What is digital economy?

For many years now, Russia has been implementing an administrative reform on the optimization of the state’s bureaucratic apparatus. According to official documents, the reform’s main focus is on the citizen, to whom the state provides services of a certain level of quality. The understanding of a suchlike service, as well as of the concept of citizen-oriented work, has been growing over the past 20 years.

Concurrently to this, the government launched computerization and digitization processes, which have been in the state of active development ever since. Russia has long been part of this trend which originated in the West. The state embraced it as a consistent policy, which has been developing in St. Petersburg among other Russian cities on a variety of different levels, from infrastructure to applied information systems.

After the last elections, the government identified specific touchstones of activities that can strengthen the country’s economic performance and increase its economic growth. In this digital technologies became a natural focus. The state’s modernization plans were expanded with a concept of data-based economy. Roughly speaking, as years went on, people started to understand that data presents a certain value. Large commercial companies deal in data processing and analysis for yielding bigger profits. Why, then, wouldn’t state use data for making its work more effective?

Among the strategic legislative acts issued after the elections is the presidential decree no. 224. Dedicated to national projects, it spells out the goals the country is developing towards. Digital economy is one of these goals, but it has to be said that each goal includes aspects of digitization and optimization: for example, this pertains to the ways of improving the demographic landscape, system of law enforcement and other areas.

A smart bus stop in St. Petersburg. Credit: tass.ru
A smart bus stop in St. Petersburg. Credit: tass.ru

Previously, the documents of similar importance, topic and scale had been written either by the government agencies in charge of digital development, or by affiliate enterprises, or by the enterprises which won a tender to do so. Within the framework of the development of national projects, the organizers took on another approach, convening several task forces made of representatives of the business community from major companies such as MTS, Sberbank, and Rostelecom, and experts from relevant government agencies. Together, they established priority development areas and came up with a comprehensive development program.

What are the main areas for the development of digital economy?

The first is statutory regulation. As the processes of optimization and change don’t stop, the process of enacting statutory acts has to be appropriately quick and flexible. Right now, what we have is the opposite. The passing of a law, from its being submitted as a project to its being enacted, takes one year at the very minimum. Having a common digital space will shorten the time needed.

The second are information security and information infrastructure, which encompasses data processing centers with server hardware, and communications facilities which enable the exchanging of data. You can’t expect a breakthrough to happen if some areas of the country are still experiencing difficulties in accessing the internet.

The third is the forming of research competencies and technological capacities. We understand that the Russian plants producing complex, high-priority technologies have been, for one reason or another, flailing; either they were shut down altogether, or took a wrong development path, or lost crucial specialists. This had a negative impact on knowledge production. But now, as the industry’s gaining in strength, the demand for the specialists in the field of technology grows. Pursuing the goal of the training of specialists, the government conducts a wide range of initiatives such as supporting modern education centers such as children quantoriums and technoparks all over the country.

Many are now saying that the Russian Federation doesn’t have enough high-skilled specialists capable of making that breakthrough. This isn’t the problem of the educational system supposedly lacking in quality, but, rather, is due to how fast innovations emerge; education often just can’t adapt to new challenges that quickly. The classic system, with its set outcomes and education standards, trains specialists of all kinds of levels, but its rigidity means that these specialists quickly become redundant on the labor market. Back in my university years, most students graduated in their fifth year of studies and started looking for a job straight away. Now students start looking for employment in their first and second year of studies, and thus companies have to take it upon themselves to train their young employees in necessary skills and practices.

Olga Patrievskaya's lecture “Digital economy in the Russian Federation”
Olga Patrievskaya's lecture “Digital economy in the Russian Federation”

This pushed our government to search for a new approach to education, with a consequent shift to the concept as per which graduates have to have a certain set of skills and knowledge, both in the field of their specialization and general humanities, and be capable of switching between different professions.

The sixth and final area in the framework of the development of digital economy concerns the state. If we don’t optimize bureaucratic processes, including those of providing services to the population, we will experience problems when striving to implement changes in other aforementioned areas.

What role does the concept of a smart city play in all of these projects?

Smart cities are the subject of a separate program called “Management of housing and urban environments”. It oversees all kinds of urban transformations: from creating comfortable public spaces for citizens and improving their quality of life to designing modern residential areas using the latest research in the field.

Initially, the concept of a smart city stood for a system of sensors needed for measuring noise, pollution and other factors impacting citizens’ welfare. Then it moved on to signify this system plus the comprehensive evaluation of everything that happens in a city. Major international companies such as Huawei began offering their own solutions in this field, but all of these solutions were expensive, which made it difficult for the parties involved to commit to a purchase.

Currently, the implementation of the smart cities program is in the remit of the Ministry of Construction Industry, Housing and Utilities Sector. The project, which has now become a standalone standard, tackles the problems typical of a modern city. For example, how to manage overpopulation of cities caused by the process of urbanization? Some experts propose creating centers of gravity in certain cities, others advocate for going the Soviet way of creating local economic mainstays for the smaller cities and towns to keep their appeal. These can be data processing centers, large IT villages, or other ventures that would give skilled specialists an opportunity to put their knowledge to practice.

A smart bus stop in St. Petersburg. Credit: dp.ru
A smart bus stop in St. Petersburg. Credit: dp.ru

To that end, the Ministry of Construction Industry, Housing and Utilities Sector introduced the following definitions which will play a big part in all future projects in the field:

  • smart house: all matters of housing and utilities sector, as well as sensors for mapping programs;
  • smart street: CCTV monitoring, solutions for maintaining security in emergency situations, emergency alert systems;
  • smart city: the ability of citizens to influence the adoption of certain important decisions such as the distribution of city funds, and of the authorities to get feedback on what is happening within the city.

Discussions are ongoing as to whether specific solutions should be introduced or not, and how effective they are in terms of rational energy consumption. Whether we should move to energy-saving lamps on our streets, for instance.

How much is St. Petersburg a smart city?

The northern capital can already boast data processing centers which allow for reliable protection of citizens’ data, and a single telecommunication network which is used by government agencies when working with a variety with citizens’ applications for services. There is a range of other solutions that deserve a special mention.

One of these is a hardware-software complex Safe City, which enables the notification of citizens during emergencies. Its main component is a city-wide CCTV monitoring system.

Another big segment are the solutions in the field of healthcare. These include a wide range of services, from the provision of emergency care and booking of medical appointments to the centralization of medical data. One example of the latter is the My Health project, which consolidates medical data and lists all medical services provided to a specific citizen.

A no less important online service is Our St. Petersburg, an electronic office for the citizens to submit their questions and queries to. For quite a long time, the website was only addressed for specific, small-scale problems, but now it’s widely used for all sorts of queries, which are for the most part effectively resolved.

The last project I want to mention is the electronic health insurance card. Launched in 2016, the service allows citizens to claim their insurance cards online, via the state service provision website Gosuslugi. In doing this, the project helps cut down on expenses and optimizes the interactions involved.

Olga Patrievskaya is the head of the e-Government Department, which is part of the Committee on Computerization and Communications of the Government of St. Petersburg. The department oversees the formalization and implementation of federal programs and conducts the development of the city’s infocommunication systems.