In one of my recent research projects I investigated the ecologies of technological innovation in Russia. I was interested in particular in the ways in which the Russian Government or private companies provide for the support and development of technological initiatives. What specifically drew my attention here was one of the strategies called “innovative infrastructure”. The purpose of such infrastructure lies in the creation of a network of regional organizations. In contrast with one organization at the federal level, which allocates resources in one specific place, this network works locally to distribute all necessary resources across the country. Moreover, it is designed to support specific sectors, e.g. technoparks help entrepreneurs develop their ideas into businesses, hackerspaces provide equipment and gather communities of engineers and manufacturers, and import substitution centers function as platforms for supporting “domestically developed” technological alternatives. Perhaps the most known infrastructure project in Russia is the Federal program for the construction of technoparks and business incubators, officially launched in 2006.
(Academpark, Novosibirsk city)
The official documents of the Ministry of Telecommunications of the Russian Federation do not provide an exact formulation of what “infrastructure” or “tech park functioning as infrastructure” is. After analyzing several official documents that complement each other and add new information to the concept, I found that infrastructure does not mean only material, engineering, communications, supplying gas, water, and electricity, or transport communications like roads and junctions. Instead, the term infrastructure may also include the “social” and “innovative” development of a territory surrounding a technopark. All this is included in the concept of a technopark, where well-developed infrastructure is one of the indicators of its effectiveness.
(Innopolis University campus, the Republic of Tatarstan)
I assume that these concepts are intentionally kept as vague as possible in order to avoid a clear assessment of its activity and possible failures related to the non-fulfillment of certain standards. The very fact of the formulation of such concepts as “infrastructure”, “technopark” or “innovation activity” gives official documentation the parameters needed to evaluate the efficiency of such entreprise – how well the “infrastructure” works or whether a company is “innovative” or not. With such a broad formulation of the infrastructure, which takes into account both the number of social events organized for local community and the footage of pipes laid, a technopark project will most likely meet at least some of the listed criteria of effectiveness.
On the other hand, the absence of clear criteria of what stands for infrastructure, speaks to the high level of complexity of such projects. If infrastructure meant only the construction of a building and the laying of roads, then such a project could be described based on certain guidelines and normative documents. However, infrastructure projects claim to be more than that. These are strategically important projects at the state level, involving public and private partnerships, and the stakes are high. These infrastructure projects bring high expectations, which can not be limited simply to construction. Therefore, the concept of what stands for infrastructure or a tech park is being refined as new expectations arise.
(Innopolis University, exterior and interior elements, the Republic of Tatarstan)
Besides official documentation, the projects are widely discussed by the public. Starting with Dmitry Medvedev’s presidential term in 2008, Russia has placed special emphasis on the country’s innovations and technological development. Numerous statements were made by various officials at events and forums, reports being submitted on the topic of innovations and discussions held on the strategies to develop domestic high tech. In addition to that, journalists publish articles, and entrepreneurs and venture funds talk about working in tech parks and other innovation-related organizations with innovative infrastructure. Technology parks have gradually became a part of popular mass culture – they are used in memes and discussed in television programs. All of this suggests that both official and public discourse were formed around projects, organizations and even separate buildings. This discourse not only defines the meaning of “innovative infrastructure”, but also links it with other discursive elements. It ultimately affects material practices like the construction of new buildings and has an effect on both management practices and effectiveness assessments.
(Tech park “Ankudinovka”, Nizhny Novgorod)
What do these two discourses share? First, technoparks mean the construction of brand new buildings, representing new projects as such. It also assumes that the territory surrounding a tech park is also developed and roads, sidewalks and bicycle paths are properly constructed to ensure that the new project is “built-in” into existing landscape. Secondly, there are shared expectations about how these new territories should look. It is assumed that it must follow all the cutting edge tendencies in design. New design affects a building both inside and outside, replacing old-fashioned offices with free layout and creative communicative spaces and include elements of futuristic design. These buildings are fundamentally different from the architectural concepts of a typical Russian city and therefore represent and embody “innovations”.
(Biotech park “Koltsovo”, Novosibirsk region)
Moreover, the goal of these spaces is to provide workspaces competitive with those found in Europe or in the US. The idea behind these new spaces and new designs is to ensure an employee or a tech entrepreneur that she works in a space of the most advanced technologies, and thereby advance technological development further by creating innovative projects on her own. In this case a highly qualified specialist feels as if he or she works in a highly competitive international environment, but at the same time resides in Russia and supports the local economy. This, among other things, is facilitated by conventional logic and design, in which similar facilities are constructed both in Russia and abroad. Further, foreign architects are often invited to design tech parks in Russia and bring their expertise and set of shared conventions with them.
(Techpark “Photonics”, Moscow)
Another merit of “innovativeness” of technoparks lies in the very fact of their construction. Because tech parks presuppose not only the establishment of a main building, but also a major renovation of surrounding territory, it is already a massive enterprise for Russian regions. Implementing such complex projects in Russia and investments into urban development, rather than wasting or corrupting city budgets, are claimed as “innovation”. In this case, technoparks have great symbolic significance for the public, which receive concrete material outcomes. Symbolic significance of material buildings is especially noticeable in post-Soviet countries. Compared to the difficulties in social and economic situation there, such projects declare a country’s competitiveness in the field of high-tech and confirm the revival of national economies. Therefore infrastructure becomes a tangible confirmation of innovative potential. The concept of infrastructure shifts from being a basic, supporting and seamless element into one which is primarily designed for display.
(Tech park in Lipetsk)
However, the reality of Russian technology parks turns out to be much more complex than popular representations find them. Places where new technologies appear do not always correspond to the popular image of a fashionable and creative space with brand new design. Modern tech park infrastructure projects as described above can be found mainly in large cities as Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kazan, and Novosibirsk. Other places of tech innovations are spread across the country and look somewhat different. They are found predominantly as empty storage areas and office buildings passed on from the Soviet era, whose owners now lease out premises to small technological companies and therefore call themselves “technoparks” or “industrial zones”.
(“Tech park 1993”, Zarechniy town, Sverdlovskaya oblast)
The visual appearance of most of these sites are far from the popular ideal. Following the logic of popular discourse it is rather challenging to attribute these sites and territories as “innovative”. If “modern places” are associated with advanced technologies, new equipment and competitive specialists who work there, these more realistic but “unfashionable” alternatives raise serious doubts. I am leaving aside here the question of whether their poor appearance correlates with their ability to produce new tech products. What is more important for this discussion is that Soviet-looking offices and warehouse premises, which have been assigned a new status, make up a larger number of local innovation infrastructure than all the well-known modern projects. (The list of all technoparks and industrial zones located in the Russian Federation provides solid evidence for this).
As a result of this discourse, linking new modern buildings and innovations, there arises the issue of an adequate assessment of such infrastructure projects. If it is based on the presence of mere construction, then it shifts the focus away from other important parameters like new inventions, patents, competencies and innovative products – most of them can be found in places with no modern buildings at all. Modern technoparks and industrial zones, in turn, suffer from inflated and often unrealistic expectations that new, breakthrough technologies should appear quickly as soon as a new building is established.