Leap into the Unknown Future

I remember the very first issue of Russian Newsweek back in 2004: it was about the Russian economy being an “oil junky”. For many years, experts have talked about the huge problems that Russia is going to face if it doesn’t build an economy based on something other than these raw materials. But only last year president Dmitry Medvedev started to talk more or less persistently about innovations.

I’ve just returned from Saint Petersburg, where I attended the Second All-Russian Youth Innovation Convention — the annual meeting of young Russian scientists and innovation managers, as well as not-so-young investors and officials who crave an innovation economy to be built in Russia as quickly as possible.

They have a point. The brain drain continues, even though the Russian government is trying to do something about it. Many young scientists still think they have way more opportunities in Western universities with modern equipment and decent salaries than they do here in Russia. To provide a stimulus for young people to stay and work in this country and to contribute into the “innovation leap”, Russian authorities initiated a program called “Zvorykinsky Project” in early 2008.

According to the organizers there are 10,000 people and 3,000 projects participating in this initiative right now. Young people are free to register their projects at the website (unfortunately it is in Russian only), and then they receive scores from other participants and get reviewed by experts. In a series of regional events, regional winners are determined and they take part in the final competition. Then, finalists in three categories are chosen: “The best innovative project of the year”, “The best innovative idea of the year” and “The best innovative product of the year”. Those three finalists are awarded 1 million Rubles (about 23 thousand Euros) at the end of the year, at the Innovation Convention I’ve just returned from.

During this two-day event in Saint Petersburg, there were plenty of lectures and seminars — from a thrilling lecture of the American physicist and futurist Michio Kaku about technical wonders of the future to some more materially-minded discussions touching on career opportunities. Along the way, several different awards have been presented to young researchers: the prize from Mercedes-Benz Rus for ecological innovation in the car industry, a youth prize from the Global Energy Foundation, etc.

The main feature of the event was an exhibition of the projects themselves: young people were positioned in two lobbies with their stands, demonstrating their inventions to the mass media and potential investors. Here you could see a new device for measuring people’s pulse and determining the condition of vessels; concrete that repells water and ice and consequently is never slippery; a fancy spider-robot; a “smart house” system that informs you of any technical trouble happening while you’re away; and many other interesting things. Upon talking to the participants I realized, though, that some of the ideas were not new and some had been developed not by them but by their older colleagues, but the overall impression was mostly positive.

My general feeling about this forum is, however, ambivalent. On the one hand, I’m really glad that it exists, because it helps young people to get funding, it stimulates their activities and gives them hope that they can work in this country and even get rich. 24-year old Yana Sanyagina, who developed the anti-icing concrete, says the governor of the Penza Region in Russia noticed her project and gave money for the first production lot. 25-year old Aleksey Zashikhin engineered a hydraulic particle separator, and thanks to the Zvorykinsky Project he got a big grant from ONEXIM Group — one of Russia’s largest private investment funds owned by tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov. There are a number of such stories, which makes me quite optimistic about the undertaking.

On the other hand, I’m really worried about this event being too political. One of the main creators of the Zvorykinsky Project and the Innovation Convention is Vasily Yakemenko, who is now the head of the Russian Federal Agency for Youth Affairs, but used to be the founder and the head of the infamous youth movement “Nashi”. “Nashi” is known for its clearly anti-western rhetoric and a paranoid suspicion about all liberally-minded people, including some most respected human rights advocates in Russia. (It is really amazing and scary how people aged 20–25, born in the era of Perestroika or even later, can now — again — think in Cold War terms.) So, this style of ridiculously exaggerated patriotism is unfortunately present at the Innovation Convention, too. But if a characteristic piety in front of the ministers had been anticipated, one thing really made it creepy. That was the title of the second day of the forum: “Enforcement” of Innovations. The only thing this phrase associates with in the Russian language is “Enforcement of Georgia to peace” — the official name of the Russian military operation in the Russia-Georgia war of August 2008. I can only guess if this was a deliberate cue or just bad linguistic taste.

“This year’s competition is very humane”, said Vasily Yakemenko at the press conference, meaning that all the winning projects are aimed at individuals’ well-being. The winners of Zvorykinsky Project-2009 are: Liliya Anisimova who developed a method of cleaning the soil from pesticides (“The best innovative project”); Marat Mukhamedyarov who came up with the idea of a drug to treat neurodegenerative diseases (“The best innovative idea”); and Ramil Rakhmatullin who developed a kind of artificial human skin that can be used in transplant surgery (“The best innovative product”). I really hope this competition will always be as humane and will foster peace innovations as opposed to war, be it hot or cold. And I guess if Russia stops being an “oil junky”, it will only help the cause.