About the project
How do you find your place in life? How do you find something to do that both comes naturally to you and makes you happy? The answer is that you have to apply the knowledge you’ve gained from university and from life itself correctly. The Success Builder Project features graduates from the Higher School of Economics who have discovered themselves through an interesting business or an unexpected profession. The protagonists share their experiences, and talk about the big shots they’ve schmoozed and how they’ve made the most of the opportunities they were given.
Urban studies is a new field of study for Russia that is devoted to the sustainable development and use of city space. As part of the Success Builder project, Egor Korobeynikov, who is the creator of UrbanUrban and an HSE alumnus, talks about how he turned into an urbanist from a bank teller, and also about why Moscow should not be made into Europe and what officials need to be told.
What is it that bothered you so much about Russian cities that you took up urban studies?
It all happened by accident. I never intended on working in this field and I didn’t even know that such a science existed. I specialised in strategic management, and I wanted to go into consulting, and then work in the strategic development division of some large corporation. This is where everything was headed initially.
cities are in Russia, including nearly a thousand with fewer than 100,000 people
I went to graduate school and worked at a bank – nothing foreshadowed urban studies. I lived in Perm until I was 21 and thought it was the best city in the world. But it was right at that time that I made my main mistake in life – I went to Prague, and my career as a teller took a downturn. That’s when I came to the idea that something’s not right with our cities. And the more I travelled, the more I became bored with the usual tourist routes and wanted to study the cities on my own. I started thinking either about the means used to create the feeling of comfort in a city or why one might want to leave it. I read a lot about this, then a summer programme was opened at Strelka, and I participated in it all summer since I worked close by. At Strelka, I learned that there are specially trained people who study cities, and not only architects, but anthropologists, philosophers, criminologists, and designers. But because I didn’t think I had an education remotely related to this subject, I didn’t understand what I could do in this field.
Following a trip through Barcelona, Paris, Berlin, and London, I really wanted to do something, but I didn't understand what. I looked at what Yandex showed for the search ‘urban studies,’ and it became clear that Russia did not have a single resource on the matter. That’s where the idea of creating UrbanUrban.ru came from, though I didn’t even understand how hosting differed from a domain; I had to figure all of this out. At first I made everything for myself and selected materials based on my own tastes, but people started going to the site, exploring it, discussing it on social networks, and sharing it. A community of people began forming with whom we initially translated English-language articles and then tried writing our own. The first resource in Russian was an interview with the Governor of the Perm territory, Oleg Chirkunov. Actually, a strategic master plan was being developed in Perm at the time, and it was interesting to talk about Russia’s most significant experience with changing its city planning approach at that time.
By that time I had left the bank for the Graduate School of Urban Studies and Planning, which had just opened at HSE, and I began working there as a senior researcher. I got lucky and found a business partner – my good friend Mikhail Belyayev, who is also an HSE graduate. Now we have not only a website, but also a project office for research and consulting focused on designing spaces and services based on an understanding of a person’s need and user experience.
Our company actually deals with projects in the sphere of Custom Experience Management.
Who works at UrbanUrban?
We have sociologists, analysts, and people who deal with service design; that is, they design products in line with a client's needs. It's a smaller team of just six people.
What does your work process look like?
You wake up, pour some coffee, open your iPad, do some research, make your morning ‘likes,’ post your breakfast on Instagram, and only then can you get to work. There’s not really a set regimen – there might be a business trip today, a lecture on city development tomorrow (I try not to use the term ‘urban studies’ at all), then a meeting, etc. Over the last six months, I’ve gone to 30 cities in Russia and the near abroad, which takes a lot of time, as well as physical and mental effort. But it allows you to see what goes on in cities of the former USSR. You arrive somewhere and talk about things that are obvious for you, but groundbreaking for others, and you inspire people. Sometimes you think, ‘why is all of this necessary if we’re not being read by the hundreds of thousands of the people who read reviews of burgers and sweatshirts?’ But then you see the grateful faces of your listeners and how they are eased of their qualms.
At a certain point when traveling, you stop understanding where you are or how Izhevsk differs from Penza, Perm from Tolyatti, and Yekaterinburg from Kazan
Or when your friends tell you that in Vologda's architecture and urban planning department, staff report to their department chief on the UrbanUrban site – you understand that it's not all for nothing.
What's happening in the regions as concerns city planning?
It's really hard to say. It’s entirely clear that there’s Moscow and then there’s the rest of Russia. When traveling, at a certain point you stop understanding where you are or how Izhevsk differs from Penza, Perm from Tolyatti, and Yekaterinburg from Kazan. Industrialization has actually finished, and there’s no typology for urban development. This makes things worse – people just dream of living in large apartment, but they don’t think that this might look different in some way. In his book Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut wrote about the construction of 3,000 homes one could only dream about for 3,000 families that seemingly have one of these dreams. They would be happy to dream about another house, but they can’t imagine what the replacement might be. There is a huge imbalance between supply and demand on the housing market. Developers are certain they’ll sell everything they build, while people do not understand why one would relocate to Omsk or Kaliningrad, or how one city should differ from another. The main thing is they do not understand how such a city differs from Moscow with its theatres, fancy restaurants, pedestrian zones, bicycle lanes, and most importantly, salaries. Moscow will continue draining the regions under a sensible strategy is undertaken for the country’s spatial development.
How have you contributed to this development?
