Weaving Connections in the Jewish Innovation Ecosystem

by Barry Camson

I find the idea of a Jewish innovation ecosystem to be a fascinating one. I first heard this phrase from Joshua Avedon at Jewish Jumpstart. My sense of an ecosystem is that it is an organic whole within which each aspect has a natural relationship to the others. There is both a quality of what can be emergent in an ecosystem as well as what underlying principles provide coherence in such a system.

I never thought of Jewish communal life on a large scale as something that anyone could get their arms around – too many different ideas, approaches, practices. Yet in my ongoing conversations with people working in this “new innovation space,” I have the strong impression that specific ideas do exist across many different organizations. For example, the idea of the Design Thinking approach came up among many of the Jewish start-up accelerators I referred to in a previous article. How to use new approaches to engage Millennials also came up repeatedly. I have the sense that something is alive and vibrant out there causing a good deal of thought and discussion. For the moment, I will go along with Joshua Avedon and refer to these as dynamics happening within a living Jewish innovation ecosystem.

These dynamics could be referred to as memes. Wikipedia defines meme as: “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena.”

In my most recent post, I spoke further about organizations in this new innovation ecosystem that are helping to create new ventures. Now, I would like to pursue the other side of this which is what can provide some kind of coherence in this ecosystem containing an increasing number of new innovative ventures. These ventures take their place along with countless other organizations in the Jewish – Israeli civil society space.

There has been an expressed concern about fragmentation in this ecosystem. Joshua Avendon stated as the genesis for Jewish Jumpstart, that in the larger system of Jewish start-ups, initiatives were not connected to one another. There was nothing to network them together. There was nothing focusing on the entire field. Someone else commented that the needs of Jews appear to be fragmented and highly individualistic likely leading to the wide span of new ventures. While competition is healthy, it can also lead to reduplication which then leads to an inefficient use of resources.

The irony here is that once one helps give life to a large number of new ventures one then is moved to focus on how they might connect.

The network framework is a critical one from which to view what is happening in the Jewish innovation ecosystem made up of many individual ventures. More and more we are existing in a world of networks. Inherent to the nature of networks is the idea that over time some separate entities will tend to cluster together. I think that there will be a strong tendency to reach out to others to become part of a cluster or network. This tendency can be facilitated. We can assume that with support, alumni of accelerators will form themselves into a network.

Certainly, within a given initiative such as ROI Community, there are many vehicles for weaving connection among members and their respective initiatives. However, this still leaves us to deal with weaving the same kind of connections in the larger local or global community.

What can we be doing to weave these connections on an ongoing basis or bring some semblance of “rationality” to this innovation ecosystem?

The traditional answer is that some organizations over time will cease to exist or merge with others. The ecosystem will rationalize itself. I think that though this will happen, this is an optimistic viewpoint. Some organizations will likely continue on sub-optimized and disconnected from other related organizations.

Another approach as suggested by Barry Shrage, President of Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston is to develop a zeitgeist. This is a kind of critical mass. Barry Shrage cites the example of Me’ah, the adult learning program that has been a prominent feature of Boston communal life. Me’ah is an umbrella program that operates within many different congregations. Each congregation is free to develop its own Me’ah offering. Barry Shrage comments that, this program “brought so much innovation to bear to change how people feel about Jewish life.” There were enough people doing it and “talking about how great it was.”

Me’ah is a combination of both institutional support in a planful manner as well as word of mouth creating viral adoption in a more emergent manner. In time, Me’ah became an orienting aspect of at least some segment of the community.

I like the idea of engendering system-wide conversations. I have done this on a national level among a number of organizations. Such conversations are already going on among some of the organizations who support Jewish innovation. There is a roundtable that meets regularly to talk about the Jewish innovation community on a national level and how to pool resources. ROI engenders conversations among its community using approaches like the World Café and Open Space Technology.

One of my interviewees suggested that rather than holding system-wide conversations we should pursue system-wide experiments following the Design Thinking approach. The idea here is that we should quickly move beyond talk to putting things out into the environment and learn how to build together. Can we be doing this collectively on a global scale? Will a common topic or the process of doing this help to weave connections among many different initiatives? I find this to be an intriguing question warranting further thought.

Another idea is to develop a larger infrastructure. Certainly, there are a number of global Jewish institutions that attempt to provide a backbone to the global Jewish society. It was suggested that federations could play a role here or that Israel could be a unifying factor. Yet another possibility is to create “gaming” communities around certain major themes in Jewish life. This allows for self-organizing and the formation of clusters and networks around such themes.

Recently The Jewish Agency and the Israel Government held a four day online forum to identify cross-societal issues of engagement with Judaism and Israel and to make recommendations. I applaud the effort as well as the methodology and the hard work of those who were responsible to create an engaging enterprise on such a large scale – which existed both in-person and on-line. I hope this effort will be continued in the future with a wider scope beyond the most recent issue of engaging Millennials.

In the secular nonprofit world, there is an approach called collective impact that endeavors to connect providers and other concerned organizations across sectors in responding to significant societal issues like making improvements in the juvenile justice system. The need to respond to a particular core societal challenge becomes a unifying element. One could look at the challenge of people coming back from Birthright and ask which Jewish providers could be responsive to these young people during future phases of their life and collectively help to meet their needs for engagement with Judaism and Israel. One could then chart a path of support across this lifespan with different providers focusing on different issues and tasks. The collective impact approach itself provides for unifying vehicles like a common vision and agenda, shared measurement, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication and backbone support.

In the meantime, we should continue creating exciting new ventures as well as looking for points of synergy among them.

Barry Camson consults with Jewish institutions, businesses and networks. He can be reached at BCamson@aol.com.