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Does infrastructure mean innovations?

Scientific organization
European University at St. Petersburg, Center for Science and Technology Studies
Academic degree
PhD Candidate
Research Associate
Scientific discipline
Humanities & Social sciences
Does infrastructure mean innovations?
Infrastructural projects became one of the innovative policy tools of the state to develop high tech in the country. I analyze the discourse around constructions in Kazan and argue that infrastructure and buildings became a metaphor of innovations. Metaphorical nature of constructions allows various actors to impose meanings and interpretations, which explains how and why buildings became a metric to evaluate performance in innovative activity and sheds the light over urban space development and investments into new architecture in places which are meant to be high-tech hubs.
Infrastructure, high-tech hubs, Skolkovo, Innopolis, metrics of innovations, urban development, migration

Since the Medvedev’s presidency in 2008-2012, innovations became a vivid part of the national discourse in Russia. It was a major initiative of former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to modernize the Russian economy, high tech and information technologies have been a priority for federal and local authorities. High tech claimed to bring economic growth and better living for the society, make the country internationally competitive and prove the idea that Russia is one of the leading technological countries in the world.

State policies for the development of high-tech industry are central to this new focus on innovation, and they deploy several policy tools to achieve this new goal – innovative clusters, special economic zones, federal projects for tech park development, etc. Thus the state is planning to create several innovative centers across the country. Since 2007, the state has placed an emphasis on tech-parks and developed a program to support innovations and attract high-skilled migration to the region. All of these policy tools are claimed to be innovative infrastructure, which eventually will form innovative hubs around them.

In this presentation I want to focus on the notion of infrastructure – what it means for various actors, involved in the discourse around innovations and high-tech hubs establishment.

Since the very launch of tech-park program, the definition of infrastructure was not documented officially. For instance the document titled as Complex program “Establishment of Tech parks in the field of high tech in the Russian Federation”, issued in 2006, does not include infrastructure in the definition of a tech park. However infrastructure means material engineering and transport communications, which are the bases for any tech park to appear and function. In this regard the concept also includes “residential” and “social” infrastructure, which legitimizes establishment of hotels, residential areas or other types of constructions.

In the document of 2011 well-developed “internal” and “external” infrastructure appears as one of the key features to justify business plan and business strategy of a Tech Park. This document requires that every tech park needs to submit factual information about the land, where the building is meant to be, such as land property, area in square meters, address, land use restrictions and encumbrances, place of tech park on the map of a city and local environment, pictures of the place etc. Other information refers to the project of construction, reconstruction or project development - description of all the objects and areas of a tech park (laboratories, training facilities, offices etc), information on their conditions and also engineering infrastructure of this project like the networks of water, gas, energy, and communications.

In 2012 there was issued the document on the Development of special economic zone at the territories of two municipal districts – Verkhneuslonskiy and Laishevskiy in the Republic of Tatarstan. Based on this document infrastructure from now on is not limited to the material embodiment and constructions, which is “engineering” or “transport”. It also includes “social” and “innovative” developments at a territory and legitimately justifies any developmental project for these reasons, not to speak of the some “other infrastructure” mentioned in the decree. Besides, it means that to implement a project called “Innopolis” is the same as to establish all sorts of “infrastructure”. Since infrastructure was one of the pre-requisites for innovations, its usage became metaphorical.

Infrastructure and constructions became metaphors of innovations. Because “innovations” are domain in the making, and its meaning is not yet clear and stabilized, it explains how easily new buildings as something clear, tangible, measurable and mundane became a new understanding of what “IT-innovations” are.

Relations between building and innovations (buildings as presence of innovations, buildings as the evidence of investments) appeared as a reaction to the Skolkovo story. Skolkovo, launched in 2010, meant the establishment the Russian analogue of Silicon Valley in the outskirts of Moscow. The project itself was the statement that modern Russia needs to be taken into account as an international competitive player in high-tech. The very fact of constructing the new high-tech hub in Moscow was making it clear that the new Russia’s priorities are on the breakthrough technologies like telecommunications, space, biomedical technologies, IT, energy efficiency, nuclear technologies and also nanotechnology.

However this project was highly criticized, especially in media. Even though Skolkovo is not only meant to be the territory, and the brand of Skolkovo encloses several institutions, my respondents and media tend to describe Skolkovo project as a failure. The main indicator that “something went wrong with Skolkovo” is absence of constructions. Metonymic approach somehow linked together the absence of buildings with inconsistency of the products this place was meant to produce.

While Skolkovo is associated in the media discourse with the fuzzy innovations and the absence of visible results, Kazan is said to be making something real and tangible. My research was based on the data obtained in Kazan, the Republic of Tatarstan. Compared to the other regions, Tatarstan is an outstanding case of infrastructure establishment. There have been supported several initiatives, mostly in the form of new organizations and construction of new buildings. Kazan was also chosen to be one of the places to implement this federal project of tech-parks construction. As the result there were established two tech parks for the development of high tech industry – IT-parks in Kazan (2009) and Naberezhniye Chelny (2012), and industrial park “Tehnopolis Khimgrad” (2009). Later the emphasis was made on education, rather than entrepreneurship, and investments into human capital. Therefore there were established new IT-Lyceum for children (2012), Higher School of Information Technologies and Information Systems, within Kazan Federal University (2011), and the new ambitious project of Innopolis (launched in 2012), which implies new IT-university of Innopolis and developmental project for a new city.

