The Null Device

Naukograd 2.0

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union established a system of secret science cities, or "naukograds" in Russian. These cities were closed off from the rest of the USSR and identified only by numbered names; in them, elite scientists lived in relative luxury and worked on secret projects, while armed guards prevented anyone without authorisation from getting in or out. One could think of the naukograds as a Soviet-era cross between the Google campus and The Village.

Of course, developing nuclear bombs or putting a live dog into orbit is one thing, and competing in the technological marketplace is another, and Russia hasn't been punching its weight. While America has Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and such and Japan and South Korea supply the world with cameras, LCD screens and memory chips, Russia has a gimmicky LED keyboard and LiveJournal (a US-based, American-built site which is Russian-owned). The post-Soviet economy is worryingly dependent on exports of natural resources such as oil and gas, and, while Russia does produce good scientists and engineers, worryingly many of them end up in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Now, seemingly chagrined by the lack of hype about the latest must-have Russian smartphone in the pages of Engadget, the Russian government has decided to do something about it and build a modern, web-age version of the naukograd, with less secrecy and more bean bags and sushi bars; an attempt to replicate the success of Silicon Valley by fiat, stop the brain drain and boost the Russian technology industry. Of course, there is some dispute over how to actually go about doing this:

In the midst of the oil boom, Russian officials suggested luring back Russian talent by building a gated residential community outside Moscow, designed to look like an American suburb. What is it about life in Palo Alto, they seemed to be asking, that we cannot duplicate in oil-rich Russia?
“In California, the climate is beautiful and they don’t have the ridiculous problems of Russia,” Mr. Shtorkh said. To compete, he said, Russia will form a place apart for scientists. “They should be isolated from our reality,” he added.
HIGH-TECH entrepreneurs who stayed in Russia are more skeptical. Yevgeny Kaspersky, founder of the Kaspersky Lab, an antivirus company, says that he is pulling for the site to succeed but that the government should confine its role to offering tax breaks and infrastructure.
A site has been chosen for the first new naukograd, though a name has not yet been decided. Until one is, it is variously referred to, unofficially, as Cupertino-2, Innograd and iGorod.

There are 3 comments on "Naukograd 2.0":

Posted by: Greg Thu Apr 15 11:47:52 2010

Interesting. Russia's dependence on mining is similar to Australia's. But here, if anything,, we have done everything we can to shut down innovation, even manufacturing in general. Should Australians also be of dependence on mining? In the post-industrial age most Australians simply do admin and art for each other while praying for capital gains from the land boom.

Can you artificially create an innovative town like Silicon Valley? There are government-created technology-parks littered around the globe - I'm not sure how many of these have turned into anything like the Valley.

Life in Palo Alto isn't that much to write home about. I enjoyed living there for four months, but then I am over 40. For younger techies its main attraction is that it is a short train ride from an after-hours life in San Francisco. The Valley wasn't created by government but is more or less an offshoot of the (private) Stanford University. Xerox PARC was located there half by accident, and boom, you have critical mass.

Posted by: acb Thu Apr 15 12:50:49 2010

I noticed; if Russia is feeling uncomfortable riding on the natural-resources boom, why isn't Australia? Perhaps because Australia, in its own mythology, is the Lucky Country, and will always have it good (a sort of Aussie version of America's "manifest destiny" mythos), whereas the Russians are still conscious of dragging themselves up from wretched feudalism at massive human cost. Also, one thing Russia does very well is scientific education, whereas Australia is still transitioning from lumpen anti-intellectualism to a the-arts-are-alright-if-they-lift-my-property-values attitude.

I can't see Australia building its own Silicon Valley or similar. Though it's better than it was in the 1960s, when an academic computer programme was cancelled, largely because the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London said that that sort of research wasn't Australia's place. (Or so I heard from a visiting academic at Melbourne University in 2000.)

Posted by: unixdj Sat Apr 24 13:45:09 2010

"Can you artificially create an innovative town like Silicon Valley?"

It's not entirely implausible that you^H^H^Hone can. I recently watched this:

After watching this, it seems to me that the reason the original Naukograds didn't become local Silicone Valleys was that they were closed, non-free (in the "speech" sense) and oriented on military industry only. So there was no free exchange of ideas, no entrepreneurship (by which I mean developing your own idea, not necessarily making big bucks) and no way to use the tech for producing non-military end user products. And, on top of that, no incentive to do any of the above.

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