Our work is small, and we are under no illusion that we’ll change everything at once. After all, the project is only 3.5 years old, and if Vologda gave up possibly thanks to smaller things, then it will be like in Igor Letov’s song Taking off Step by Step. At a certain point, quantity turns into quality and a shift takes place. So if everyone who wants to change something thinks it’s possible, then a lot will change in our country. Three years ago no one knew who Jane Jacobs or Jan Gehl were, but now their names are much more familiar. We can’t expect everything to change tomorrow, like we’ve gotten used to doing. These types of changes take place over 20 or 30 years. You and I probably can’t hope to live in different cities, but children can. The city is the most complex thing anyone has ever thought up.
Are urban yards, for example, included in your work?
To a large degree, we are not interested in the direct transformation of city space. Our goal is more research based – it’s important to understand why everything is set up the way it is and why, for example, the money the government allocates for public amenities is not being spent in the most effective way. These are the particularities of our administrative system – officials that make spending decisions do not understand who they are doing this for. So we believe that our main task is to give the people making decisions relevant information about their ultimate ‘client,’ whether it is a city dweller or a tourist. As soon as we understand specific tasks and expectations, we’ll be able to design what the ‘clients’ need.
How do you talk to officials about urban transformations?
The main thing is to find an approach in dealing with people. There are all types of officials, even those that are interested in change. And whenever it’s just not working out, it’s better for us to simply drop an idea than convince someone of it. We try to speak a language the official understands and bring something that encourages the project’s realization, such as certain important numbers for the official’s department or region. Communication differs between the corporate and non-corporate sector because their systems of values are different. You can rely on profit data when communicating with the former, for example, while the latter would need social data.
I think one of the reasons it's like this in Russia is because people are totally unwilling to admit that inherent problems exist. We are certain that overall everything is ‘good here and will only get better’
The architect Yury Grigoryan believes, that the Western experience is not applicable to our cities, as we have our own unique characteristics. What do you think?
Overall, the Western experience would suit us completely. But when they try to recreate Copenhagen in Moscow and try to bring in Jan Gehl, it’s an absolute fact that nothing will work. And you should not try to make Moscow Europe – Moscow needs to be Moscow because there’s only one Moscow in the world. It is nice, of course, to see what goes on in other countries, but on our site we talk about how this exists and works, but we try to imagine if this would work for us. Russia truly lacks critical approaches in decision-making. You have to keep in mind that you work in Russia, and people here are different, communicate differently, and live differently. The social structure of relationships is very different. But urban problems are the same for everybody.
Which projects have you carried out in the city that we might see?
You can see the courtyard that we designed together with the School of Urban Studies and Planning at 38 Akademika Anokhina Street. Also at HSE we designed the regulations for Moscow’s pedestrian zones. We’ve created a lot of projects that still have not been carried out, which is why we are currently focused on research. Not all clients are ready to dive into the design fight, and they first want to understand how everything is set up and formulate a clear task for themselves.
On your website I saw materials about fencing — do you know why car park gates and fences are popping up in Moscow and who decides to install them? I’m inclined to think that we have fences in our heads.
That is a philosophical and culturological question. Our site has a section Why Is That? where we try to understand the phenomena of our country’s everyday urban culture – fences, panelled high rises, exposed piping, and other things that do not have an obvious function outside of bothering us. Together with the Heinrich Böll Foundation, we came up with a series of round tables on this issue, and a book will soon be released called Why Is That? In the book we talk about not only restrictions of a physical nature, but also about how there are guards and watchmen everywhere in Russia and about how it is impossible to walk onto a square with a sign saying ‘Je Suis Charlie Hebdo’ because rabid activists will attack you right then and there, for example. We still have the institution of the residency permit, and a lot is considered undesirable and accompanied by the phrase, ‘that’s not acceptable with us.’ And people have regularly been living in this system of unexplainable bans that have historical, political, or other roots.
In the project, we do not give just one answer, instead handling issues in a spirit of explanatory journalism like a multi-layered cake or Meduza with its cards. And only when we understand the nature of these phenomena and pay attention to them will we understand how to move forward. I think one of the reasons it's like this in Russia is because people are totally unwilling to admit that inherent problems exist. We are certain that overall everything is ‘good here and will only get better.’
of bike lanes have been built in Moscow
On the topic of education: is studying abroad to be a planner or an architect or designer really more productive or is this just a habit?
The thing is, we have simply never had this industry. You can study here now, but everything depends on your motivation and life strategy. What a foreign university can offer – and the programmes abroad are extremely diverse, as there are specializations connected with urban ecology and even programmes linked to urban photography, anthropology, and ethnography – depends on what you plan to do in the future. If you want to develop and build Russia, then studying abroad will be irreparable psychological trauma for you. HSE trains specialists who are completely new for Russia and who don’t exist anywhere else. But on the other hand we understand that the 20-30 people who graduate from the School of Urban Studies and Planning each year are definitely not enough to relaunch the entire system of municipal administration. And it’s desired that the guys who study city planning fit into the existing system that was made for them without trying to overturn everything completely and build institutions alone.
Do you work with your alma mater in some way? And how does HSE continue to impact your life?
I keep a relationship with HSE Perm. Two years ago we did a summer school. Like they say at the university – first you work for the grades, then the grades work for you, so the years of study are spent largely on creating an atmosphere around yourself, building social capital, and making connections you keep up with regularly. This is the main physical sales channel if we’re talking business.
I hope that HSE produces alumni who are specialists in the field of behavioural economics, which is what we really need. This field is insanely prospective and is used abroad not only at companies, but also in designing services for people, for example. Who would have thought that at Yellowstone National Park everything you see was thought up and designed based on tourists’ needs?