Thursday, April 15, 2010

Siliconski Valleyevich

Russia is trying to replicate the success of Silicon Valley by building a scientific city of its own. The initiative is an attempt to improve Russia's historically poor track record of converting its excellent pure science into technology products.

It's pretty much doomed to failure, though. You can't force innovation. A place like Silicon Valley has a myriad factors behind its dominance in the tech industry. Some of it is government-based, yes: the first post-WWII defense industry contractors were largely based there. But the reason they were there is because of an existing university presence. And (at the time) low taxes and a good supply of well-educated, imaginative minds. The climate probably has something to do with it, too.

Once an industrial center gets a certain head start over its rivals, it can enter a virtuous cycle in which it becomes ever more efficient to grow larger. Obviously, the cycle must end at some point. But in the meantime, a tremendous amount of innovation is possible. This has happened all over Europe and America back to pre-Industrial Revolution times. A particular locale would, because of random factors, become known as the best source of wool manufacturers. Pretty soon, all the other top wool producers would flock there (no pun intended), and its lead would be even greater, and almost insurmountable.

The problem Russia faces is trying to do this deliberately. I suppose it's possible. But the attempt recalls Soviet times and Five-Year Plans. Industrial policy is rarely successful. There's no reason to believe it will work here, either. But best of luck to them.

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