photo by Nir Tusk, 2014

photo by Nir Tusk, 2014

The forthcoming elections should be on how Israel could and should be at its centennial, 33 years from now

By Nir Tsuk

“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future,” quipped Nobel Prize laureate Niels Bohr, yet it still might be wise to plan and prepare for it. Particularly now, before the forthcoming Israeli election, it is essential to think about hopes and visions, the society and state to which we want the election to lead – not just about the threats and challenges we face. The personal element is important (who will populate the coalition and form the government), and the ideological element, too (for example, what safety nets the state provides to its citizens) – but the systemic part is equally crucial: not who will do what, but how will it be done; how Israel can strive to be what it has always wanted to be, as it approaches its centennial.

Anyone who carried out a project knows that the ‘how’ is as important as the ‘why’, ‘what’ or ‘where to’ – and one would expect the run-up to the election to bring such issues to the fore. Hence, moving from a quasi-utopian ‘what’ to a more practical ‘how to’ is vital: we need fewer slogans about society, economy, education, health and even peace, and more applied tools that will take us there. Since this has not happened yet in the current campaign, a quick look at some of the matters may add substance and focus:

From Revolutionary Reacting to Evolutionary Planning (what): We need fewer ad hoc solutions and more long term vision, even though this word is often pejorative in Israel. The Jewish ethos of “We will do, and we will hear,” as famously recorded in Exodus, works well with the activist, impatient tachles nature of the dramatis personae. Pioneers jump ahead and set things in motion, yet a few decades later, as in “Alice in Wonderland,” we see that venturing out without a specific direction can lead you anywhere, not only to positive destinations. Just as the first Zionists developed an image of the state, society, land and even person they were trying to create, the current Zionists should think in terms of values, forms and processes to lead to them. What should the Negev and the Galilee look like in 33 years? How should Israeli industry and export develop until then? Which principles should direct Israel’s relationship with the Jewish world, as well as the world at large? Who is the citizen that this state is trying to nourish? As in so many other cases, asking the right questions yields the best answers – but more importantly, it generates positive and essential deliberation.

From Entrepreneurship to Intrapreneurship (how to): We need less inventing of new things and more transforming of existing things in order to serve new needs. With due respect for innovation labs and startup nations, it seems that reforming existing systems is at least as important as creating new ones – in the fields of education, industry, health, public administration, culture and media. While the field of entrepreneurship sanctifies the formation of new projects and entities, intrapreneurship prefers injecting new ideas into prevailing systems – ideas that change and upgrade systems from within, and help them to excel and better serve their mission. The Israeli formal education system in the first 3-4 decades of the state is a wonderful example of a system that knew how to change internally, recalibrate, and produce excellence as a result. As the ‘celebration of the new’ phases out, attention should be given to good existing solutions that may just need some retuning; functioning institutions that could use a refresh or redesign more than a demolition and re-creation; and delivering bodies that need only some sharpening and refocusing.

From Social Challenges to Social Capital (expected result): We should focus less on what the problems are and more on what the expected outcomes should be. More often than not, incremental, curative measures fail to bring the desired solutions, while bold target-setting enables leapfrogging change. This may lead to the understanding that envisioning what health means, and thinking about the elements that support it, could assure better success than starting with the illnesses and trying slowly to concoct remedies to address them. If good health centers could ideally reduce the need for hospitals, and good schools could ease the pressure on the law-enforcement systems, enhancing society’s positive attributes could prevent social malaise. Thinking about what Israeli solidarity should look like, what prosperity means, in the broadest sense, and which actors contribute what values for the public good may prove a highly productive way to tackle issues of poverty, inequality, inclusion, and collective action.

From the Next Big Thing to the God of Small Things (who): We need fewer ‘theories of everything’ and more platforms/ teams/ networks/ communities of aligned forces. There is something magical and very seductive in the longing for this one thing – an idea, change, person, or system – that will reorganize everything and move us swiftly in the desired direction, even if in a sometimes counterintuitive way. For all the attraction that such ‘big things’ have, the reality is that what may sometimes work in physics cannot be applied to ‘social atoms’ and molecules, which usually prefer local mechanisms and small-scale solutions. Such solutions, however, set an example and serve as showcases or catalysts to others and – when treated intelligently – stand at a heart of a web in which like-minded people push reality in the right direction. The ‘wisdom of the crowd’ can then be applied not only to crowds of people, but also to aggregations of projects and ideas. A small yet successful business development from Nazareth could then be transplanted in Be’er Sheva, and an effective educational tool from Ramat Gan could be reproduced in Beit Shemesh, without Big Bang extravaganzas or investments.

From the Promised Land to the World’s Navel (where): We could use less focus on local ideas and needs, and more receptivity to insights from other parts of the world. In the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, Israel set an example for the world as a hub of learning, teaching, research, community, and effectiveness in fields as far from each other as irrigation and kindergarten education, archeology and nuclear science, immigration absorption and wildlife preservation. The strength of this hub was its openness, curiosity, no-nonsense approach, and the constant flow of people and thoughts in and out of Israel, in a huge cross-pollinating process with the developed and the developing worlds. A few decades, wars, embargos and other global changes later, Israel could and should reassume this global position. There is no reason why Israel should not take advantage of its location, know-how, multicultural treasures and rich experience in order to change the world and be changed by it.

From Output-oriented Philanthropy to Impact Investment (how to fund): Finally, we could use less heart-warming charitable donation and more cool rational strategic investment. Donation to welfare and other development causes has recently come to be perceived as a somewhat outdated concept, as the world is now learning to talk about social investments that yield tangible, measurable returns. Since the boundaries between economy and society are blurred, and various kinds of capitals exist, the notion of charitable answers to societal needs seems partial at best. When more and more financiers are talking about ‘doing good’ and ‘doing well’ simultaneously, and when more and more consumers are looking at the larger outcome of their actions, and when more and more philanthropists are measuring their returns – a new language of social change is emerging. In Israel too, such a language – when adopted by businesses, government, civil society, academia and the media alike – could achieve more benefits, more cheaply, and faster and better.
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Assuming stagnation or improvement in the geopolitical situation – without getting into this crucial aspect of Israel’s being, everybody knows that deterioration on this front is not only counterproductive to any other vision, but an actual existential threat – the vision of the ‘how-to’ is as important as the vision of the ‘what’ and ‘who.’ Evolutionary planning, intrapreneurship, social capital, looking to the god of small things, becoming the navel of the world, and impact investing are just a few such how-to tools that, in the hands of the right craftsperson, can make a real difference.

As even the startupists would admit, improvisation and innovation are lovely, yet sustainability – and some would even say normality – resides in processes of scaling up and planning out. With attention given to the systems and methods, and especially to the Israel we would like to live in in 2048, the choices will be clearer and easier to implement. The tools above can be applied to any of the burning topics on the agenda and would certainly produce better results than the existing haphazard ones. Using them on a few of key topics would give birth to a sustainable new methodology.

It has been argued that three of the necessary conditions for any group of people to thrive are a sense of community, the number of changemakers within it and a belief in a common future, preferably better than the current one, and within reach. A process and a system that could bring about such a future is desperately needed – and, based on the assumptions above, should be planned out and developed – starting tomorrow morning.

Dr. Nir Tsuk teaches social entrepreneurship at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, after having written his PhD dissertation at Cambridge University on intentional communities and social capital, and subsequently bringing the international social innovation organization Ashoka to Israel. He can be approached at nirtsuk@gmail.com

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