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Our Russia Visits Skolkovo

Skoltech grows
Skoltech grows pencils?

Our Russia was recently afforded the pleasure of an exclusive tour of Skolkovo's robotics center. We visited with key Skolkovo executives at Russia's science city last Monday to discuss the overall scope of progress toward the ambitious endeavor deemed "Russia#s Silicon Valley" by western journalists. What we found was surprisingly differentiated from the American technology park. 

My ultra-geek husband Sasha, and I, were pleased to be invited by the Skolkovo Foundation to see first hand, a real town that grows science, a place we'd only previously heard rumors about. What we disocovered with the help of Skolkovo Foundation Project Manager, Alexsei Gonnochenko, and Skollovo’s Robocenter chief, Albert Yefimov is in fact a fully functioning city where schools, shops, automated transport, and an entire infrastructure are to being built from scratch. What's "in process" at Skolkovo is actually far removed from it's California, USA counterpart. While Silicon Valley in America grew up in support of nearby technology entities, the Skolkovo project is a social-innovation experiment more akin to futuristic civil engineering. If there is a near equivalent to Skolkovo, it would be more along the lines of Adlershof in Berlin, only the Russian version is far more advanced already, and with a more broad reaching potential. At least this is how Sasha and I see the endeavor. 

Our Russia's Aleksandr Shatskih (r) with Albert Yefimov (l) and Alexsei Gonnochenko (center)
Our Russia's Aleksandr Shatskih (r) with Albert Yefimov (l) and Alexsei Gonnochenko (center) (Image courtesy Vladimir Samarin)

The structure of the city is now centered around the Technopark, and the University growing so rapidly. In only six years, as compared to the aforementioned Adlershof's 19 years in existence, Skolkovo has become a veritable hot house of ideas. While other such technology centers have tended to be about the production of tech and gadgets, the garden Gonnochenko and Yefimov showed us is fueled by the ideas, investment, and support of ideas and concepts. 

As a "for instance," in America or Germany venture capital and support is solicited and given to ideas and startups on an ultra-capitalistic model. However, successful the model may have been though, selection of ideas to support is not always made based on utter potential, "cool" and underlying motivations play a huge role. 100 startups may be funded, while only a scant few deliver on the financial or value promise. This is, in the end, a very inefficient means of growing the future. That is, in our view at least. Meanwhile, the Skolkovo Foundation method is almost totally agnostic where project selection is concerned. At Russia's science city, 250 randomly selected and anonymous experts are chosen from around the world, in order to pick those ideas that receive support. The unbiased selection on merit, shows particular promise, for obvious reasons. 

Skoltech at the Open Innovations Forum
Skoltech at the Open Innovations Forum

 

Our Russia co-founder, Phil Butler says that; "Silicon Valley innovation culture more resembles pop culture or celebrity selectivity, rather than performance based and natural selection."  Phil, a technology analyst since the early days of what became known as Web 2.0, has reported on virtually every major innovation of the last 15 years. As for Skolkovo's concept differentiation, and what lies ahead, Albert Yefimov says: 

“The world is not flat anymore, even though some keep thinking of it as super-connected place where you can live and work no matter where your business. It has irregularities – in order to get something done in IT or robotics, which both migrate to cyber-physical, we need the right people, the right connections, with the right devices and with the best mentors. All of this will be available, all in a matter of a 20 minute journey.”

Sasha and I listen as Alexsei and Albert detail future Skolkovo initiatives
Sasha and I listen as Alexsei and Albert detail future Skolkovo initiatives (Vladimir Samarin)

When all is said and done the term "Science City" is most appropriate to what is rising up at our Skolkovo. In a very real way, what happens with this experiment is an experiment, within an experiment, fostering experiments. The "garden of ideas" tag Phil Butler put on Skolkovo in this Sputnik Tech piece, is appropriate. 

So then, Skolkovo is intended to create start-up opportunities, but what's more the "experiment" promises a sort of organic civic effort to create a lasting atmosphere of creativity. Great ideas, as Phil Butler put it, are then grown out of the fertile material of community. For me synthesizing this idea is easier than for detail oriented geeks. In Russia we are building a city of science where ideas are formed from cradle to grave. Isn't this what happens when a city is built dedicated to progress? 

I can't wait until our next report on the children Skolkovo will inspire. Until then just imagine a towering tree, grown from a tiny seed, bearing big, luscious red fruits the world can bite from. Okay, Skolkovo is a big apple tree for me. No, no Apple the company.