia's Wired Capital

Tallinn is not just a world heritage site with a history ranging far back to the Middle Ages -- by bestowing its citizens with the fundamental right to free Internet access, Estonia has also become the most-wired country in Eastern Europe.
Von Erich Follath

Almost every month, Tallinn is given a new superlative, a new award or a new compliment: The city is dubbed the "Hong Kong of the Baltics," one of the "seven most intelligent cities in the world," the "boom town of the new Europe" or the "tiger of the north."

A mundane metropolis? The big wide world?

At first glance, Tallinn seems more like a dollhouse that wants to shut itself off from everything evil out there -- like a medieval marzipan miniature whose beauty makes it sufficient unto itself. Strong walls and defiant barbicans enclose the alleys of the historic city center; horses' hooves clatter over the cobblestones; young Estonians dressed up as knaves and ladies of the castle advertise the traditional restaurants Peppersack and Olde Hanse to tourists on the splendidly restored town hall square. The town hall pharmacy sells herbal mixtures prepared according to recipes dating back to 1422 -- the year when it began tending to the town's sick.

Tallinn was the beloved of many a lord: The Danes were involved in the founding of the city. It experienced its glory days under the Teutonic Order, which administered it according to the laws of the Hanseatic city of Lübeck and renamed it Reval. Sweden and Russia have also left their mark on Tallinn. The city was occupied by the Nazis and later by the Soviets. But it seems to have fulfilled its true destiny only since Estonia finally became independent in 1991. Tallinn has become a gateway between East and West -- a UNESCO world heritage site and a center of technological innovation at the same time.

Tallinn successfully combines the world of high-tech with that of the Middle Ages, linking tradition with cyberspace. Just how successfully it does so only becomes apparent following a second, closer look at the city and conversations with Estonians like urban planner Endrik Mänd, corporate consultant Jüri Saar and university rector Signe Kivi.

Mänd, a live wire unable to remain on his office chair for longer than five minutes, likes his job -- with one qualification. "I'm really too old for it," the 36-year-old says. His co-workers are almost a decade younger, on average, Mänd, who studied architecture, adds. He presents colorful graphs showing the 400,000-resident boom town's budget surplus. Tallinn's economic growth regularly exceeds that of the entire country, with an 11.4 percent increase last year alone. And when he proudly describes the city as a "surfer's paradise," it isn't the waves in the Gulf of Finland he's talking about.

Crazy about the Net

Few countries are as crazy about the Internet as Estonia, and no capital city can keep up with Tallinn on that count. All schools are connected to the Internet; more than 90 percent of all bank transactions are conducted online; and there are more mobile phones than residents. Tallinn's citizens pay for their parking tickets and their bus passes by sending text messages from their mobile phones. Time-consuming visits to public authorities are largely a thing of the past, too. Estonians can even obtain birth certificates via the Internet and request parental assistance payments from the government in the same way. "The state guarantees Internet access free of charge as a basic right," says Mänd. "And of course the politicians have to keep step with the civil servants."

Tallinn has pushed persistently forward with its so-called "tiigrihüppe" (tiger leap) online offensive to wire the entire country. Since last year, citizens have been able to comfortably elect their parliamentarians from behind their home computers. Parliamentary and town hall debates are now recorded without producing any paper trail, and every seat in parliament and town hall is equipped with a laptop. Citizens can contact their e-government at any time, at least in theory. And Estonian citizens and travelers alike can log onto the Internet via wireless Internet hot spots in public buildings, bars and cafés -- in most cases for free.

Information technology has long since become the driving force behind Tallinn's modernization and economic growth. It has transformed the city into a magnet for young experts from all over Europe. "The programmers educated here are among the most in demand the world over," says Jüri Saar. "It's not for nothing that a company like Skype, the pioneer of Internet telephone communication, has set up its research division in our city," he adds. Saar is the director of a publicly funded training program designed to help young entrepreneurs take their first steps in the world of business. He has a degree in economics and looks like a Hollywood star. Only 26 years of age, he also runs a small company on the side.

His simply furnished office is located in Ülemiste City on the edge of Tallinn. Here, on the premises of a former Soviet arms factory, "the most modern city of innovation in the north" is to take shape in the next few years with the help of European Union (EU) subsidies. The innovation campus is expected to provide jobs in the information technology and genetic engineering sectors for about 16,000 people. Business developer Saar is still planning on a smaller, more manageable scale: He offers young start-ups a first office space complete with free telephone and Internet connections for about €70 ($96) a month, in addition to training courses financed by the city and meetings with other entrepreneurs to help them solve problems together.

One Week to Success

How much time does it take for someone to become a young entrepreneur? "Registering a company takes about a week," Saar says. "A start-up space then becomes available here within 72 hours."

Signe Kivi, 50, also doesn't shy away from taking risks. A 50-year-old cosmopolitan woman with long, fire-red hair, Kivi knows that a metropolis of the future must also be a cultural capital. The professor, who studied textile design also knows what she's talking about. Before becoming a professor two years ago at the internationally renowned Estonian Academy of Arts in Tallinn, Kivi served as a member of parliament for the Liberal Party and also a term as the country's culture minister.

Kive, who exudes boundless energy and entrepreneurial spirit, loves her hometown for its contradictions. She lives in a historic building with a view of the town hall, regularly visits the lovingly restored merchants' homes, which have in many cases been converted into hotels with names like Schlössle, Telegraaf and Merchant's House. But she also likes to take her friends out to the cool bars and chic lounges that seem to be cropping up everywhere these days -- as well as to the few eerie bars still left over from the Soviet era.

One of the most beautiful modern museums to be built in recent years was created under the direction of Culture Minister Kivi -- the Kumu, inaugurated in 2006. The hyper-modern glass construction, whose bold angles slice up the landscape like a sword, is surrounded by greenery and is located just a few steps away from Tallinn's traditional art temple, the baroque Kadriorg Palace. A city-funded project for the town's alternative scene is also now taking shape in an old suburban factory. When finished, it will offer a new venue for painters, happenings and grunge parties.

Kivi is currently working to physically expand her academy, which is already highly diversified in terms of the content it offers: There are courses of study on photography, fashion design and animation. Kivi teaches students from both Eastern and Western Europe, and she takes special care to ensure her contacts with Moscow remain positive. The relationship between Tallinn's Estonian and Russian citizens has been tense following April's deadly riots over a disputed Soviet war memorial.

"We need to make sure the mutual prejudices do not escalate violently," says Signe Kivi, as she pays for her extremely bitter Estonian liquor with her electronic chip card. "We are not invulnerable, despite our successes. Hackers who quite obviously worked from Russia recently waged a cyberwar on us and temporarily shut down large parts of the Internet -- that is the danger of progress."

Just how playfully and self-confidently Estonia's tourism professionals deal with the Soviet heritage can be seen from the adverts of businesses such as balticEVENT. The company offers a KGB evening complete with arrest and "interrogation" -- and a subsequent round of vodka and reconciliation with the enemy.

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