Alexei Kuzovkin on digital urbanization and big city residents' new digital mindset

Smart cities

While the concept of smart cities is only decades old, the science fiction-like inventions that make them possible date back to the early 20th century. Today, thanks to the rise of high-speed connectivity, the Internet of Things and Big Data, smart cities have gone from being little more than a popular topic of speculation to a tangible reality.

These advances are not only changing the way we live in cities, they are transforming the way we think. What seemed exotic yesterday increasingly seems like the norm.

Let's take the most basic example: smartphones. Today we carry around pocket-sized devices that are substantially more powerful than most desktop computers in the 1990s while the speed of mobile networks in cities is comparable with the speed of broadband, even though the days of being stuck at home with dial-up internet connections don't seem so distant. Not to mention the fact that only 30 years ago, the vast majority of people only had landlines, while today forgetting your phone at home is a source of significant stress for yourself and your family. What's more, the smartphone is one of the key elements of smart cities today and essentially the primary way that users interface with smart city systems.

Another example is electronic payments. Back in the early 2010s, using credit cards in supermarkets was still relatively uncommon, and paying by smart phone was unheard of. Credit card terminals were often slow and made checkout much more of an ordeal.

Today credit card and NFC payments are already so commonplace for people in big cities that they are puzzled when it's not an option, for example, in suburban areas where shops may still only accept cash or Sberbank cards.

But payments are only one aspect of urban digitalization that is affecting our perceptions of the world around us. Other aspects include transportation, interactions with government authorities and the variety of online services available now, among other things.


Transportation is a major issue in Russian cities of a million or more people, as city roads and highways – many of which were built in Soviet times – lack the capacity for the number of cars on the roads these days.

There are four methods of relieving the burden on transportation arteries which, when properly executed, can indeed improve the situation. They include improving public transit; developing car sharing and taxi services; optimizing traffic control through the use of smart technology, and taking measures to keep cars out of city centers.

Three of these four methods rely on technology. Public transit systems are not simply about the number of routes and vehicles servicing them; they are constantly adapting to changes in passenger traffic, and they use advanced technology to increase reliability and reduce the number of accidents and delays.

Developing car sharing and taxi services is one of the main ways to optimize mobility. As cities and their populations grow, commutes become longer and more complicated. Public transit, obviously, cannot keep pace.

Car sharing or taxis make more financial sense than owning a car in a city. Using a shared vehicle is several times more efficient, while owning a car costs about the same as car sharing or relying on taxis in the long run.

But neither taxi aggregators in their present form nor car sharing would be possible today without advanced communication networks, mobile service and cloud technology – the backbone of smart cities.

Again, it is hard to imagine living in a time when calling a taxi took more than few clicks on your smartphone. No more dealing with unfriendly call operators trying to satisfy multiple customers – and no more endless waiting for a car to cross half the city to reach you.

Perhaps the aspect most reliant on advanced technology is smart traffic control which includes continuous monitoring and data analysis of roads and traffic, as well as adaptation of traffic control devices, such as traffic lights and speed limit signs, etc. This is a huge amount of data coming from many different sources that must be rapidly sifted, analyzed and used to recalibrate traffic control systems. On a related note, GPS navigators that show traffic congestion levels (e.g. Yandex.Maps) can be considered indirect traffic control tools. A driver who knows the traffic situation will be able to plan ahead and change route to avoid traffic– and thus actually contribute, however modestly, to solving the problem.

Publicly available traffic information on the internet is another factor that is changing the way people – car owners in this case – think. Nobody drives blind anymore; every driver has access to up-to-the-minute traffic data that is out there for anybody to use as they see fit.

Integrated government service centers

Integrated government service centers, as well as the ability to access government services online at the click of a button, are an extraordinary achievement that significantly improved the productivity of government bodies and reduced the administrative burden on the public. Not so long ago, in the mid-2000s, for example, a simple property transaction started with a wait in line so long that you were better off getting to the office by 5 am or even earlier. Waiting in line for three or four hours outside in winter was a real treat.

More fun awaited inside: shouting matches between people waiting their turn, arguing with lazy, constantly irritated and overextended staff, and other joys of this bygone era which are fortunately on their way out, or at least becoming less monstrously absurd.

Enormous work had to be done to make this possible, from developing information systems, integrating them and unifying data formats, to creating and upgrading analysis and distribution tools, and much more.

Among other things, new employees of government service centers had to be trained in the subtleties of customer service.

What changed? People's perception of government offices. No longer are they seen as a gauntlet of hostile and dismissive attitudes that you have to mentally prepare for. It is no longer assumed that a visit to a government office will eat up an entire day. Waiting in line since 5 am? How could it be? Luckily, it is a thing of the past that hopefully will never return.

Delivery services

Finally, delivery services literally came to the rescue of people in coronavirus lockdown, during which some non-grocery items, including some products that can plausibly be considered necessities, were only available for purchase online. The volume of food deliveries also spiked. Even when the pandemic and quarantine are over, delivery and online stores will still be there. It is the new normal now, including in people's minds.