Innovation: The Fuel That Drives Our World Forward

sxsw_2013The future of the Jewish innovation sector will need a balance of opportunities to engage and learn on both an inter-communal and intra-communal basis.

by Justin Korda and Seth Cohen

Albert Einstein once said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

His words ring especially true today, as solutions to complex challenges often demand reaching beyond the confines of any particular field or discipline to include cross-sector collaboration between people with diverse perspectives, skill sets and expertise.

The scientific and medical communities, for example, foster collaborations that gamify the search for cures to perilous diseases. Within the social sector, Hackathons for Good bring together technology experts, government officials and social service providers to develop technical responses to entrenched challenges like poverty and homelessness.

It is with this in mind that we emerge from South By Southwest (SXSW) – the annual music, film and interactive showcase that draws tens of thousands of the best and brightest minds in the industry – ever more convinced that fostering innovation toward ensuring a vibrant Jewish future will require much of the same.

Indeed, the SXSW experience validated the need to provide young people who have a desire to create innovative and purposeful change in the Jewish world with more – and more substantive – opportunities to learn from those leading change initiatives in a variety of sectors outside of the Jewish community.

We were joined at SXSW by 30 ROI Community members, as well as many other talented individuals with whom we have connected through our work at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Philanthropic Network, all of whom are bringing new and innovative models of thinking and engagement into the Jewish world.

We rented a house together that would be our creative hub and community home base. We spent our days engaged in the almost-overwhelming, around-the-clock array of what SXSW had to offer. Among the sessions and the social opportunities, the SXSW accelerator and pitching competitions offered insight into where world-class innovation is leading us while the SXSW Trade Show was a bastion of start-ups sharing their ideas for how innovative marketing can change the world.

Along the way, we had open access to famous and brilliant people – like Esther Dyson, Randi Zuckerberg, Marc Cuban, Slava Rubin, Doug Ulman and Phil Libin – all willing to offer advice, connections and encouragement.

Perhaps what excited us most, however, was seeing our mini-community up late into the night, working together to extract what they had heard and learned from some of today’s most promising entrepreneurs that can be relevant to their efforts to make the Jewish world more exciting, accessible and relevant.

These Jewish innovators have now become boundary spanners, who understand the internal needs of our community and can also draw on experience and connections to bring external ideas and resources to address those needs.

Boundary spanners are key, as they not only help to mash up innovation from inside and outside of the community, but they also bring new people into the mix, in turn fostering broader understanding of and deeper connections to the Jewish community among those who might not otherwise have had opportunity to engage.

Such boundary-spanners sit in great historical company. Maimonides, arguably the greatest Jewish philosopher and scholar of all ages, unashamedly stressed the importance of non-Jewish work. He referred to the great Greek philosopher Aristotle as the “First Master” and the famed Arab philosopher Al-Farabi as the “Second Master.”

Even so, throughout Jewish history, there has been a tension between Jews whose work was oriented purely for inward dissemination and those whose work sought to break free from their communal boundaries to the wider world.

This tension has often led to silos of knowledge and experience in ways that slow rather than accelerate the positive arc of change.

Today there is a need to blur the line between these two seemingly contradictory approaches. Jews make up less than 0.2 percent of the global population but have contributed far beyond these numbers would suggest. The greatest contributors and innovators from among the Jewish people have been those who, like Einstein and Maimonides, had access and exposure to societal innovation at large.

Innovation, after all, is the fuel that drives our world forward, and it requires constant engagement with the advances taking place around us. We must be able to leverage the best of what we create within our community and combine it from what we learn from others working to create meaningful impact outside of the Jewish world.

Indeed, the future of the Jewish innovation sector will need a balance of opportunities to engage and learn on both an inter-communal and intra-communal basis.

In providing such opportunities, we will ensure that young innovators uncover new ideas that challenge conventional thinking, build networks that reach beyond usual borders, share skills that unlock new partnerships and ultimately develop a shared language that will enable promising solutions to be adopted, adapted, scaled and replicated.

Only then will we truly move beyond stagnant, habitual in-the-box thinking to embrace the broad mix of ideas, perspectives and skill sets necessary to create the type of innovation and capacity for change that will sustain a strong, vibrant Jewish future.

Justin Korda is Executive Director of ROI Community and Seth Cohen is Director of Network Development for the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

This article first appeared on The Times of Israel.