Transformation through Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Lessons from Israel

Twenty two years ago, while a post graduate student in the Botany Department of the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, I did a two month course at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Rehovot campus. Those were the glory days when USAID money flowed freely through the Jamaica Agricultural Development Foundation, with the aim of creating a cadre of agricultural scientists who could and would tackle Jamaica’s specific agricultural problems head on. I was one of several students who benefited from this funding. We pursued post graduate degrees in agriculture, engaged in on-farm research and solved real life problems.The Israeli government partnered with JADF in sponsoring our participation in this sub tropical horticulture course.
I was struck first of all by the aggression of the Israeli nationals on the El Al flight from New York to Tel Aviv. They were noisy and boisterous and the Hasidic Jews on the flight had no problem congregating towards the rear of the aircraft to say prayers at the appointed time. Flight attendants were hard pressed to maintain order. I remember chuckling to my then 24 year old self at the realization that there were people that matched the aggression of Jamaicans.
The second thing that struck me during my stay in Israel was the obvious unity among the Israelis. The janitor who cleaned the labs was treated with the same respect as the professors churning out scientific breakthroughs, and both groups treated each other with respect. The sight of professors tutoring undergraduate students in the university cafeteria was a common one, very different from my own experience at UWI. Laboratories, classrooms and enclaves were constantly abuzz with activity and vigorous debate.  Knowledge was freely shared.
The other thing that impressed me, and that I still reference to this day, was Israel’s approach to problem solving. Israel is not a nation blessed with fertile arable land and to say that water supply is a challenge is perhaps an understatement. Yet they are the source of many agricultural breakthroughs today.  Think drip irrigation… placing water precisely at the root zone, adding nutrients to said water, enabled crop production on the most marginal of land. It was amazing to drive through the desert and see swatches of green springing up. This was problem solving at its best! How to farm in the desert? Don’t bring more water: use less more efficiently!
Israel produced temperate fruit crops like apples and pears right there in the desert. This allowed them to capitalize on the European markets that are typically out of stock of these products when traditional producers shut down during the winter periods. Israel could have accepted at face value that these crops could not be grown in their conditions because after all, there is a huge and obvious difference between Israel’s climate and that of the temperate producers. But not being satisfied with a simple, obvious answer, Israeli scientists dug deeper and determined that the bud break seen post winter in temperate climes is not as a result of weeks of subzero temperatures, but rather exposure for a specific, very narrow band of time to these temperatures and light conditions. They simulated these conditions on potted apple and pear trees in refrigerated containers and bud break ensued as they knew it would. Thereafter, it became a simple matter to move them to open fields in the desert, feeding and watering them via drip irrigation (what else?) and making a ton of money via elegant, empirical problem solving
So fast forward 22 years to today. We were bemoaning the sad state that Jamaica finds itself in today, where passing IMF tests has superseded our own vision for ourselves and our nation. We were bemoaning the absence of hope and opportunity for our children. We were bemoaning the apparent levels of corruption that compromise decision making and further impoverish us as a nation.  We bemoaned the apparent absence of leadership able to transform our circumstances.  I posited a model for economic development that called for community based enterprises to rise up, provide said leadership, generate economic activity and empower and enrich Jamaica one community at a time. This can only happen through an innovative, pragmatic approach to problem solving.