The fact that Kazan is investing into infrastructural projects – it recently has renovated the city center, built IT-parks, tech parks and constructing Innopolis – all of this is quite “unexpected”, as one of the IT-specialists said. Building establishment became a metric of its own: buildings started to represent Kazan as “innovative city” and constructions became a new way to evaluate performance in innovative activity.

Kazan offered a different model of innovative place, enforced with brand new buildings appearing in time and according to the state’s plan. Modern architecture of new constructions was the other advantage. What interviews have shown is that buildings started to mean different things to local actors. They were the new office buildings with comfortable workspace; they were the symbol of changes in the region, the result of money invested and the image of regional politicians taking care of people and industry. New buildings put up from scratch were easy to legitimize for the local and federal government – they were persuasive to show that “something is going on”. Buildings are tangible results of activity which cannot be clearly understood and estimated in any way.

Infrastructure became a complex of meanings. Discourse analysis shows that infrastructure can be the same as engineering communications, constructions only, or constructions with certain projects for local professional community. Both the IT Park and Innopolis have been designed to create a “beautiful picture” and thus to attract specialists into the city and to keep human capital in the Republic. Both specialists and business are the audience for these projects – it symbolizes the intention of local authorities to invest, develop and support local tech industry.

New construction is powerful symbol of changes. Russia has a long history of science cities establishment – like Akademgorodok in Novosibirsk, Obninsk, Zelenograd, and others. Historical cases illustrate that each of these projects started with new architecture, which promised new modern lifestyle and new daily practices of its inhabitants. But new time offers new challenges. If during the Soviet times architects wanted to create conditions which were believed to stimulate the rise of the Soviet science, in the late 2000s the focus is shifted to the country’s need to keep specialists in the country and to prevent migration by creating good accommodations in Russia.

Projects like Innopolis and IT park in Kazan are meant to prevent, or at least to decrease the level of emigration, creating the kinds of opportunities that exist abroad within the country: mobility is good and travelling is also good but the strategy of development of the region involves attraction of staff, as one of the experts said. Larger cities like Moscow or St Petersburg are certain to attract of the best in terms of human resources, competences and technologies. Kazan as a peripheral city has historically lacked this kind of magnetism. The way Kazan is branding itself now, however, represents an aggressive effort to compete with the capitals and to reproduce in the provinces the same conditions which exist there, and even rival those found abroad. It explains why Kazan wants to start from scratch with the new buildings, and to invite foreign architect to impose best-practices – like in the case of Innopolis and IT-parks.

To meet these expectations, Innopolis is styled as a city of the future, keeping up with the times and the latest technologies. Its furturistic orientation is what makes this project looks promising: new infrastructure brings new expectations.

Buildings and developmental projects in Kazan helped to embed technological entrepreneurship into the vision of a new lifestyle and living, which Russian regions have never offered before - primarily because entrepreneurship is the way to get into this new architecture. The other reason for tech entrepreneurship to appear in Kazan is because this new architecture is truly able to attract such talents from across the country and associate Kazan with creativity and innovation. Local infrastructure is not only meant to provide good condition for living – it also claim to bring new research facilities, university campus and new modern offices. The main purpose of all these projects is to attract the local community of all ages into technological business, assuring them that no special competence is needed to enter the field - just a bright idea and high motivation. The kind of infrastructure being built in Kazan claims to provide opportunities for just that kind of initiative: if you want to start your own tech business, IT-parks, tech zones or industrial parks are ready to support your aspirations. IT parks, both in Kazan and in Naberezhnye Chelny, are experiencing a rush of start-uppers applying for business-incubator spots in the hope of becoming the next new tech star.

Thus infrastructure assumes broader understanding of what is meant to be established - infrastructure is supportive facilities, the frame on which “innovative ecology” is destined to appear. Since infrastructure produces conditions for innovative activity and in that manner stimulates entrepreneurship, it authorized new organizations, associated with IT or innovations to claim themselves being “infrastructure”. Yet, some local specialists are still skeptical; they see the difference between mere infrastructure and the promise of a new ecology it purports to offer. Despite the enthusiastic reviews, many are withholding judgments. Some computer scientists and local software developers are cautious in their evaluation of the grandiose regional scheme, and talk rather about specific research facilities, which Innopolis offers as university and the number of companies the new economic zone will be capable of attracting. As for the idea of growing and nurturing a new ecology of innovation, one of the local programmers said, the absence of multinational IT-companies proves the inconsistency of the hype over Kazan as an IT capital that it can be in any way comparable with the Silicon Valley.

This complex and metaphorical understanding of infrastructure has consequences on the metrics. In other words, how to estimate whether infrastructure is successful or not? Besides well-developed engineering communications and work facilities these buildings provide, managers of such tech infrastructure like to emphasize that the true purpose of these organizations is to create synergy between various actors and to establish creative ecology. This parameter goes beyond something which can be both controlled by local management and exactly estimated by federal or local government. Despite clear and tangible result like buildings, they have become substitution of innovations. However creative innovative environment requires other metrics, which are difficult to control and estimate.