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Smart Armenia – suggestion for a national approach

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Last month I was honoured to be invited to be the special guest at BreakFAST, a Sunday morning breakfast meeting organised by Foundation for Armenian Science and Technology (FAST) in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, this allowed me to share my telecoms and smart city insights with a group of select government, business and academic leaders.

The Founding CEO of FAST, Armen Orujyan, is a good friend of mine. We know each other from the UN Broadband Commission for Digital Development, of which I am the co-initiator and Armen was one of the Commissioners.

Present at the meeting were the Armenian Hakob Arshakyan, First Deputy Minister of Transport, Communication and Information Technologies of the Republic of Armenia, Leonid Avetisyan, Executive Director of EKENG CJSC, the coordinator of e-government projects, senior executives of all of the Armenian telecom operators, other ICT business leaders and representatives of academic institutions.

As I mentioned during the meeting I strongly believe that to bring political, social and economic change to our society we will have to start from the bottom up. Cities and communities are where it is much easier to get people to collaborate, based on a shared vision of where these communities want and ought to go.

Many of the current social, economic and cultural issues are much better addressed at a community level. However currently we don’t have the right structures in place for an approach like this; in particular there are no good investment or financing structures for such new directions.

My suggestions for creating the right holistic environment for this are as follows:

  • In order for cities and communities to start such a process we need political leadership from the top, linked to a vision for the future that its citizens can be enthusiastic about. For a smart city that leadership has to come from the mayor; for a smart country approach it needs to come from the Prime Minister.
  • Such leadership needs to be supported by a bureaucracy which operates horizontally, and which is not stuck in silos. This requires leadership from the top of the bureaucracy. Furthermore, collaboration will need to be based on a structure of open systems and controlled open data. Without this leadership these open structures will be hard to achieve as there are too many ivory towers within organisations that will try to keep their sections closed in order to maintain their power. Furthermore, without such leadership situations arise where departments and people will only work together ‘as long as it is done my way’. Obviously that is not what collaboration is all about and the leadership will need to provide the right direction.
  • Next is strong industry collaboration across sectors. A smart policy cuts across sectors such as communication, healthcare, education, construction, energy and water, transportation, mobility, etc. That approach can lead to cost savings of 60%+. It is important that these organisations place the outcomes needed for a smart solution above their own individual commercial interests; otherwise genuine industry-wide collaboration becomes difficult to implement. I realise that this is more easily said than done in competitive environments such as telecoms and IT.

We also need to bring academia into this collaboration, to assist in developing processes, open systems, and to develop innovations to support these smart environments, especially in relation to data management systems and structure (big data).

  • On top of this, very valuable lessons learned internationally show that it is important to include participation of the citizens as early as possible. The strategy and the projects need to be transparent and the overarching aim must be to create a better lifestyle for the people, a better and more sustainable environment for all, new (high value) businesses, and more and better jobs. The overall structure that has to be put in place should include a good framework for citizen participation, preferably based on specific knowledge, interest and experience. Active consultation should also take place with existing community groups, NGOs, healthcare and education organisations, with the aim of making them an integral part of the strategy. Key leaders in the Armenian diaspora should also be invited to participate in this smart country approach.
  • While at that higher strategic level one will mainly attract the larger businesses in the end we do need to create more local businesses and more local employment opportunities. In order to increase the economy, it is important that this group is also included.

Before going into any projects the most important first step is to get a city or country strategy in place along the lines mentioned above.

Once a strategy with the right structure is in place projects can be brought forward to test the structure. There is plenty of low-hanging fruit. In most situations ICT is the glue between the various elements of smart city projects and it can provide the tools that make a holistic implementation possible. An approach like this can lead to cost savings of 60%+ through sharing infrastructure, ICT, data services, etc. With government leadership and the full commitment of all parties involved it also becomes easier to look at investment and financing models for such projects.

At the BreakFAST meeting the First Deputy Minister provided strong support for developments aimed at creating a Smart Armenia, but he played the ball back to the industry and academia for implementation. I understand his approach and fully agree with it. Nevertheless, we do need his leadership and there is now an opportunity to use the support he offered to make this happen.

The country of Armenia is small enough to develop a national approach.

In larger countries individual cities are well-placed to develop such processes individually. This could most certainly be done in Yerevan, as this city is already looking at smart city developments, but I would leave the option open for Armenia to also embrace this as a national policy. Good examples from smaller states being successful in this respect can be found in Scandinavia and the Baltic states, in particular in Estonia.

But I can’t stress enough that whatever direction Armenia takes it is essential to have the right strategy and structure in place before embarking on individual projects. Without leadership from the top, and a sound collaborative strategy, projects will be developed that might be successful on their own but which lack the potential to move forward or be upscaled. I call this phenomenon ‘death by pilot’ and the world is littered with these superhighway road-kills. While such projects were often highly successful, there was no strategy in place for moving forward.

During my meeting with those top decision-makers I suggested that Armenia could make progress by using the support the First Deputy Minister provided at the meeting and asking if he would be willing to send out invitations for a meeting of the CEOs of the critical parties that are needed for building a Smart Armenia. Several of those people were already present at the BreakFAST meeting. This would show his leadership commitment which is needed to bring parties together.

FAST is in an excellent position to pinpoint the key movers and shakers in Armenia who should be involved and, with the agreement of the Ministry of Transport, Communication and Information Technologies they could organise such a meeting on behalf of him. In such an invitation the Ministry could then ask this group of leaders to come up with a national plan for Smart Armenia. There are some good examples of a nationally-driven approach – for instance, in the Netherlands and in Australia.

The Ministry could also ask the group to use this plan to investigate what national policies are needed to make this happen. And the group could indicate which ‘low-hanging fruit’ projects could be used to have some early wins with the smart strategy – basically looking for projects that can share costs, infrastructure and other resources to create synergy. Often a different approach to existing projects and processes can be a good start, with money being reallocated, rather than looking for new money.

The group should also suggest investment and business models aimed at achieving a win-win situation for both commerce and the society as a whole. Armenia can learn from the various smart city developments that are taking place around the world (I also analysed a few of these cities during my recent smart city trip).

I would like to thank FAST for inviting me to address their astute group of Armenia leaders. After the meeting I toured this fascinating country for ten days and I got a very good insight into its history, culture, politics, and into the opportunities the country has for the future. Most certainly there are significant challenges to overcome, but with the people that I met on board, its future looks bright.

I wish the country and its people lots of success and will be following its progress with great interest.

Paul Budde