“The challenge to philanthropists is to invest in big ideas that can change society. The patience of the philanthropist to allow radical new ideas to incubate
and then be tested – this is an investment that no one else can or will do.”
By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman
“The amount of innovation at the local level is amazing,” says Tom Friedman. “It just needs to be scaled.”
It’s a thread of optimism sewn delicately throughout an otherwise realistic and sometimes bleak new book by New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.”
From where does this optimism come?
From Israel in general, says Friedman, and from the vision and strategy of Gidi Grinstein, president and founder of Israel’s Reut Institute, specifically.
“One day Gidi said to me, ‘Tom, nothing needs to be invented. It’s already there. Whatever you imagine is already being done by some community. It just needs to be scaled,’” Friedman recalls.
“Thank You For Being Late” deals with “the inflection point we hit around 2007,” says Friedman, when digitization and mobilization – the Apple iPhone, Google Android, Hadoop, Github, Twitter, the Kindle and Airbnb – made everything fast at once, reshaping the economy.
“It was precisely when we needed to double down on our formula for success and update it for a new era,” wrote Friedman in a recent New York Times column. “Instead, we had the 2008 economic meltdown, which set off more polarization and way too much gridlock, given how much rethinking, reimagining and retooling we needed to do.”
The rapid pace of technology has caused similar challenges in Israel and around the world, says Grinstein, impacting ordinary people and their families.
“A few years ago, people would acquire a profession and that profession would serve them a lifetime,” says Grinstein. “If they studied well and worked hard, they would do well.
“Today, things are changing so fast, even if you have professional training, in a few years it may be irrelevant.”
Grinstein says that a person beginning their career today is likely to have 10 to 12 jobs before he or she retires, making people vulnerable. In an increasingly expanding “gig economy,” more individuals rely on freelance and a series of part-time gigs to survive. It is estimated that nearly 40 percent of Americans are living two paychecks away from the street.
“The middle class is struggling and cannot keep up,” Grinstein says. The government, which moves naturally slow, cannot keep up either, making it little help to its people.
In between the individual and the government is the solution: community. Reut, says Grinstein, wants to make communities smarter.
Reut’s “Smart Communities” effort seeks to design a network of resilient and prosperous communities, which base themselves around the community and its local assets and institutions as the cornerstone of our society, explains Reut’s website.
“A smart community is a community whose institutions are organized to support the productivity and quality of life and inclusiveness of is residents,” says Grinstein.
Institutions can include schools, community centers, early childhood, sports and recreation facilities, parks, young adult activities and youth groups.
“Each one needs to be reinvented around the needs of the 21st century,” Grinstein says.
About five years ago, a group of investors, including the UJA-Federation of New York, the Russell Berrie Foundation and Israeli philanthropist Raya Strauss Ben Dror, with the support of smaller grants from individuals and foundations, began investing in Grinstein’s idea. A few years later, Reut piloted two smart communities, one in Safed and the other in the Western Galilee.
In the Galilee, Reut partnered with Raya Strauss Ben Dror to convene Jewish and Arab municipal and civil society leaders to create a long-term vision for shared prosperity. The Western Galilee is one of the most culturally and religiously diverse areas of Israel. This unique asset can be turned into a tourism attraction.
Based on this approach, Ms. Strauss Ben Dror launched the Treasures of the Galilee web platform, helping many micro businesses in the hospitality and leisure arenas. In just three-and-a-half years, Ben Dror says we are seeing the fruits of our labor. Tourism is up 60 percent, infusing roughly 120 million shekels income to local businesses.
“Once you are community you are stronger,” says Ben Dror.
When Friedman learned about the Western Galilee from “radical pioneer and teacher of mine” Grinstein, he said he believed a similar model could be brought to the U.S., also community by community.
“The last century was built around big national governments that provided welfare and managed the economy from above,” Friedman told Grinstein in a recent interview. “They enabled the transition into modernity by building roads and schools and parks. But in the age we’re going into big national government are too slow and too big to really provide the help that I think individuals and families need. The individual and the single family are too weak and frail, particularly because many in America are now single parent families.
“It’s going to be the healthy communities that are really going to be the right governing structures.”
Friedman says national government will continues to serve as the managers of defense, interest rates and large infrastructure projects, but “having a network of healthy communities is going to be the single greatest advantage a country can have.”
In his book, Friedman cites the small town in which he grew up, St. Louis Park, Minn., where he says he found “radical innovation.”
How will it happen?
In Grinstein’s estimation the secret sauce to scaling and sharing this intelligent innovation throughout the rest of Israel and the world is philanthropists.
“The challenge to philanthropists is to invest in big ideas that can change society,” says Grinstein. “The patience of the philanthropist to allow radical new ideas to incubate and then be tested – this is an investment that no one else can or will do.”
Should America and Israel collaborate on the smart communities project?
“The challenges of an accelerating pace of change are shared. Therefore, the work done in Israel can be very useful in America and vice versa,” says Grinstein. “The proof is in Tom [Friedman’s] book.”