My father and sister recommended that I read Start Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle (Senor and Singer, 2011). Suspend your politics for a moment and consider the facts. Israel is a nation that was birthed only in 1948, described by Shimon Peres, former leader of Israel, as “a poor people coming home to a poor land”.  Israel’s only capital was its human capital. They were surrounded by their enemies. They faced numerous economic and political embargoes. Yet still Israel today boasts a phenomenal number of start-ups. They are undisputed leaders in the high tech world that drives product development and commerce today. The book explained the observations that I made two decades earlier.  Senor and Singer proffered a number of reasonable questions aimed at uncovering the reasons for Israel’s relative success: did Israel’s adversity, like necessity, breed inventiveness? Did Israel have more talented people than any other country in the world? Perhaps it was the moderating impact of their military, the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). But other countries have faced adversity, have well developed militaries and possess any number of talents citizens.  Through a number of well documented examples, the authors offered the following as reasons for Israel’s entrepreneurial and innovative successes: tenacity, insatiable questioning of authority (I called it aggression) determined informality (remember the professors and students, ancillary workers and academic staff?) a unique attitude towards failure and risk, teamwork and a mission orientation, and cross disciplinary creativity. 
I have tried to identify parallels between Jamaica and Israel, seeking to identify jump off points for us as far as revving up entrepreurship and innovation are concerned. I will touch on the main issues I think that explain why we, unlike Israel, have not developed since coming into our own nationhood in 1962. I dare you to challenge that last statement by the way… we are NOT better off today than we were in 1962. 
 Jamaica exhibits a cultural paradigm that cuts across public and private sectors that I refer to as “a preference for form over substance”. The “right way” seems to be more important than the “right thing”. The result is that we waste time ensuring that we don’t cause offence and we appease the right people at the expense of true problem solving.  Committees are formed and meetings are held and announcements are made and this is all applauded even when there is no transformation resulting from these activities…form over substance. Perhaps, per Senor and Singer, we should reframe our interpretation of aggression as assertiveness rather than insolence, and instead of a label of insubordination, look at it as critical, independent thinking. 
Consider too how we treat failure and our approach to risk management. Every military exercise carried out by the IDF is followed by the all important de-briefing. Here is where actions and outcomes are dissected in order to extract those critical learning necessary to raise the bar the next time round. What I observe in the public sector is an entire absence of tracking against goals, and the commensurate analysis that should be done to understand the present state against a desired state. The only meaningful tracking of government performance against stated goals, is a private sector led monitoring of performance against the IMF agenda. Where is Vision 2030 today? My own experiences suggest that the very opposite happens in some private sector settings today. There is goal setting and tracking of performance against these objectives. But a so called undesirable outcome is dealt with by a change of personnel and quiet abandonment of the original plan rather than an empirical understanding of the failure so as to get it right the next time around.  There is very little understanding and appreciation for so-called “smart failures”.
I still struggle with exactly how my (admittedly partially thought through) community based model for development will lift us from our current quagmire. Sure, private enterprises can create internal cultures that run counter to national cultural paradigms of how we perceive authority, how authority perceives itself, form over substance and so on. And certainly, the national benefits to be derived from a private sector which successfully develops an entrepreneurial and innovative culture go without saying.  But I suspect that based on where we are today, there is a critical role that state leadership must play.  You see, Israel had the direct involvement of the state from the very beginning in terms of setting policy and providing funding and setting the direction.  Israel benefited from the pragmatism of Ben-Gurion in the early days, and later on from the tenacity and can (must) do attitude of subsequent leaders. Jamaica, unlike Israel, is blessed with an abundance of natural resources…we have fertile soil, water sources, and raw materials with which to create prosperity as long as we stop abusing our environment. We have a naturally feisty people, but over the years, a culture of patronage and a swapping of colonial subjugation for home grown, ineffective (and I’m being kind here) leadership have failed to leverage our natural inclination to buck the status quo.

