Building a new science city from scratch: Skolkovo, Moscow.

May 22 2012

Can Russia create some sort of Silicon Valley, and join the league of strong knowledge economies? It has not worked so far: the country has a great research tradition, but is much less successful in knowledge-based entrepreneurship, business creation, and tech transfer. But at least it is trying now. Last weekend, I was in Moscow. We were invited to discuss the plans to create an entirely new “innovation city” in Skolkovo, a green area just outside Moscow, about 20 Km from the city centre. Last December, we were asked by the Skolkovo management to analyse remarkable innovation cities in the world, and extract lessons for this ambitious new city.

Skolkovo is to become a full-fledged city, a hotspot for innovation, with a technical research university, a high-tech park, quality housing for knowledge workers (about 20,000), and post-graduate students. There are also plans to build a museum, a hotel, and exhibition spaces. The area should excel in a limited number of technology areas, including IT, nuclear technology, biotech, and energy.

The ambition of Skolkovo is to attract leading researchers and top tech companies, from Russia and abroad. It should become a hotbed for start-ups and new ventures. In the end, Skolkovo should be a kernel and showcase for Russian innovation, demonstrating that Russia is not only about pumping oil and selling gas. Also, it should be the showcase for the rest of Russia for introducing new, more modern ways of doing business, developing technology, tech transfer, and creating innovations.

Ambitions are high and time is short, but pockets are deep. The project is strongly backed by former Russian president Medvedev. First results should be visible in a few years from now. Top design bureau AREP drew up a master plan for the area; Star architects (including Herzog & De Meuron, David Chipperfield) were hired to design the university campus, the technopark, the urban quarters, and amazing landmarks including an enormous glass dome and an artificial “rock”. Not a bargain, really. It must be special.

Skolkovo is not meant as a permanent residence: only people with a contract in one of Skolkovo’s companies or universities can rent a premise, and they can stay for max. 10 years. The quality of housing is very high for Moscow standards; the location in the woods may appeal to some type of residents. In terms of connections, it is a leafy, suburban location with good highway access (and planned rail connections to Moscow’s main station). The area is popular with the somewhat better-to-do people. Tycoon Abramovitz has one of his golfcourses nearby, and Medvedev is building his new home next door. Russia’s top business school is located in the area as well.

Some observations and questions
This weekend, the Skolkovo Science City organisation flew in a number of their advisors from around the world, including researchers from MIT, Ernst&Young, University of St Petersburg, and a surprising heap of Dutch experts: besides our team (Alexander Otgaar, Jan-Jelle Witte and me), also Matthijs van Dijk (KvD reframing), and Evert Verhagen (Creative Cities) were in the room.

After this weekend’s session, my impression is that there are many key unanswered questions to be addressed in order to make Skolkovo a success.
First of all, the project so far is too much top-down, strongly dominated by architects and planners, with insufficient vision of technology and business development. The software follows the hardware, which may not be the best order. There is a Masterplan and urban designs, and some aspects are appealing. But so far, to me, the project lacks a solid conceptual basis. It builds on unrefined, linear ideas of innovation, technology transfer and technology business development, that misfit the reality of innovation ecosystems. What lacks is a coherent view on a number of things fundamental to any innovation system.

Here are some flaws, questions, and issues still unaddressed, from my perspective (i.e. innovation ecosystems):

• What will be the relation between university education/research and business development;
• It is unclear which type of Russian and international tech companies can be realistically attracted, nor is their an informed vision yet how to embed them in the city/region in order to make Skolkovo a catalyst for innovation
• The place of Skolkovo in the wider innovation system of Greater Moscow is undefined.
• The specifics of innovation and business development processes in the targeted sectors are not addressed so far. But we know that each sector has its own particular dynamics in this respect, and this should have strategic implications
• The phasing of the development is undefined (it is incremental by definition; a bad start can be detrimental).
• There is no vision on the management of the interactions in Skolkovo, although interaction is seen as e key feature for innovation. From other cases, we know that involved institutions and knowledge management are crucial to create open innovation and co-creation; It is wildly naïve to expect miracles from just designing meeting places (hoping that people will meet in bars and start to innovate). They will not unless the “software” is there.
• A crucial factor is the research and education philosophy of the university. It should be far away from the traditional Russian approach of fundamental research. In my view, it should adopt an entrepreneurial and business oriented model. It is unclear how this will be realised, and by whom.
• So far, Skolkovo is about engineering, technology, and beta sciences. There will be no alpha or gamma faculties, nor colleges of art. But interesting innovations in many fields (though admittely not all) emerge at the intersection of insights and intuitions on technology and behaviour, inspired by an exciting, dynamic and creative urban environment.
• Inclusive and participative design can make Skolkovo an exciting place. People want to shape their own environment, and this is especially true for the exceptional creative people and students that are to be attracted at Skolkovo. But so far, the design approach is too much top-down, leaving little room for the residents.

In the next months we will analyse exceptional innovation ecosystems in Europe and China: Eindhoven, Stockholm (both world-class, grown organically, with a strong governance system), and Suzhou, China (developed from scratch in less than 10 years). We hope to be able to develop meaningful insights, and help the management of Skolkovo to daunting task to create this science city. It’s clear that much needs to be done.

Willem van Winden, UrbanIQ, 21 May 2012