When a pandemic hits and social distancing is a key means to stay safe, the idea of remote services becomes even more valuable. In the wake of the COVID-19 quarantine, an AI-based public assistant comes as savior for Georgian businesses and the more than 125,000 residents of Rustavi by keeping them informed about city services, new regulations, and steps to take to cope with coronavirus challenges without leaving their homes.
Digital is an advantage
C Bot, a Rustavi City Hall ChatBot, developed by the Rustavi Innovations Hub and Rustavi Municipality with the support of UNDP Georgia, assumed special significance within the Mayors for Economic Growth initiative implemented under the EU4Business umbrella. This innovative tool, unique in Georgia’s public sector and that of many other EaP countries, handles more than 1,000 questions on coronavirus statistics and recommendations, as well as questions about municipal services such as public information, social programmes, architectural services, and more.
“C Bot simplifies the dialogue between the city and those starting a business and going through various procedures, including registration and construction permits,” explains Revaz Barbakadze, chairman of the Rustavi Innovations Hub.
C Bot offers the business sector guidance on where to find out about state regulations and restrictions applied in the city during the pandemic to further continue economic activities, and keep their business afloat.
Roots for innovation
In summer 2017, the city of Rustavi, not far from the Georgian capital Tbilisi, joined the Mayors for Economic Growth initiative. Helping the city become an active facilitator of economic growth and job creation at the local level, the initiative encouraged public servants to put together a local economic development plan. In the same period, Rustavi City Hall partnered with UNDP Georgia to foster innovation at the local governance level. Revaz Barbakadze, the LED officer at City Hall at the time, was inspired to put together a team of a new type of public servant who would think beyond the traditional and the standard, and generate innovative solutions. Six enthusiastic employees began to contribute.
“Regular mentoring, expert involvement, knowledge exchange sessions, and events within M4EG were an invaluable experience for our team to identify gaps for advancement, including a more business-friendly environment in the city,” Revaz recalls.
With technical and financial support from UNDP, the group decided to set up the Rustavi Innovations Hub as an integrated part of City Hall, which has better access to funding to implement projects meeting local needs. The Mayor of Rustavi Irakli Tabaghua was also one of the founders, together with his assistant Revaz Barbakadze and other staff. With their overlapping staff, Rustavi City Hall and the Rustavi Innovations Hub now implement joint projects to strengthen the city’s economy, encourage business and work through public-private partnership. The City Hall itself is actively interested and involved in the innovative development of the city.
The first AI-based public servant shows up during the pandemic
Turning Rustavi into a city of innovations is the core idea of the creative team at the Hub. When discussing flexible and resident-oriented advancements about a year ago, the team agreed that individuals and businesses undoubtedly spent extra time and resources visiting City Hall for assistance that could be provided at a distance. The idea of an AI-based system providing guidance to municipal services online was kicked off in November 2019, with support from UNDP.
C Bot was ready to go in March when the pandemic hit
“When need for the City Hall ChatBot grew sharply, we knew we had to update its skill set with COVID-related information, including services for individuals to get assistance and recommendations for businesses to continue normal operations,” Revaz admits.
Finally, the C Bot with its multifaceted features and essential functions was launched in April. This informal public servant with AI soon became a favorite platform for Rustavians and is constantly being upgraded to better respond to the local needs.
Locally-inspired solutions for economic growth
In order to foster sustainable local economic growth, ongoing cooperation among the business sector, educational institutions and the local administration is a key priority for the city of Rustavi. Inspired by a staff exchange mission under M4EG, Rustavi City Hall and the Rustavi Innovations Hub are supporting intersectoral cooperation and organized a Business Support Council, which will stimulate public-private dialogue in the Municipality.
The concept of a Business Support Council is even more significant in the post-COVID era when businesses find it vital to support each other to maintain production chains and survive.
“As a platform for exchanging ideas, the Council will ensure that business and public sectors combine resources to address local challenges together and adapt to emerging needs, even with limited or negligible cash reserves after the lockdown,” said at Rustavi Municipality.
A business accelerator project promoting locally-inspired solutions is also coming. With the support from UNDP, a co-working space with trainers, mentors and equipment should stimulate the development of business ideas. With the involvement of local and international business organizations, the Youth Entrepreneurship Ecosystem will enable young people to turn an idea into an actual business and even get funding.