‘The main role of the city is to care about the citizens’     

We’re all working on user centricity, putting user needs first. We know it’s important. But can we even grasp just how important it is? Ukraine’s Kyiv Digital app demonstrates just how necessary a user centric focus by governments is. Oleg Polovynko, Adviser to the Mayor of Kyiv City on Digitalization, shares Kyiv’s and Ukraine’s story about user centricity in times of war. And a story with a strong message to all countries across the globe: “Be ready.”

Oleg Polovynko

More than 1,5 years have passed since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The war is anything but over, even if the media would sometimes have you believe otherwise. “A lot of media have spoken of the exhaustion of the Russian army and their resources being depleted. But that’s not what we see in Ukraine. It is an incredibly strong enemy and the quantity of rockets hitting us daily is mind boggling. Their resources seem to be not exhausted at all.”

Oleg also notes the misconception that Russia’s strategy isn’t well thought through. “Of course it has become very clear that Russia hadn’t planned for the war to take this long. They probably did indeed plan for a 3-day invasion. But the fact that this has turned out differently doesn’t mean they don’t know what they’re doing. They know exactly what they’re doing. They’re not stupid.”

Losing from all perspectives

Where Russia has strategically created ties with countries outside of Europe for damage control, for instance economically, Ukraine has been losing from almost all angles, says Oleg. “We have lost territory, our economy and our energy infrastructure. But even worse, we’ve lost our best people and we continue to lose more.”

Losing people doesn’t only refer to casualties and deaths on the frontline. Oleg also mentions fugitives who’ve, very understandably, fled to different countries. “We’ve lost more than 8 million people. And the problem with the war taking so long is that fugitive Ukrainians have now settled in other countries. Why would they come back once the war’s over, apart from a sense of patriotism?”

Challenges ahead

These losses make Ukraine more dependent on other countries, not strengthening the country’s autonomy. “This is difficult for us. We’ve received a lot of help, for which we are thankful. And with all these losses we are currently facing, we have to be critical on what we’ve actually accomplished since our independence in 1991. We’re no longer a nuclear power and can’t defend ourselves, economically we’re in a terrible position and despite having advanced military equipment, it’s equipment we haven’t produced ourselves. Rebuilding Ukraine once the war’s over is going to be a major challenge and we need proper tools for it.”

Rebuilding a broken nation

That system needs to be created by having an answer to meaningful questions. “Why are we here and what can we offer the world? There will come a new page for Ukraine, but we have to think carefully and thoroughly about what is going to be written on that page”, says Oleg, who understands very well just how difficult that is. “Ukrainian people are tired, mentally and physically. The war has been very tough.”

Looks can be deceiving

However, as an outsider coming to a city like Kyiv, you probably won’t notice the tragedy taking place. “If you’re unaware of the context, on most days, Kyiv looks like a normal city. People just get on with their daily routine. They go to work and their children go to the playground. But that can change in an instant. We start every morning by checking the news to see if anything has happened overnight.”

Saving lives with the Kyiv Digital app

People can consume that news on a variety of channels, for instance on the Kyiv Digital app, originally a smart city app for the city of Kyiv, but now much more than that. With the start of the war, the app has become a life-saving tool and the source of reliable up-to-date information. Oleg shares: “In COVID time, we were on our way to create a more digital city, which was a challenge in itself, but because of the full-scale invasion, these challenges have multiplied tenfold.

We realized that the more truthful information we provide, the more lives we can save in both the civilian and military realms. The app provides Kyivans with a survival kit of services inside the city app, such as emergency notifications on air raid alerts, online and offline maps of bomb shelters, maps of evacuation runs, and so on. It helped citizens stay informed and prepared during these challenging times, even when they don’t have access to the Internet.” 

The Kyiv Digital app in its base form uses smart city technology, like sensors and cameras, to help citizens find parking spots, monitor the air quality, et cetera. It helps citizens reach all the needed services within three clicks in a single environment, saves their time and at the same time facilitates interaction with the city. “Our team is constantly working on ensuring the app is user-centric and meets all the needs of a modern city dweller.” Obviously, the scope of the app has been extended during the war.

This has been made possible by national security, the military and local governments sharing information with each other. All with the ultimate goal of protecting citizens, but also strategically building and rebuilding infrastructure and fortification. Exchanging information between parties helps others to understand how the city can be optimized. An example is building fortifications in areas where telephone lines run beneath the ground. With proper information exchange, it becomes easier to raise the defense of the city, without compromising the ability for citizens to communicate with the government. A 3D-model of the city, also known as a Digital Twin, helps do that.

Engaging with citizens

Building effective communication with the city’s residents regarding the current situation was Kyiv’s first priority. And this communication is one of the key components of the Kyiv Digital app. “Our first goal is to notify users of the app about the current situation in the city and air raid alerts to secure their lives in changing conditions. The second component is smart mobility. This component focuses on providing information on available parking spaces and purchasing online tickets. The third component is that of electronic democracy. This is where the engagement with citizens comes in. We demonstrate digital inclusion under any challenges and show how a city app can become an essential tool with crucial information.” 

Despite the war, Kyiv doesn’t forget about democracy and provides its citizens with essential tools for fostering participation in city governance. Through all kinds of polls, community-led initiatives (petitions) available in the app, the government collects feedback from citizens. “It’s important to be in touch with them. In times of war the distance between the government and its people usually increases. But these instruments help us to be involved with city life and the people in it. Citizens help us to prioritize what projects are necessary to create a better and more comfortable city for them. It helps to quickly respond to the needs of our residents.”

A lot of effort is also put into helping citizens get acquainted with the app if they have difficulties using it. “We have onboarding instructions for instance, which Bloomberg has helped us with. There are multiple video and text instructions on many subjects to help and reach as many citizens as possible. We also help them protect their personal information. Because a 21st century war isn’t only fought on land, it’s also a cyberwar, and we help people get educated on this topic.”

Final thoughts

“In crisis times like these, the national government focuses on national security, the country and protecting itself. Its task is at the national level. But citizens have to be supported by local governments. The main role of the city is to care about the citizens”, Oleg states.

He closes powerfully. “Be ready. We weren’t. Think about major potential challenges ahead during peace time. When things are stable, you have the perfect opportunity to look ahead and prepare. Because when the peace is gone, there is no time. Learn from us. Look at what we did well and use it! And see what we did wrong and use that too!”