Finding Meaning on an Astana Beach

by Nathan Hamm on 1/18/2013

Update: After this was published, Mr. Hwang reached out to me. We had a very good exchange, and he clearly grasps the issues facing Kazakhstan better than I assumed. More importantly, he discussed ways in which his work in Kazakhstan does illustrate the importance of making connections. He said that the participants of the programs he has been involved with in Kazakhstan are creating a generation of leaders with a very different worldview than that of the current generation. While I do not think that the beach at Khan Shatyr teaches many valuable lessons, I do think that Mr. Hwang’s experiences and observations in Kazakhstan not captured in his blog post do argue for the value of promoting people-to-people contacts and promotion of entrepreneurship.

Original post
Victor Hwang is a venture capitalist who promotes the idea of “innovation ecosystems”, “social networks that generate extraordinary creativity and output.” He is also blogs at Forbes, writing about how this, that, and the other tie in to his big idea that will change everything. Today, he writes about how the tropical beach in Khan Shatyr is a surprising innovation lesson.

If that sounds like absolute rubbish, take heart. He never actually explains what the lesson is or how Khan Shatyr illustrates it.

Sure, there are some broad generalities about the Silk Road connecting markets for centuries and that innovation ecosystems are “the Silk Roads for the knowledge economy.” Therefore, Kazakhstan is a is kind of like an innovation ecosystem, and a fake beach in a snowy capital obviously shows this.

Hwang serves as a member of a board appointed by Kazakhstan’s government to oversee “a $75 million program to spur the creation of startups and the commercialization of innovative technologies.” Over the last few years, he says, Kazakhstan has taught him “profound lessons about the nature of innovation, the power of geography, and the causes of economic growth.” He does not share these, but the way he closes his ruminations should make one question how much he has paid attention in Kazakhstan.

It used to be geography that kept people apart, and places like Kazakhstan stitched them together. Today, with communication and travel easier than ever before, what keeps people apart increasingly are distrust, fear, and zero-sum mindsets.

Were Mr. Hwang paying closer attention, he might question whether or not investment in innovation makes much sense when the government of Kazakhstan aggressively silences dissenting voices, has stepped up monitoring and censorship of the internet, and has adopted a generally more adversarial stance toward its society in recent years. And that says nothing of the real lessons of Khan Shatyr, a spectacle designed to promote Kazakhstan’s modernity and the wise leadership of President Nazarbaev. In fact, were Hwang paying closer attention, he might that the real lesson of a tropical beach at the top of a shopping mall in the frozen plains of northern Kazakhstan fly entirely in the face of the open, trusting, collaborative networks he promotes.

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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