Kazakhstan became an independent nation in 1991, following decades of Soviet rule. The small provincial city of Astana became its new capital six years later. Since then, Astana has rapidly swelled in population, reaching 877,000 in 2016.
Kazakhstan is the size of Western Europe but has a population of only 18 million. Its capital city rises from the plains, full of signature buildings funded by the country’s rich resources of oil, natural gas and high-value minerals. Over the past 16 years, the city has absorbed $30 billion in investment and seen its gross regional product expand by 90 times.
Wi-Fi Broadband for All
Investment has gone into more than bricks and mortar. A free Wi-Fi network, launched in 2011, serves 26 public areas of the city with up to 10 Mbps per user. It is accessed by a half million unique users per month. As with most Wi-Fi systems, however, service quality is uneven, and the city encourages users to leave reviews on a tech support telephone number to help government identify problem zones and target them for upgrades. The city bus network uses 3G to connect Wi-Fi hubs on its buses, which attract more than 1,000 users per month.
Education is an issue important to Kazakhstan’s president Nursultan Nazarbayev, and Astana’s university, founded in 2010, has attracted a number of foreign academics to its staff. It is the most prominent of 44 institutions of higher learning in the city. The national government also makes it possible for school graduates to study overseas, all expenses paid, if they return to Kazakhstan to work for at least five years after graduation. Many of these foreign-educated young people make their home in Astana and contribute to its growing culture of innovation.
Technology is reaching into the public school system through student-teacher web portals, distance learning, specialized classes in 3D technologies and one-to-one laptop programs. The city also holds free classes in sign language for the families of deaf residents.
In 2012, city government created an innovation organization called Astana Innovations JSC to implement the mandates of a national program, Informational Kazakhstan 2020. It has helped drive a variety of e-government projects including a Smart Clinic management system for health clinics and a Smart School program that keeps parents informed about their children’s progress via text message and issues chip-based identity cards that control access to facilities, act as library cards and let kids pay for meals at school. Over the 4 years from 2008 to 2012, Kazakhstan rose from 43rd to 38th place in the UN’s E-Government Survey. Services include electronic document management, procurement, tax payments, e-customers and the issuing of licenses.
Astana Innovations has also developed interactive urban planning tools, based on French technology, that help envision the impact of new infrastructure on citizens’ lives. A hackathon launched in 2014 produced 16 projects that received cash prizes for further development, and a Startup Weekend produced 20 business plans that competed for cash awards.
Kazakhstan is an arid country, but Astana has exploited its position on the Ishim River to make much of the city a green zone. Since 2011, government has planted hundreds of thousands of trees as windbreaks and sown vast acreage with perennial grasses. As much effort goes into conditioning the soil and finding resistant strains that can thrive in the salty, dry conditions.
Making Astana greener is a public priority. Every year on Green Day, city workers and citizens turn out to clean the city, and capital residents joined in the planting, putting down more than 3,000 seedlings in just one year.
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 and create a thriving Intelligent Community on the desert plains.
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