Tuvalu woman working with laptop on a beach hammock

What makes a digital nation?

From Tuvalu in the South Pacific to Estonia in Northern Europe, how is the concept of ‘nationhood’ entering the digital space?

As digital transformation reshapes industries and societies, the very definition of a country, and a nation, is increasingly challenged and redefined. Over the last few decades, Estonia has built an advanced digital society for its 1.3 million citizens and residents. Since 2014, Estonia even started to welcome e-residents into its digital nation, some of whom have grown a sense of transnational belonging in the country where they have chosen to do business. Now serving 100,000 e-⁠residents and counting, many of whom never set foot on Estonian soil, what does this mean for nationhood as a concept?

Indeed, is the soil itself even a prerequisite?

As global sea levels rise and threaten the physical existence of low-lying island nations, the concept of a “digital nation” is not just an innovative idea, but a potential lifeline. At the forefront is Tuvalu, a Pacific island nation grappling with the imminent threat of submersion.

Comprising three coral islands and six atolls, Tuvalu’s total land mass is less than 26 sq km – making Estonia sound vast by comparison. Before recent publicity (including a series of awards at Cannes Lion 2023) around its present peril, many people had never heard of this tiny country. Although, they may have known it digitally from the popularity of its “dot-tv” top-level domain, beloved of media companies in the early waves of the dotcom boom.

Climate predictions now suggest that half the land area of Tuvalu’s capital, Funafuti, could be inundated by tidal waters within the next three decades. Indeed, the very fabric of daily life in Tuvalu is already changing. Buildings cluster towards the centre of islands, roads narrow to a few metres between opposite shorelines. Stories of residents finding themselves knee-deep in seawater where once their crops thrived are becoming commonplace. The once-revered sea, which provides sustenance and livelihood, now also poses a critical danger, and tide predictions haunt people’s nightmares.

But in the face of such adversity, Tuvalu is not resigned to its fate.

In a powerful virtual address to the COP27 assembly, Tuvaluan Minister Simon Kofe took the world’s leaders to task for their failure to act on their commitments in the 2015 Paris Agreement, a failure which makes it likely that his country will be the first to be geographically eliminated by climate change. He then described the groundbreaking plans underway to not only preserve its rich culture and history online, but to maintain its nationhood.  In September, Kofe also announced that these plans have been enshrined in the country’s constitution.

Echoing its early grasp of the intrinsic value of online territory, the vision is audacious and ambitious: Tuvalu will become the first wholly digitised nation, existing in the metaverse, when lost to the physical world.

Preserving one islet at a time

It’s hard to imagine how a permanent sense of community and belonging could be maintained virtually, even in a fully spatial internet environment that could be navigated at will. Yet historically, religious and cultural diasporas have persisted in maintaining their beliefs, traditions and cultural identities, centuries before ongoing communication was possible.

The islet of Te Afualiku is expected to be the first part of the country that will be lost to climate change. So, this was the first to be recreated digitally.

With a $0 media budget, the project’s launch reached 2.1 billion people. It was covered by 359 global publications, including The New York Times and The Guardian, and trended on TikTok and Twitter. The website received global traffic from 160 countries, 118 in less than 48 hours.

And it worked, at least up to a point.

Days after the announcement, a historic Loss and Damage Fund for nations like Tuvalu was established at COP27. The dramatic and provocative approach of Kofe’s government, combined with Accenture Song’s digital creativity, turned the spotlight on the plight of every territory threatened by rising sea levels, and by the further consequences of man-made climate change.

But what is a Digital Nation?

We usually think of a nation as a place with recognised boundaries and geographical status, and the concept of digital nationhood as something adjacent to this or amplifying it. Tuvalu’s, which faces fundamental threats to its physical existence from rising sea levels, is unprecedented – for now. However, it is a vision that resonates in other parts of our shared planet. While we may think of nationhood as a permanent state, history teaches us that long term this is not the case.

Estonia’s digital transformation and e-Residency program is a testament to the country’s forward-thinking approach to governance and citizen engagement. Estonia’s physical, geographical existence may be relatively uncontested and safe from climate change for now. Its world renowned digital success is commonly thought of as a matter of economic survival. Yet, it also underscores the historic and continuing threat from its much larger neighbour, a power imbalance that could be seen as implacable as a rising tide, should it turn in the wrong direction.

Siim Sikkut, one of the founders of e-Residency and now the head of a consultancy e-gov firm called Digital Nation, offers valuable insights into this evolving paradigm, and whether the digital twin follows or leads the concept of citizenship and nationhood.

Siim was deeply involved in the country’s digital initiatives, as a government CIO, and his vision for digital nationhood is firmly rooted in the idea of digitisation enhancing physical existence, rather than replacing it:

“The aspiration is about leading a digital life… that whatever you do, as a citizen, as an entrepreneur… It’s somehow helped or augmented by digital tools. That’s the idea. But it just penetrates all parts of your life and all parts of society.”

So can a nation exist independent of the physical world too, though, and even in its absence?

Siim pointed out that Estonia as a nation has been through many threats and challenges, and there are parallels to be drawn with a tiny island country on the other side of the world.

