Technology
21.1.19

Saint Petersburg Smart City 2030

Credit: Peng LIU - Pexels.com

When I travelled to Russia back in 1972, I was very much impressed by St Petersburg (then called Leningrad). It was, at that time, already more westernised than Moscow. And now, while this city has seen massive changes, I found the atmosphere still comparable to that of 1972. This is rather different from what I experienced in Moscow. Other than some historic sites, it has changed beyond recognition compared to what I experienced more than 40 years ago.

Back then, St Petersburg had a more sophisticated feel to it as well – and this was also evident this time around. Moscow is more dynamic, fast moving and glittery.

As in Moscow, I was also fortunate to have the chance to discuss 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 the similar level of hospitality that I encountered in 1972, as did people’s 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 discussions. Here on the ground, Russia is far less threatening than what the media lead us to believe. We have not been the victims of hacking. I have used Russian Wi-Fi systems and 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, but first checked with my friends and colleagues here in Russia. And for me, this trip had the extra dimension of cheering on the Socceroos in the football 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 began two years ago and, together with the public authorities of St Petersburg, saw work begin 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

St Petersburg will have to become significantly smarter by 2030, and the city’s government has plans for this. 2030 is the year that 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 way that’s better-coordinated and holistic – in other words, 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 addressing, with or without strategic plans. The main problem here is – much like elsewhere – finance. This is never sufficient to address all the smart city issues, and priorities keep changing, often influenced by politics and finance. Like Moscow, St Petersburg is also using funds made available as part of the 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 public-private partnerships (for instance, the 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 a holistic approach.

What also became clear during my discussions was the relative lack of an understanding among Russian mayors of smart cities as a holistic strategy. Most Russian cities are still stuck with an approach of uncoordinated projects. 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. Additionally, there is still insufficient awareness that many of these problems await resolution in a far more integrated and holistic way, and technology can play a key role here.

Very few cities so far have an innovation strategy, and many people are rather sceptical towards solutions that require the assistance of technology for their achievement. 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 focuses 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’s all about connectivity – linking different devices to a far more unified system. This takes place under the project known as Safe City, which uses thousands of sensors and cameras to ensure road, transport and general city safety.

Like all other cities that are increasingly managing such systems digitally, St Petersburg has a big ‘war room’ with a huge video wall showing data from sources across the city. This operation already unites many systems, but additional 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 seen is a reduction of twenty percent in the cost of law enforcement 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 of the so-called ‘Targeted Investment Program’ has increased from 20 billion rubles in 2013 to 41 billion rubles in 2017.

Integrated within this is St Petersburg’s public transport system, which 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, trolleybuses and trams.

The intelligent transport system has become more sophisticated and is now an excellent platform for further smart city developments. A smart bus stop at Nevskiy, offering travel information, Wi-Fi access and a charging point, was recently introduced. Another 50 followed for the benefit of tourists, via extra funding under the World Cup program, offering a whole range of transport and tourist information. Unique to this project is that the entire tourism industry of St Petersburg is participating in the provision of this service.

A key development here was that 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 the smart city, public administration, healthcare and education.

As in Moscow, smart energy has been an under-invested area in St Petersburg. Now, however, this is being prioritised, again with a focus on transport. Also, the cold winters in this north European city are forcing it to come up with more and better energy solutions. Added impetus for this is that many of the current systems are hugely inefficient.

Global Seven News

Paul Budde

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