The Futuristic Leader: Estonia's Crash Course in Democracy

Illustration by  Eddie Stok

Illustration by Eddie Stok


“FROM A VERY YOUNG AGE, I had this feeling that things in the world are rotten, but that they can be solved. And I felt that I knew how to solve them. I was a bit arrogant, you might say.” Martin A. Noorkõiv admits he was a little know-it-all when he was in school, which turned out to be a sure-fire way to get noticed by the local bullies. “Being a ballroom dancer didn’t help much either,” he adds solemnly.

However, he was quick-witted and had a sharp tongue. “I avoided physical violence by talking my way out of conflicts,” he says. “This gave me the power to convince people, but also to understand them better.”

Today, Martin is the CEO of the Domus Dorpatensis Foundation, which is based in Tartu, Estonia’s second largest city. One of the social enterprise’s main projects is the DD Academy: a year-long and free of charge leadership program, which challenges its young participants to rethink democratic society and their place in it. “The funny thing is that when we started with the creation of the program, it was a really hard sell to everybody. After Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, this has changed radically.”

Initially, it wasn’t Martin’s hardheadedness that fueled the flame of his civic engagement—it was the girls. “I was still quite a geek by the time I enrolled in university,” he concedes. In the hopes of getting to talk to girls, he joined a student organization. En route, he managed to talk himself into all sorts of projects and initiatives.

Political engagement doesn’t have to be connected with party politics. Everything has a political dimension to it.


“I’ve had this feeling for most of my adult life, that being involved with a political party is somehow dirty in Estonia,” Martin explains. “And yet, the more I’ve gotten involved in civil society, the more I’ve started to understand that real political engagement doesn’t have to be connected with party politics. Everything has a political dimension to it.”

Although democracy as a concept hasn’t evolved too much as of late, the world has, Martin points out. “We realized that the only way to enable a sustainable future for the world is to train a new generation of highly skilled leaders, who consider the development and adaptation of democratic institutions their number one goal.”

Martin’s ambitions are global and borderless, and his modus operandi involves treading into the lion’s den to shake things up from the inside. “We started the DD Academy with the explicit goal of creating a program for the entire world. Estonia was a logical place to start, just because we were there.” Coincidental or not, Estonia is famous for its state-of-the-art educational system, and tops the charts in many international rankings.

Whereas most arguments of our time are fought in the democratic arena, Martin envisions future leaders who’d rather reimagine this arena altogether. The youth are the architects of tomorrow’s democracy and in Tartu, a bunch of motivated students are working on the potential scale models and floor plans. According to Martin, it is only a matter of time until we will see them materialize in real life.


This article appears in Are We Europe #4: This Is Not An Elections Issue

This Is Not An Elections Issue
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