In 1991, Kazakhstan became the last of the Soviet republics to declare its independence from Russia. Six years later, the small provincial city of Astana was named the capital of the new nation and began to grow fast in population, the economy and political power. By the second decade of the 21st Century, Astana was gaining residents at a rate of 50,000 people per year and was on track to exceed one million people in a country with a population of 18 million.
The pressures on urban infrastructure, public services and local governance are immense. Over the past 16 years, the city has absorbed $30 billion in investment and seen its gross regional product expand by 90 times. Kazakhstan is blessed with rich natural resources – oil, natural gas and high-value minerals – and conservative management by the national government has delivered the investment surplus needed to meet Astana’s challenge.
Building a Knowledge Economy
This is no small achievement in a world where the “oil curse” has destabilized emerging market nations on multiple continents. Both national and local government have shown determination to use resource-based prosperity to create an economy and society capable of building a knowledge-based economy from the ground up. Two national universities are located there, each with links to institutions in the UK, Singapore, US and other nations. Local government works to create an innovation cluster by connecting these institutions to the city’s more than 50,000 small-to-midsize companies and the manufacturers that have sprung up in a new industrial park.
Improving Quality of Life
In much of the developing world, breakneck growth has meant a sharp decline in quality of life. Astana is determined to move in the opposite direction: introducing an effective health care system, improving the quality of education and ensuring effective and transparent government. ICT has a critical role to play in all of it. A Smart Astana project has united hundreds of leaders in government, business and institutions to set priorities for development, responding to a goal set by Kazakhstan’s president to transform Astana into a globally ranked Intelligent Community. A government-owned company, JSC Astana Innovations, is tasked with installing ICT to improve infrastructure, enhance the business environment, expand export trade and increase public satisfaction with quality of life, not only in the city center but in the ring of suburbs surrounding it. Astana will host EXPO 2017 in that year and wants the expected five million visitors to see a city ready to take on the world.