Siim Sikkut, Managing Partner of Digital Nation
Siim Sikkut

“We’re familiar with risk in Estonia, and we’ve built up things like the data embassies [digital backups of the central government database located overseas.] We have to be able to function in a digital world, if for whatever reason, we didn’t have our country. For Estonia, the threat might come from conflict, but for Tuvalu, it’s natural causes.”

But is there still an important distinction between being a wholly digital, or digital-first nation, compared with being a digitally advanced or enhanced one? Nobody is suggesting that Estonia’s strategy is based on an end solution of replacing the geographical nation with its digital twin, which has very different implications.

Would one ever propose it, except as a last resort? Perhaps one day the technology available will make the digital simulation indistinguishable from reality, but we have a long way to go, as Siim reflected:

“Can a country be fully virtual in that sense? I think, in a very practical, technological sense, that’s still quite far off… But at least elements of that can be effectively used to keep engaging each other.”

Like the Svalbard seed vault archiving species against extinction, or an urge to record the family stories of a terminally ill relative, the desire to capture and preserve what might suddenly be lost for good, is a natural human instinct. But we simply don’t have the technology to replicate a nation digitally in all its lost glory. At least, not yet.

Beyond preservation: A truly digital statehood

What about statehood though, if a country gets literally wiped off the map?

The ambitions of Tuvalu’s Future Now project go way beyond the idea of creating a historical archive of the country. They are working to secure the international recognition and maritime boundaries and endowments of the country in perpetuity.

International law and accepted practice are continually evolving, if at a snail’s pace compared with technological shifts like the emergence of robust digital identities. The challenge to its precepts here is unprecedented – but so is the potential loss that Tuvalu is staring down.

The accepted definition of a sovereign state, as outlined by the Montevideo Convention in 1933 and commonly referenced on platforms like Wikipedia, hinges on four criteria: a permanent population, a defined territory, a government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other sovereign states.

So while a digital Tuvalu can potentially house the nation’s cultural artifacts, legal documents, and even virtual interactions among its citizens, can it meet the criteria of a permanent population and a government in a digital realm?  The initiative raises pertinent questions about the future of statehood. Can a nation exist without physical territory? Can digital platforms and tools compensate for the loss of tangible land?

While the answers to these questions are still unfolding, Tuvalu’s proactive approach offers a potential blueprint for other nations facing similar existential threats, and as Siim pointed out, “overseas embassies exist all over the world, which are legally regarded as national territories.”

Can these tiny outposts preserve a functioning government between them, along with everything else that defines statehood? Maybe it can, with the help of a rich virtual landscape to unite them. And since COP27, nine nations have pledged to diplomatically recognise Tuvalu’s digital statehood.

Take a networked state, flip it and reverse it

The idea of a nation consisting of a series of small physical entities, i.e. scattered outposts, united by a strong digital presence, echoes the concept of Balaji Srinivasan’s ‘network state’, with the timeline somewhat flipped.

If a network state is “a highly aligned online community with a capacity for collective action that crowdfunds territory around the world and eventually gains diplomatic recognition from pre-existing states”, then Tuvalu is a mirror image of this paradigm – starting with the physical territory and diplomatic recognition, moving its state infrastructure to the virtual realm, and stabilising physically at the ‘archipelago’ phase (the network of embassies, which maintain its diplomatic status and international recognition.)

What about Estonian e-⁠Residency? Does the constituency of 100,000 e-⁠residents constitute a network state? It certainly fulfils a number of the criteria, from the collective mindset to the distributed physical manifestations (through meetups and events worldwide.) In challenge to Srinivasan’s definition, there would arguably be no need to own distinct physical territory. Instead, e-⁠residents have representation (through EERICA) as required, as well as the support of the e-⁠Residency team and Marketplace in Estonia itself.

Both Estonia and Tuvalu therefore represent atypical examples of the nation state concept in the physical world, each linked to existing physical nations, which are transcending their traditional boundaries in new and exciting ways.

Tuvalu’s “Future Now” – and all our futures

Through its creation of a digital twin, Tuvalu is redefining statehood and national identity – just as Estonian e-Residency has done – even as the island nation struggles with its own preservation. As the project’s website states, “The Future Now initiative is about more than just technology. It’s about ensuring that the voice of Tuvalu continues to be heard in international forums, that our culture and way of life are preserved, and that our legal and sovereign rights are upheld.”

Tuvalu’s bold solution highlights the urgency of addressing the question: Can we, as a global community, rely solely on technology to address the challenges we face?

Can digital platforms and tools compensate for the loss of geographical land?

While the answers to this are still unfolding, and raises as many questions as it poses, Tuvalu’s proactive approach offers one potential blueprint for other nations facing similar existential threats. Just as the (relatively) small country of Estonia has led the way in digital identity and govtech, Tuvalu emerges as a symbol of both vulnerability and unparalleled resilience.

Digital twins and network states offer us ways to preserve and capture and even extend the idea of nationhood, bearing in mind Estonia’s 100,000 e-⁠residents now represent nearly 10% of the population, or a constituency equivalent to its second-largest city. United by a commitment to exceed limitations suggested by population, GDP, or even landmass, the ‘network world’ of the future may well comprise innovative, agile, and creative communities, working together to tackle the threats which affect us all.

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