Friday, December 4, 2009

Do We need Innovation? Moving Forward in Israel, Can We Teach Others?

Two recent books show Israel's economic and technology strength touch on the Israel's development of innovation skills. Israel Test is written from the economic perspective by George Gilder a technology writer and thinker [book page]. Start-Up Nation by Dan Senor and Saul Singer two journalists focusing more on Israeli innovation in the form of start-up companies [book page]. Some think of Israeli innovation and technological adventurness in cultural terms. Is innovation such a critical element in Israel's economic success? How is economic success drive cultural and lifestyle success? Is everyone in Israel just concerned with the money and innovation? Or is it the other way around and innovation changed the Israeli culture somehow? I will try to touch on these questions in upcoming posts, this one will introduce innovation in Israel and expand on areas which you will probably have to be here in person to see.

If you spend time in Israel it becomes clear how innovation is not an inbred attribute. Nobody is born with the "innovation gene" or at least the trait comes in so many different shapes and types it is hard to figure out who has the gene. True, there are many start-ups, some even make it big, but most people work in "regular jobs". There are plenty of traditional businesses, these give the country it's stability. Innovation in technology still needs a solid base economically, roads need to be paved and government needs to run and grow at it's own rate. But there is something unique here that many people do not see right away. It's change, here it happens quickly and clearly. If you are following the economy, change came quickly when financial markets crashed in the US and than at the rest of the world. Somehow in Israel we saw it clearly and noticed how our economy slowed down. Tourists use to come to Israel in large numbers, when they stopped coming the economy declined and tourism workers went scrambling for new jobs. Follow politics and state security issues and notice change even faster. When Israel signed peace agreements with Egypt, the Palestinians and than Jordan everyone was happy, but only for a short while. Government was in a high after each agreement but then Israel went back to daily reality and euphoria settled down to regular everyday state. When Israel gets ready for elections there is buzz all over the world, some hope for the big savior (peace maker,) some fear extremist warrior. As soon as the elections are over, it is quiet once again. This cycle of change is a recent memory with the Netanyahu/Liberman government. Replacing Olmert/Livni with such extremist was suppose to bring chaos to the land - I don't think anyone would stick by their predictions today. Change is what makes Israelis innovate. Change makes people look for new ways to do things everywhere in the world, just here people scramble faster. That is what gives Israelis an edge. When engineers come out of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) they are already well equipped to innovate because they dealt with change, sometimes on a massive scale. Imagine what it's like to go from calm to war in one month. The Israeli army goes through this change every few years. A war erupts by surprise or they are asked to go into enemy territory. The last two years both happened in the north and the south. Not only reserve soldiers have to be called, equipment has to be moved to the front and the whole operation of an army has to start, intelligence and communication has to be operational in an instant. The speed of change in Israel is amazing, and one way to deal with it is innovate.

If you take a snapshot of news in the international media (TV, newspapers, radio) the image of all Israelis as innovators is exaggerated. Innovation is crucial to handle change and Israel has adopted this technique. But there are other ways to handle change, some ignore it, some wait until change happens then they follow. In everyday life Israelis are not such innovation crazy. Actually concerns about other things drive people to build better lives and a better place. Israel is still in the process of building and catching up to western standards, this takes as much effort an innovation. Back to innovation in technology and more...

Innovation in technology is easier to see and makes for a good news story. This is what American writers are highlighting about Israel now. I am not discounting the work of Intel's Israeli engineers developing some of the world's most complex microprocessor circuits or mobile phones for Motorola. But there are many other areas Israel has been innovating for a long time, they seem obvious but not as exciting or noticeable. Most Israeli homes use solar water heaters for showers and household use (showers, cloths washers, dish washers.) The savings in heating water is not huge but builds up over time. The same goes for air drying cloths. Almost all Israelis dry their cloths on lines hanging from apartment buildings. Cloth driers common all over the western world are only used by a small minority when there are a few rainy days in a row. Until the recent economic downturn American and European manufacturers try to sell to Israelis electric water heaters and cloths driers. Israelis did not buy the idea of spending more on energy. Now when the global warming and green movement is in the news, Israelis look good in comparison to most American and European consumers. Israelis have been planting trees everywhere they bought land. This is the only country where you can see the territorial borders marked by human planted trees. For a long time Israel's "green line" was used in derogatory terms (when fighting with the Palestinians was at it's peak.) Now it looks like planting trees for over a century was one of the best strategy to combat global warming and excess carbon emission. There are innovation in technology, agriculture and farming, government and security... the list goes on. This is a first in a series of articles about innovation in general and examples from Israel in particular.


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