In preparing for a recent flight to New York for some meetings that included discussions regarding the state of Jewish social innovation, I compiled a stack of recent ‘want to read, but haven’t yet read’ materials on the topic. But much like the rest of life, my best-laid plans were interrupted when I stopped at a newsstand in the airport to pick up the day’s newspaper. There on the shelf was a BusinessWeek headline too hard to ignore: “Innovation, Interrupted: How America’s failure to capitalize on innovation hurt the economy – and what happens next.”
How’s that for serendipity?
So rather than methodically review the stack I compiled, I boarded the plane and dove right into the BusinessWeek article with fascination. It raises some key observations and questions regarding the last decade of commercial innovation and how the slowdown (or an evening out) of the nation’s innovation curve may have contributed to the current economic environment. Focusing on the technology and biotech sectors, the article raises the question of whether innovative development really slowed down at all, or whether the barriers to the commercialization of those developments were the true culprits of stymieing innovation. Certainly these are questions that are equally applicable to social entrepreneurs as well as those in the for-profit sectors.
The second article was the recent white paper titled The Innovation Ecosystem: Emergence of a New Jewish Landscape. The paper, based on the 2008 Survey of New Jewish Organizations, undertaken by Jumpstart, The Natan Fund and The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, raises several key findings and recommendations, several of which are precise observations that require much deeper consideration. In reviewing a landscape of over 300 Jewish start-ups then in operation, the paper provides some compelling statistical information supporting a belief that the Jewish innovation is on a growth curve that reflects the underlying changes in 21st century Jewish life and that leverages developing social media and communications technologies.
Finishing the Jumpstart paper, I couldn’t help but think back to the BusinessWeek article I just read and wondered – Jewish innovation is important and seemingly fast-growing, but how do we ensure that this very important Jewish innovation isn’t interrupted?
Certainly we need to make sure that the question of sustainability is considered and anticipated thoughtfully, and not just by those who are active participants in the innovation ecosystem (or what I have previously referred to as the Zera’im movement). But even more importantly, we need to make sure that the discussion is substantially outweighed by action. Action in developing Jewish innovators, developing models of financial sustainability, encouraging innovation in underrepresented areas of need (i.e. the Jumpstart survey finds that only 2.9% of Jewish start-ups self-identified as primarily social service organizations; a very small percentage given the size of the need), and reducing barriers for success.
Action should trump discussion, for sure. However, for the action to be meaningful, there needs to be some consideration of key questions raised (in my mind at least) by both by the BusinessWeek article and the Jumpstart paper. I don’t have answers to these questions (and I certainly welcome input from those that do), but I list them below as helpful suggestions for you to talk amongst yourselves. They fall into the categories of What, Who, Where, Why and How?
1. What? First, we need to ask the tricky question of whether we are investing in true innovation that can have a sustainable impact on Jewish life, or are we investing in very niche areas of Jewish interest that are fashionable but not forward-thinking? Is there a difference? How we answer these questions may very well determine how well we can develop even greater amounts of investment in Jewish innovation in the coming years.
2. Who? The Jumpstart paper focuses on the ratio that many innovative efforts are independent entities (80%) as opposed to independently operating subsidiaries of larger organizations (20%). But the question remains, by motivating innovation outside of established organizations, are we dooming those established organizations to an innovation deficit? Rather than creating an accretive aspect of Jewish communal life, are we inadvertently creating an abscess that may actually damage it? How can we balance the locus of innovation so that we get maximum benefit with minimum harm?
3. Where? Are our existing community-based funding organizations (as opposed to national foundations) sufficiently focused on funding regional and micro-regional Jewish innovation? The Jumpstart survey reinforces the belief that Jewish innovation (on a percentage basis of surveyed organizations) is greatest in New York and California (57% of surveyed organizations are located in those two states). Certainly those states have some of the largest population centers, but how do we create a broader national environment of Jewish innovation in places like St. Louis? Charlotte? Houston?
4. Why? If so few organizations in the innovation ecosystem are focused on human services, how will we balance the legacy needs of existing infrastructure that primarily focus on servicing those needs; especially when those needs will be rapidly escalating as the baby boom generation shifts into an age where they may more frequently need those services?
5. How? Assuming we believe that greater investment in Jewish innovation is essential to continuing the maintenance of a strong Jewish community, how do we inspire entrepreneurs to innovate in areas of greatest need? Is that a fair question? And if we succeed in motivating a shift of substantial regional and micro-regional investment in innovation (i.e. Federations invest more in innovative initiatives and start-ups as opposed to legacy areas of funding) what are the metrics by which we measure the impact of innovation against the cost? Is it the number of entities? Web-clicks? Participants? Or are there more general longitudinal metrics we need to identify and begin to measure?
As the BusinessWeek article suggests, experiencing a few years of innovation does not necessarily forestall great crisis. We may all be quick to praise the current state of Jewish innovation (and rightfully so), but not without critically assessing what comes next. Also, pointing to characteristics of previous eras of commercial innovation, the BusinessWeek article notes that “no industrial revolution in the past has been based on a single technology” and points to the combination of railroads, electricity, telephone and telegraph as the fuel of the Industrial Revolution, and the confluence of several technologies in the era of innovation that seemed so dramatic in the 1990s. Accordingly, innovation in one particular area of Jewish life may not be enough, we may need innovation in lots of areas, including inside existing centers of Jewish life. Otherwise, we may find that our innovation is interrupted and – for a people concerned with its survival – we need innovation that is sustainable.
Seth A. Cohen, Esq. is an Atlanta-based attorney, activist and author on topics of Jewish communal life and innovation. Seth is an alumnus of the Wexner Heritage Program, Vice Chair and past Allocations Chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, and First Vice President of Jewish Family & Career Services in Atlanta. Seth regularly shares his thoughts on where we are going as a Jewish community on his blog, Boundless Drama of Creation, and is an occasional contributor to eJewish Philanthropy. Seth can be contacted directly at seth.cohen [at] agg.com.
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