Inequality in society and how technology can both exacerbate and reduce it was the dominant theme of the plenary session of the Open Innovations forum at the Skolkovo innovation city on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev outlined the plan for Russia's digital transformation. Photo:

Participants in the plenary session, titled “Smart Country. A National Strategy” included Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Unilever CEO Paul Polman, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, and ABB chairman of the board of directors Peter Voser.

Medvedev outlined Russia’s plan for digital transformation, noting that e-commerce rose by 26 percent in the country last year and continues to grow, and that Russia has the sixth largest number of internet users in the world. But while internet saturation and the availability and use of digital services is comparable to leading countries in Russia’s two biggest cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg, the country’s other regions lag behind, he acknowledged. This is something the government is determined to address, said the prime minister.

“We will eliminate digital inequality when it comes to using the public services of education and health care,” Medvedev told the audience inside Skolkovo’s state-of-the-art Matrex building on the second day of the three-day forum.

The plenary session of the Open Innovations forum took place in Skolkovo's Matrex building. Photo:

Moscow is in first place, according to UN figures, in terms of the number of people using electronic government services, he said.

“The main component of a modern technologically advanced society is people’s willingness to grasp technology and use it,” he said. “The most important thing is people: smart people make a smart country.”

Moscow Mayor Sobyanin outlined in more detail what tech developments have taken hold in the Russian capital in the last few years, from transport monitoring to reduce traffic jams, outsourcing Moscow’s vast CCTV system to make it more efficient, introducing a unified online system of appointments for people to obtain official documents, and launching car-sharing schemes. The saturation of car-sharing in the capital is due to match that of the top European countries in this area by the end of the year, with 0.75 cars per 1,000 city residents.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said tech could be used to engage residents of large cities across the world. Photo:

“The most complex problem of all big cities – and Moscow is no exception – is the involvement of residents in its management. Big cities in themselves make people detached, make them feel alienated from management systems because the scale is too large,” said Sobyanin, adding that 3 million people provide online feedback to the city authorities every day via the Our City programme.

“We’re moving ahead not for the sake of tech, but for people,” said the mayor.

But technology can work both ways, other participants of the plenary session pointed out.

“We always need to consider the human element as we talk about digital developments,” said Mark Weinberger, global chairman and CEO of EY, who moderated the session.

Unilever CEO Paul Polman said technology cannot solve all global problems, and sometimes exacerbates them. Photo:

“First that’s about making sure that all of our citizens have digital access: widespread broadband availability. Second it’s about assuring that there’s adequate training: enough skills in science, technology and engineering and math to be able to excel in these fields, and lastly it’s about making sure we don’t leave people behind. The income inequality that’s spreading across the world and causing social unrest could be exacerbated or it could be limited by technology,” he told the forum.

Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, agreed.

“Technology is driving us apart, not bringing us together,” he said, arguing that driverless cars may get people to work faster, but for as long as many people feel disengaged at work, that problem has not been solved.

“What we need to discuss far more is how we’re going to use that technology and how to keep humanity at the centre of it all,” said Polman.

Peter Voser, chairman of the board of directors of Swiss engineering conglomerate ABB. Photo:

Feelings of disengagement aside, on a physical level, driverless cars will be a leap forward in the pursuit of inclusion for many people, including those who cannot drive because of vision impairments, said Ann Cairns, vice chairman of Mastercard.

“Inclusion is many things, and driverless cars could include many more people in being able to navigate society more easily,” she said.

Mastercard is working on another aspect of inclusion: in financial services.

“We started working on this about seven years ago. The World Bank published stats about five years ago saying two and a half million are excluded from the financial system. That’s subsequently dropped to 1.7 million,” largely as a result of partnerships between world players and government initiatives to roll out digital identity programmes, said Cairns.

Ann Cairns, vice chairman of Mastercard, called for more women working in the field of science and technology. Photo:

Looking around the predominantly male conference room, Cairns took the opportunity to address another issue of inclusion and equality.

“One of the things that we see around the world – and I can say this as one of the few women in the room – is that there aren’t enough women entering the field of science and tech anywhere in the world,” she said.

“This is something we need to address, because we’re missing half of the human race in terms of training and educating people to be the best and brightest minds for the future.

“I’m sure Russia could take a lead in that,” she added.