Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Kelso in the Kremlin? :: Social Media Innovation in Russia


Images:: Ashton Kutcher Twitpics-21 February 2010 & 20 February 2010

I was wondering why Ashton Kutcher was posting Tweets and Twitpics from Russia, but didn't bother to figure it out. It turns out he was a part of a diplomatic delegation from the US aimed at starting a dialogue and sharing ideas with students, NGOs, and Russian officials regarding social networking. The delegation included representatives from eBay, Twitter, Mozilla, Cisco, and VC, Esther Dyson. Ashton noted::
“When you get into a room without the Russian government controlling the room, the room becomes so vibrant!...We’ve had to fight to get people to talk openly.”
I think it's great that Ashton was a part of this delegation, as I think he understands social media in a way that's more tangible and accessible than a tech exec's take. I was impressed with how he articulated himself in his "battle" with CNN last spring.

While Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has stated he wants to start a Silicon Valley near Moscow and there's been talk of open source this and that, modernizing the economy, and building a stronger civil society, Vladislav Surkov, a chief strategist, made it clear that modernization will be “authoritarian modernization.” There are also issues of corruption, as Transparency International found Russia to be 146 of 180 countries on their corruption index {higher ranking = less corrupt}.

This makes me think of two things::
  1. Inertia
  2. Regional Advantage
I'm doing work on innovation in China and while there are plenty of institutional and cultural barriers to "Western-style" innovation, including corruption {China is 79 of 180 on Transparency International's list} and IP piracy, my sense is that China is more open to changes that will enable innovation. On the other hand, Russia appears to be mired in a mindset of pessimism and institutional barriers that quell innovation and knowledge sharing. I think inertia in this area will be the biggest hurdle in Russia.

I'm also reminded of AnnaLee Saxenian's book, Regional Advantage, which contrasted the two high tech clusters of Silicon Valley and Route 128, prior to the tech boom of the 1990s. While Silicon Valley was more network-oriented and had a more open and relaxed culture, Route 128 in Massachusetts was more hierarchical and rule-bound. When I visited eBay in 2003, what I saw was a very corporatized environment that seemed bound to stifling hierarchy and routine, which I believe is a path chosen by firms to deal with scale and size.

If Medvedev is serious about creating a cluster of innovation, he really needs to look at creating a localized culture of innovation that's more like Silicon Valley back in the day. Hint:: he might want to look at clusters in China, particularly around Shanghai/Suzhou and Shenzen in the south. While China may not be a paragon of "democratic industrialization" as it shifts from manufacturing to innovation, there is a critical mass of those committed to the innovation cause and real investments in the educational infrastructure. Will this be enough to circumvent the barriers to innovation in China? I think it might be and Russia may find learning from China to be particularly beneficial, as the Chinese institutional framework is a close analogue to their current situation.

Twitterversion:: @aplusk heads to Moscow as part of a diplomatic delegation focusing on innovation and social networking. Is Russia ready? http://url.ie/56lg  @Prof_K

Song:: t.A.T.u.-"Stars"

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