Street protests in Moscow and online acts of civil disobedience aside, there’s a growing sense that something fundamentally new is happening within Russia. This transformation is playing out inside and outside of the political sphere. Young Russians appear to have a new desire and willingness to start their own companies. The same people connecting over social media to organize protests or vent their frustrations are also developing into Web entrepreneurs with a desire to transform the economy. Perhaps the most encouraging sign yet of change in Russia is the creation of a new multi-billion-dollar innovation center called Skolkovo just outside Moscow’s city center.
Created largely by state decree in 2010 as a way to shift the Russian economy away from energy and commodity-intensive industries and into faster-growing, high-tech industries, Skolkovo is essentially a multi-billion-dollar bet that Russia can rapidly build an entrepreneurial culture from scratch. Skolkovo’s first building, the Hypercube, is set to open in September, and the first batch of Russian companies selected to participate in the Skolkovo experiment have already started to move into a temporary Technopark. Some of the companies in the Technopark, such as Vizerra, already have a presence in Silicon Valley, while other resident companies are embracing technological innovations that reach far beyond the Web to include energy, bio-medicine and even space exploration.
By 2014, the vision is to have a full innovation city - including a residential-style village and a brand-new school of technology and entrepreneurship created in tandem with MIT. For now, what Skolkovo offers primarily to Russian start-up entrepreneurs and later-stage companies is a place to more freely incubate and develop. For technology companies that need help hiring new employees, prototyping new products, navigating the labyrinthine Russian legal and regulatory system or commercializing a new technology, Skolkovo promises to make the process as painless as possible by acting as a one-stop shop for entrepreneurs.
And therein lies the challenge of Skolkovo: to overcome the bureaucratic reach of the Russian government, which has historically made entrepreneurship a difficult and opaque process. For all the Ciscos and Intels and IBMs and Microsofts that it manages to attract withits story of world-class R&D and the creation of a “corruption-free zone,” Skolkovo still needs to overcome the nagging sense that the toleration of an innovation zone outside of Moscow’s city center might be a bargaining chip of sorts used to mask broader government crackdowns elsewhere. At the end of the day, entrepreneurship is not something that a government can will into existence. It has to emerge organically from the right mix of culture and circumstances — from the bottom up, rather than from the top down.
Yet, there’s a distinct sense that something has changed in Moscow. It’s now fashionable for the younger generation to attend street protests - and it’s no longer odd to come across anti-Putin slogans scribbled on fences or sidewalks. The old Red October candy factory has been transformed into a trendy digital media and art hub, while Russian tech companies like Yandex and Badoo are starting to make headlines abroad.
When Russians start to launch high-tech companies across the entire country — not just within a special zone — that prove Skolkovo has become a truly new model for entrepreneurship across Russia.
Dominic Basulto is a digital thinker at Bond Strategy and Influence (formerly called Electric Artists) in New York. Prior to Bond Strategy and Influence, he was the editor of Fortune’s Business Innovation Insider and a founding member of Corante.com, one of the Web’s first blog media companies. He also shares his thoughts on innovation on the Big Think Endless Innovation blog and is working on a new book on innovation called “Endless Innovation, Most Beautifuland Most Wonderful.”