If you are at all involved in the world of higher education and research, you have probably heard of Skolkovo. A literal green-field site on the western edge of Moscow, it is home to post-Soviet intiatives including a business school and a science and technology institute, distinguished by their global connections, their international approach and their cutting-edge architecture.
This month, Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology was home to, if not the biggest, certainly the longest-lasting higher education event I have ever heard of. Called Island (Ostrov) 10-22, it ran between those dates, adding up to almost a fortnight of enthusiastic thought about the university of the future.
This was the second iteration of Island. The first was held on an actual island, an approach that was was deemed too much hassle to repeat. This time it was run by players including events company EdCrunch and Russian professional university 20.35.
The big idea of Island is not a unique one. It is to encourage Russian education and business into the digital world, transform working life and help the idea of high-tech start-ups put down roots there. A look at the vast unused area of Skolkovo billed as being set aside for start-ups makes the point that Moscow is still not Northern California, despite the energy and ambition of its denizens.
However, Island did bring in over 2,000 participants to hear from each other and from around the world about ways of being more digital, especially in the worlds of lifelong keanring and fast-growing business. An example was the series of seminars on making the UK’s Staffordshire University a digital business, run by Andrew Proctor, Staffs’ head of digital services.
And there was also some inspiational stuff. On the day I was there, Sung-Chul Shin, president of KAIST in Korea, gave a presentation called “Miracle on the River Han,” about the nation’s rise from immiseration to prosperity, driven by education, technology and internationalism. Surely, went the subliminal message, the nation of Mendeleev should be well capable of something similar. In 1962, says Shin, Korea had exactly zero papers in journals in the Science Citation Index, and filed precisely no US patents. In 2018, it had 59,628 of the first and 19,494 of the second. KAIST itself was set up with US aid money to help drive this process. Its next move, says Shin, is to appoint to perhaps the best job in the world university system. The “Singularity Professor” is intended to unearth new research areas for KAIST and will be assessed only after 10 or 20 years in post.
One clear message from many of these speakers is that even coding skills, which seem to hab replaced the Greek and Latin of an earlier era as the must-have asset for intellectual life, are not the whole story. Instead, we were told by Stephanie Teasley of the University Michigan, soft skill (ie knowing how to operate in society and at work) are more important and longer-lasting.
Tragically, I didn’t stay long enough to see the 130 Russian university teams, totalling 1500 members, competing and cooperating in the Island 10-22 innovation projects. But if there is to be a Russian unicorn charge, some of the runners and riders will be folk who were here.
Full disclosure : I attended as a guest of EdCrunch and the other organisers and was paid to be there.