I had an interesting follow-up conversation last week with Dmitry Chikhachev of Runa Capital. I asked what he was seeing in smart cities and civic innovation among Russian startups in these areas. Dmitry’s response supported my own observations that governments need to focus on the basics.
What kinds of innovation are you seeing in the public sector in Russia?
Many processes in the public sector are still supported by paperwork. One example is visa applications. To obtain a visa you need an application, on paper. You need copies of supporting documents. In Singapore, paperwork has been eliminated. You upload everything. And, you get a barcode via email to be shown with your passport when entering the country. To do this requires process change within government, which in turn, requires data handling, integration, electronic signature, and personal data protection — a combination of relatively high-tech solutions.
Within Russia, this kind of change — the shift to paperless government — is happening at the regional government level in Russia. Tatarstan is the most advanced from this point of view. (But on a promising side note, the Minister of Informatics from Tatarstan just got promoted to the federal level.) Government interaction with Tatarstan is already paperless.
Who is providing the solutions to support a paperless government?
Today I attended a conference for Russian entrepreneurs organized by Digital October. I’m going to digress a moment and describe the location which for a Moscow veteran is one of the coolest places I’ve seen in new Russia. Digital October has taken over part of the old Red October Confectionary Factory, a red brick factory on the banks of the river on the outside with a state-of-the-art, loft-like business space on the inside. The building has a view of the Kremlin and of the new church built on the other side of the river (where the world largest outdoor swimming pool used to be for those of us who knew Moscow before the church reconstruction).
Today's Digital October event, “The Art of Going Global,” brought together startup founders, VCs and entrepreneurs to discuss how to expand globally, including global marketing and PR, and getting funding from global VCs.
During the VC panel, Alisa Chumachenko, Founder and CEO of Game Insight, and one of the entrepreneurs in the audience, really grilled the panelists asking them to name their top geographical markets, top horizontal markets and top vertical markets. Some responses were not surprising. Others were.
Engaging citizens in government isn’t a new concept. Referenda, ballot initiatives, and recall of elected leaders are common in the US and other democracies. Even the EU has recently sought to involve citizens through its European Citizens’ Initiative. This new program, however, has started in an era where new modes of constituent engagement are easier and cheaper. Obtaining the signatures required to place an initiative on a ballot or bring an issue to government leaders’ attention no longer requires endless hours in front of a shopping mall. New social media tools like Facebook, Twitter, or even more local sites like Everyblock in the US or Iniative.eu in Europe make it easier to reach out to citizens and for citizens to reach out to their governments.
And, the pattern extends across types of government and geographies. Political activists in Nigeria are using social media to drive election reforms. Political unrest and even revolution throughout the Middle East garner support via social media sites. Recently, citizens in China used social media to block destruction of trees in Nanjing.
New tools specifically tailored to citizen engagement — such as citizen reporting platforms, open data infrastructure, and competition platforms — even further transform governance. These tools provide citizens with not only a voice but also a role in the governance process.
In addition to the eHealth initiatives mentioned in my previous blog, I wanted to call out another T-city program that struck close to home for me — the “tumor conference program.” The idea is simple, but the impact is enormous. The program’s official objective is to “make possible the interdisciplinary exchange of experiences between doctors, therapists, and cancer specialists, and to support the process flow of a tumor conference by using a modern communications solution.” But for many patients, the objective is more than “process flow,” it is about universal access to healthcare and access to specialists in the fields they need — in this case, access to the cancer specialists that are affiliated with research centers and university hospitals. These conferences are vital to extending access beyond just the big cities to the smaller towns and rural areas. And we’re not talking about Africa or India — we’re talking about Europe, and developed countries on other continents.
Several weeks ago I toured Friedrichshafen, Deutsche Telekom’s T-City — a smart city demonstration project launched in 2006 to test the use of ICT across a real city with real people. The project began with a competition in which the cities themselves proposed a concept for how they’d use ICT and work with Deutsche Telekom (DT); 52 cities competed, 10 were short-listed, and Friedrichshafen was ultimately chosen.
Friedrichshafen is a relatively small city of 59,000 — not one of the megacities that have garnered so much attention from large technology vendors and the media. It is also not a greenfield city with a clean slate; it has an industrial history, with the Zeppelin Museum holding a place of prominence on the shore of Lake Constance.
The T-city project began with the installation of fiber to the curb and upgraded 3G mobile technology. This networking backbone powered more than 30 projects, from health and assisted living to education to home networking to smart grid. Some were simple citizen services applications — like the Flinc ride-sharing application or a kindergarten registration application — while others were more extensive infrastructure projects.
The word is that promise of sCommerce (social commerce) and fCommerce (Facebook commerce) is more speculative than proven. What about the role of social media in government and governance? Mayors, other city leaders, and local organizations increasingly communicate and interact with their constituents via social media.
The promise of new citizen-centric government services enabled by social and mobile technologies and often access to government data is fast becoming reality — and has changed the way in which government organizations and their constituents engage.
Open 311 initiatives have spread across the US, and the equivalent non-emergency access initiatives have gained traction in other geographies as well. However, citizen engagement is not just about potholes and power outages; it is increasingly about the long tail of needs and interests. Public access to data and the ease of application development have facilitated the development of new applications and services. As a result, specific groups, however large or small, can develop an application to serve their purposes. Or applications can be developed for a specific project and may only be used for a couple of months, or may only be used by a niche audience.
I have had several lively conversations this week with vendors working to enable open data and new tools for constituent engagement. As an example, ESRI brings maps and the value of GIS to this explosion of citizen services. People like to visualize things, and seeing data represented on a map helps identify patterns and create a context for the data. That makes it easier to understand and easier to act on. ESRI and their partners have worked with a wide range of government organizations on creative ways to engage constituents — both citizens and businesses.
I love the idea of the Edmonton’s Planning Academy, which offers planning courses to anyone in the city. What a great way to get citizens involved in the complex challenges of city planning! It made me want to live in Edmonton. OK, so maybe I’m kind of addicted to school, and taking classes (corporate learning programs, continuing studies programs and even the Red Cross have seen me in their classrooms in recent years). But really, this one looks so cool I had to write about it.
The City of Edmonton’s Planning Academy’s goal is to “provide a better understanding of the planning and development process in Edmonton.” And, it grants a Certificate of Participation following completion of the three core courses and one elective. These three core courses include:
Smart cities come in all shapes and sizes. There is not one definition of smart. Think about the terms “street smart” and “book smart.” When I think about the initiatives or reforms that we’re seeing across cities, I’ve started categorizing them along these lines. New initiatives like sensor-based parking and traffic optimization fall into street smart, while streamlining of back office processes and applications tend to be more book smart. And as we know, it takes all kinds.
The hype of smart cities, however, has focused on the sexy new kid on the block. Everything sensor-based and “intelligent” has gotten top billing from vendors. However, many cities need to start cracking the books first.
Here are a few ways to start:
Rationalization of back office applications. Sprawling or at least siloed IT infrastructure and business apps can be upgraded and consolidated. Several CIOs I’ve spoken with have mentioned that this is a big challenge. Department heads don’t want to give up control over their domain, as they see it. Big cities find themselves with multiple enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems running across different departments in a city: Parks and Recreation licenses ERP from one vendor; Public Works subscribes to ERP services from another; Transportation manages their fleet with yet another.
We often hear of city comparisons. In my many years in Russia, I must have heard that St. Petersburg was the Venice of the North hundreds of times. Another is Paris. How many times have you heard “[Insert city] is the Paris of the [insert region]”? Actually, a quick search reveals that there are at least 11 cities that are “the Paris of the East.” Some are quite surprising: