Sitting on 400 hectares of the most expensive Russian real estate outside central Moscow, Skolkovo is intended to be one of the biggest tech innovation centres in the world. In 2010, then-president Dmitry Medvedev gave orders to create an innovative centre from scratch – this in a country where all tech parks and scientific centres have been inherited from the Soviet past. “We have money but don’t have our Silicon Valley,” he said on his visit to Silicon Valley, after earlier stressing it was a project “that should become the largest test ground for Russian new economic policy.”
But at the moment plans for an internationally renowned tech hub a half-hour’s drive from Red Square are still a dream. The fantasy starts with the idea that it takes half an hour to drive there through Moscow’s notoriously heavy traffic; on a weekday it takes a few hours. When you reach there you are greeted with signs saying “Skolkovo - we are making the future today”, but beyond the perimeter fence lies a couple of cranes and an excavator digging the foundations of this future fantasy. Several hundred metres away stands the only finished building, called Hypercube; it is supposed to be an example of the eco-friendly principles intended for Skolkovo. Looking at the building from the dusty and polluted highway, however, makes you wonder just how green the enterprise will truly be.
Three years after its announcement by President Medvedev, Skolkovo still raises more questions than answers. Getting Skolkovo off the ground has not been cheap, with billions of oil dollars spent, and yet more to be allocated. There are doubts that the Russian government – now headed by Vladimir Putin – has the conviction to keep going. The investments are impressive though. The road to be built to Skolkovo and around the area is said to cost $2 billion. However, the biggest questions facing start-ups that have, or want to, set up shop there is where they are going to work and live. The whole site is supposed to be finished by 2020.
One source close to Skolkovo said that the project is modeled on tech centres such as Sophia Antipolis in France, Cyberjaya in Malaysia or Masdar in UAE. While the start-ups wait for the so needed infrastructure to be finished in 2015-16, they are being sent to other scientific centres to carry on their projects. Skolkovo’s vice-president for external communications and advertising, Alexander Chernov, has tried to assure the press everything is fine and will be finished soon. “It is a usual trend with construction business in Russia. Two years shift is not that bad but we will welcome our residents in 2015. If not, we will look like losers.”
Russia has a long history of scientific and technological breakthroughs, but it is suffering from a hangover from recent decades. The Cold War and the Iron Curtain played a key role in maintaining a competitive and innovative spirit in closed science cities of the Soviet Union, such as Akademgorodok in Siberia.
But after the Cold War, everything changed. The new Russia found itself with the remnants of the once powerful Soviet scientific machine and a huge brain drain in the direction of the US. Innovative ideas started to matter very little in a new capitalist society focused on selling Russia’s vast natural resources and cashing in US dollars. It took two decades for a project like Skolkovo to emerge from the Kremlin’s corridors.
So what will Skolkovo concentrate on? There are five core areas: information technology, nuclear technology, energy efficiency, biomedical innovation, and space and telecommunications. Companies receiving resident status can work on their projects and attempt to bring them to market. Skolkovo’s grants and construction are mostly backed up by the money from the Russian government. The investment is supposed to reach over $15bn (£10bn) by 2020.