Is it beyond us, is it too late for Jamaica to become an entrepreneurial, innovative country and reverse our current trajectory?

about the J.P.S. Co. cries of doom and gloom!

So ever since the Jamaica Public Service Co. Ltd. has been sounding off about its financial woes, a growing sense of dread has been overcoming me.  The latest wail is that the company will be out of cash by August.  Now I am not fretting for myself, for reasons which I will outline shortly.  But I am thinking about the few businesses plodding along in this extremely hostile context that is Jamaica today.  We already are burdened with the highest energy costs in the region, and if you layer uncertainty of supply atop burdensome expenses, well…you can see how this will end. Let’s go back to the JPS’s latest alarm: out of cash by August.  That is a holler for attention at the very least, but it must be some sort of call to action too.  What do they want?  Are they setting the stage to justify a rate hike? It is a fact that electricity usage has declined… Is this an index of economic growth/decline? Not sure. But for sure, ordinary citizens have really had no choice.  
We’ve had to become Electricity Nazis in our own homes, using energy efficient bulbs, patrolling for lights being on for no reason, forgoing use of the electric water heater, unplugging everything once we are out of the house and there are some like my household who are almost totally off the grid.  Yup. Some years ago, H had the foresight to begin to phase in the use of solar energy.  To be totally honest, it was the unreliability of service from the JPS that prompted this move.  The feeders in this area are old an unreliable and post-hurricane conditions were absolutely unbearable. But even though we would have light with or without JPS, as I said, I couldn’t help but worry about industry and therefore the state of the overall economy…the broader context within which I live and make a living. 
So I was talking with H tonight, rehashing the day’s events.  And he told me a story that lifted my spirits and gave me hope to press on.  He decided to use the services of an automobile AC technician along South Camp Road.  He only saw the sign, it was conveniently located (for him) and he only needed re-gassing…nothing complex.  So he turned in and saw a modified shipping container serving as a small admin and waiting area.  There was a steady stream of traffic in and out, including taxi men and commercial trucks, including trucks belonging to a well known haulage company.  He took comfort in that fact, and noted that the owner was the head technician, moving around briskly and quite business-like. But he had to wait.  H hates to wait.  But as he sat waiting he noticed that atop the modified container, sat 2 solar panels.  Wow!  H’s fine engineering mind sat up and started noting the technical details of this AC business set-up. What he figured out and later confirmed in conversation with Mr. AC was that the solar panels provided enough energy for Mr. AC to run his AC repair business.  
This simple entrepreneur had done his sums and determined that his competitiveness hinged on his ability to minimize his energy costs.  Hence his current independence from the unreliable supply characteristic of the JPS and his lower energy costs.  
H remarked that he is seeing more and more windmills on residences in St. Elizabeth too.  Think of the new Digicel building Downtown, Kingston.  Red Stripe recently announced plans to invest in their own energy plant.  I am hoping that as JPS and the Government of Jamaica continue to piss around and play games (WHERE IS THE ENERGY POLICY?) we the people will do the necessary and invest in alternative energy sources.  
And don’t gripe about the cost.  Plan. Start. Phase in the darned thing. Incremental improvement may be the way you have to do it.  Ain’t nothing wrong with that! So many people are comfortable borrowing money to buy a car, a liability that depreciates with every revolution of the tires.  Buy a small car for cash and invest in alternative energy instead, People! That is worthwhile debt.
So I have to believe that the entrepreneurial class will not roll over and die.  I have to believe that we will find a way to survive and thrive despite this Ineptocracy. (in-ep-toc’-ra-cy) – a system of government where the least capable to lead are elected by the least capable of producing, and where the members of society least likely to sustain themselves or succeed, are rewarded with goods and services paid for by the confiscated wealth of a diminishing number of producers.
  

“Yes, Minister!”

Yesterday they were part of motorcades and parades and mass fetes…fists pumping, hands waving, gyrating to the tunes selected by the talented DJs presiding over the proceedings at the various political rallies all over the island.  They lauded their leaders.  They lambasted their opponents.  They promised the world.  Oftentimes, their tone and language was geared to the masses.  These rallies where we saw them shine were in the main long on emotion and short on substance. 

Then V Day (voting day) came and went.  A week or so after V Day, the party which won most of the island’s 63 seats had their own party leader “crowned” Prime Minister.  She then looked to those of her membership who had been victorious, contributing therefore to her own ascendancy, and selected her management team.  In this instance, she selected 20 senior managers, if you will.  She “restructured” the government…and I say “restructured” tongue in cheek, because what we’ve seen so far is to my mind, a re-naming of portfolios.  I have to wait and see the functions and outworkings of the governments are actually aligned to these new names before I hug up this “restructuring”.  Even in my own professional experience I’ve seen critical functions undergo grand renaming exercises under the guise of “restructuring” and the key performance indicators show little improvement.  What’s the point!

Some people had issue with the size of her management team.  To be truthful, that did not bother me. I am more interested in the output than the size. 

I remain wary, however, of the role of the Minister and what qualifies him/her to be there!  The Minister, I believe, is supposed to be responsible for crafting policy, articulating a vision for the function and managing the resources of the state such that sustainable development is the end product of their efforts.  Can these people actually do that?  Do they even know where to begin?  Where did they learn their craft?  Yesterday they were pandering to the lowest common denominator and today they are senior visionaries and administrators?  I suppose that’s why God created Permanent Secretaries.  They’re supposed to be the technically sound experienced administrators…But in every relationship it makes sense to identify the power balance early on.  So let’s see: Permanent Secretary and Minister…hmmm…where does the power actually lie?  So who will therefore influence outcome?

I think I will call my brethren Lee Kwan Yew later this morning.  He seems to have gotten it right somehow.  Yes, yes, yes…he made us a tad bit uncomfortable in the way he seemed to embrace a sort of bureaucratic elitism and kind of played roughshod with our ingrained notions of the (grand) “rights of the individual” (we sometimes ignore the (grander?) rights of the society!).  Ideologies and philosophical debates aside, Singapore has a pretty good track record and I think just maybe, we can learn a little something about public policy, public administration and working effectively from my pal Lee.  We should be so lucky.

Let us track performance against what they promised (refer to the Manifesto and the Progressive Agenda).  If it’s too onerous to track all 20, choose 3 key ones and follow up. Write, speak out and question when their own KPIs are off track.

People Power indeed.

%d bloggers like this: