High-tech business starts shaping the development of the urban environment
We tend to think that creating a comfortable city environment has to primarily cater to an average city resident. However a synergy of urban transformations is able to give a nudge to entrepreneurship and growth of innovative business. Denis Kovalevich, shareholder and CEO of the TechnoSpark Group of Companies shared with Rossiyskaya Gazeta how these processes are interwoven.
Denis, you are one of the founders of TechnoSpark, a smart technology park in the suburbs of Troitsk where you build tech startups from scratch. From your own observations, do entrepreneurs of today have any requirements for the city environment around them? What’s the usual hurdle?
Denis Kovalevich: I think in terms of entrepreneurship the town has a characteristic that can be roughly expressed in the following way: a town is what is supposed to save time. All that is going on there – infrastructure, facilities, trade, services and so on – has to facilitate it. Most post-Soviet cities prove to have quite the opposite effect: they steal our time. In a megalopolis, it is taken away by transportation, in addition, one always has to pay attention to a thousand details, like, for instance, figure out what your child is going to wear at school, if it makes sense to do the shopping on the way back home or go to that mall on the other side of the city.
How do smaller towns operate in this respect, I mean science-centered ones?
Denis Kovalevich: None of the so-called science-centered towns can be considered towns in a literal sense: it is an industrial settlement centered around a scientific facility rather than a factory. As long as such a settlement functioned as a science-centered town, it did save rather than steal time. Take Troitsk, for example. It has 10 institutes located in a circle with the residential quarters in the middle. My parents would go home from the institute for lunch: recharged their batteries, had a meal, checked if I had come home from school, and got back to work. Both the kindergarten and school were along their way.
Anyway, that socialistic construct of life ceased to exist as soon as normal economy started to come about. In the early 1990s, Troitsk had 12,000 science workers out of the total 15,000 working population and the town population of about 30,000. The current populations stands at 50-60,000 people, whereas institutes employ only about a thousand of them. The rest either work nearby or commute to Moscow. TechnoSpark was started almost within the bounds of the town but with no connection to the center – to get here, one had to take a detour along the Kaluzhskoye highway. Throughout the seven years, we have created 400 jobs, literally becoming one of the largest employers in the town, however we haven’t blended into the urban space yet. We are inaccessible on foot or by bike – there is a field and two institutes lying in between. This poor accessibility is the worst time stealer.
Besides, small towns are really slow to be embraced by the contemporary infrastructure. In Troitsk there is still no presence of any chain cafes, no services that are typically found in any modern town; they are only starting to appear but they are yet too provincial and hardly getting by. Given that the greatest part of the population go to another city each morning, by the time they get back late at night they have no time for their town. And those who do have their businesses in town either represent a narrow fraction of clientele (children, retired people, moms with kids) or are only visited on weekends and rare evenings. Imagine what will happen to profitability of your business with 80% out of the equation?
It takes great pains to set up anything in the town despite the fact that the administration is open to whatever you may come up with. We installed the first information stand at a bus stop with screens on e-paper, which is super high-tech and unprecedented in terms of energy saving. But there are just two or three innovative projects that we have managed to carry out here. There’s no space for the rest.
Has the planning been all set?
Denis Kovalevich: Yes, and not only the planning but solution types as well. That said, such towns are rarely rich. To bring new technologies to the urban environment they either have to edge out the old ones or appear in new places. Are there many towns that invest in their own development? There is an excellent example in Irkutsk – 130 Kvartal, which is simply amazing. Another example is Kazan. Are there other places that have radically changed?
Does it mean Kazan’s leading positions in innovation ratings result from investment in its infrastructure?
Denis Kovalevich: I am 100% certain. Without infrastructure there’s little hope for something to start growing by itself. There is a standard alternative: outlying towns, like Sophia Antipolis, Innopolis, Skolkovo. “Let’s take one empty field and develop it the best way.” Sophia Antipolis, for example, is just a space with a great deal of offices and campuses that house companies, even though it is in the countryside. They aren’t towns but rather places of work where people don’t live.
Is it good or bad?
Denis Kovalevich: It’s impossible to answer this question because it isn’t clear what could serve as an alternative to it. For example, why did TechnoSpark appear in the suburbs?
Was it because there is no other place?
Denis Kovalevich: There is plenty of space. But all spots linger on in their old goals and tasks: for instance, the territories around institutes were planned to be developed in the 1970-80s but in the 1990s the plans were abandoned. The first new projects are only start to show up now. That is why we had to opt for a private site to create TechnoSpark in the shortest time. We have exhausted the capacities of our current site – there is only one tiny spot left, so we are now looking for other areas. Apart from ours, there are a few other companies working in the town. Residential construction is in progress. We are negotiating the General Plan with the town administration, namely, creation of the “third center”: in Troitsk, there are basically two centers, and the third one in the south in terms of the environment and transport has to be “pulled” towards the main town. Now it is nothing but an abandoned patch of land with ponds, unfinished buildings, a concrete plant, a hill of sand and sewage treatment facilities – and to crown it all is the largest investment in the town economy in the last 30 years – TechnoSpark.
That is to a great extent why we are launching a space in the town center where the talks about new development strategies are going to be held. The Agency for Strategic Initiatives has a format of collaboration called the Boiling Point that we have taken to our town. The Boiling Point. Troitsk Co-Working Center opens on December 14, so we could start the negotiations and elaboration of the new agenda for decades to come. It will start operating at the premises of the town business incubator where we act as a managing company.
Is the project going to involve other companies, experts and residents?
Denis Kovalevich: Certainly. First of all, it is a new open platform for all the open-minded active groups of the town, particularly those who have 30-50 years of work and life ahead of them and who have or are planning to start a business here. First and foremost, we are contributing by providing the space, secondly, introducing the format of the Boiling Point brand that adds a particular style and quality of communication in general. Our third contribution is through expert evaluation, since the Boiling Point acts as a connector to the All-Russian expert network, apparently the largest in the country for the time being. With its help, any town-related issue can be viewed through the lens of serious expert evaluation. For example, there is a great initiative called Troitsk.Sreda (translated as Troitsk.Environment) in the town put forward by a group of young people. They arrange negotiations, seminars, business games concerning the reconstruction of the central boulevard, square, and the Desna river embankment, involving the residents in the design of what is going to be built there. But the process lacks participation of people with experience from other places to share their versatile expertise.
What kind of projects are going to be discussed there?
Denis Kovalevich: Some of the key talks are going to be centered around the giant projects of the so-called School 2100, an educational institution for 2,000 people. The place has been defined, there is an architectural design, though logistics is still not quite clear. Will this school be any different in terms of the content of education from standard schools that we inherited from the Soviet Union? Will the modern formats of education be in place there? We are calling out an entire discussion panel for that matter. Another touchy topic is the Troitsk forests. For the most part, they were planted as nearly everything had been felled during the war. The forest belt is an important heritage of the town, and the ecological situation is still quite stable here. The new transport infrastructure is going to partly go through the forest. It makes no sense to resist it: without it, the town will be blocked in its development. But what is going to be done to compensate for the tree cutting required for the road construction? We purposefully invited an expert in urban biosystems and planted forests into the dialogue.
Generally speaking, is it possible, given the conditions, to program a structure of the city for innovations or adapt the existing one?
Denis Kovalevich: We can program it but any program will require sticking to certain margin conditions. The program extends over 70 years. So for the whole length of these 70 years we have to move in one direction without getting off the track. It is not an easy ride. But that is how all known positive examples evolved. For example, the origin of Silicon Valley goes back to the 19th century, with its second “launch” in the 1940s.
Now about adaptation. There are some urban infrastructures that are seriously affected by new technologies or where these technologies can bring about a significant upgrade. For instance, Moscow is planning to arrange a bus depot just next door to TechnoSpark. Will it cater to electric transport or buses with combustion engines? I suppose the former will make more sense. Or, take another example, if the municipal engineering system is no longer functional in 5 years’ time, which entails pipe replacement by then, why laying old pipes designed at the beginning of the 20th century when you can use ones made of contemporary materials? Or in case of reconstruction of 16-story residential high-rises that don’t fall under renovation, why not do it using embedded solar panels? Or at least make calculations for a couple of houses to see how it will go and what it will stand at. It is exactly when the town faces the necessity to reconstruct outdated infrastructures that opens innovation opportunities.
Source: Rossiyskaya Gazeta Newspaper
Date: December 3, 2019