When I travelled to Russia back in 1972 I was very much impressed by St Petersburg (then called Leningrad) as it was, at that time, already more westernised than Moscow. And on this trip, while this city also has seen massive changes I found the atmosphere still comparable to 1972 – rather different from what I experienced in Moscow , which, apart from some historic sites, had changed beyond recognition in comparison with what I saw and experienced 40 years ago.
At that time St Petersburg had a more historic feel to it, and this was evident this time around as well. Moscow is more dynamic , fast moving and glittery.
As in Moscow I was also fortunate to have the chance to discuss the economic, social and political issues with some of the Russian colleagues in my international telecommunications and smart city network. They were exceptional hosts and this reminded me of a similar level of hospitality that I encountered in 1972, plus an eagerness to listen, discuss and learn from others.
You can only go so far with internet connections. Personal connections remain so much better. But, thanks to telecoms, we can now take part in far more frequent conversations and discussions. Here on the ground, Russia is far less threatening than what the media lead us believe. We have not been hacked; I have used their Wi-Fi systems; used a Russian SIM; and openly discussed many of the issues that all of us are facing around the world – which are all remarkably similar.
I didn’t do this naively, first checking with my friends and colleagues here in Russia. And for me this trip had the extra dimension of cheering on the Socceroos in the World Cup, an unforgettable experience.
Now on to Smart Cities …….
While there have been many discussions, meetings and plans here in relation to smart cities it is only recently that a more strategic approach has been developed. A key role in this process has been played by the Saint Petersburg State University of Information Technologies, Mechanics and Optics (ITMO University). This approach was started two years ago and, together with the public authorities of St Petersburg, work began on the St Petersburg smart city project.
They established five workgroups (I am using the descriptions that they use):
- Workgroup on smart St Petersburg design
- Workgroup on the creation of legal, technical, organisational conditions for project selection and implementation
- Workgroup on methodological support
- Workgroup on PR
- Expert and technological council
According to plans from the city’s government, St Petersburg will have to become significantly smarter by 2030 – that year is the Smart City program’s deadline. The combining of international experiences and a coherent internal strategy will unite the various authorities and businesses. Interestingly, they hope to achieve this without significant new investments from the city itself, by utilising existing funding (which has increased significantly over recent years – see below) and using it in a better coordinated and holistic way (smarter). There is also a great emphasis on attracting private investments in new smart developments. It will be very interesting to see if this eventuates, as funding is the key smart city problem around the globe.
While all of the more strategic processes have now started, the city is facing lots of challenges that need to be addressed, with or without strategic plans. The main problem here is –much like elsewhere – finances, which are never sufficient to address all the smart city issues; and priorities keep changing, often influenced by politics and finances. Like Moscow, St Petersburg is also using funds made available as part of the Football World Cup to boost several of these initiatives.
Furthermore, through privatisation (the first privately-run tram network is now in operation in the city) and PPPs (new bridge over the Neva River) new developments are being accelerated.
In comparison with Moscow St Petersburg is not yet as advanced in many of the projects that I mentioned in my article on Moscow. There are many relatively small-scale projects taking place, but they were very hard to find as they are not yet part of any holistic approach.
What also became clear during my discussions was the relative lack among Russian mayors of an understanding of smart cities as a holistic strategy. Most Russian cities are still stuck with an approach of uncoordinated projects, of which many don’t scale, lack financing to properly develop, or simply fail. Many cities face serious problems in relation to public housing, winter heating and water shortage and there is still insufficient awareness that many of these problems need to be solved in a far more integrated and holistic way, and that technology can play a key role here.
Very few cities so far have an innovation strategy and many are rather sceptical towards solutions that can be achieved with the assistance of technology. Moscow is certainly more advanced here, but much still needs to be done to harness its power for social and economic development.
So far the major smart city activity in St Petersburg is focused on transport.
For the past several years the public transport authority has been working on a better alignment of its software systems, aimed at implementing technologies that provide for an economic and comfortable usage of the city’s infrastructure. From a technological point of view, it is based on the connectivity – linking different devices to a far more unified system. This is done under the project known as Safe City, which uses thousands of sensors and cameras ensuring road, transport and in general city safety.
Like all other cities that are increasingly managing such systems digitally, St Petersburg also has a big ‘war room’ with a huge video wall, which shows data from sources across the city. This operation already unites many systems, but ongoing work is underway. The information comes from sensors and cameras placed all over the city – a key element here is the systems that are in place for the emergency services.
One of the outcomes already is a reduction of 20% in law enforcement costs and rescue services. This has been a great boost for the transport team to receive further funds to make the city safer.
Over the past five years the annual budget has increased within the so-called ‘Targeted Investment Program’, funding from 20 billion rubles, in 2013, to 41 billion rubles, in 2017.
St Petersburg’s public transport system is also integrated in this system and has over the last few years become significantly smarter. The monitoring centre also accumulates all data on the activities in the broadest sense of the metro trains, buses, trolley buses and trams.
The intelligent transport system has become more sophisticated and is now an excellent platform for further smart city developments. They recently started a smart bus stop at Nevskiy (travel information, Wi-Fi access, charging point) and, via extra funding under the World Cup program, this was followed by 50 for tourists, offering a whole range of transport and tourist information. Unique in this project is that the total tourism industry of St Petersburg is participating in the provision of this service.
A key development here was that the Russian telecoms operator MTS announced an agreement with the city of St Petersburg to assist in the development of this smart city infrastructure. The company launched a pilot zone based on its NB-IoT network to develop related services for data collection and analysis and remote monitoring of devices. This includes applications for security, monitoring transport systems and the environment, and digitisation of various industries and government agencies. The various elements of this service are currently being tested.
This will also help the city to extend its smart network to other social and cultural projects aimed at preserving the cultural and historical heritage of St Petersburg, improving the quality of life and work of citizens, and developing the economic potential of the city.
Samsung Electronics also joined the smart city movement, cooperating on joint projects to develop the digital economy in areas such as smart city, public administration, healthcare and education.
As in Moscow, smart energy has been an under-invested area in St Petersburg, but this is now being prioritised, again with a focus on transport. Also the cold winters in this north European city are forcing the city to come up with more and better energy solutions, as many of the current systems are hugely inefficient.