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Jerusalem’s brand? It’s the City of Empathy

Let Tel Aviv be famous for its startups: A city needs to build appeal around its core values and assets
Judoka Or Sasson at the April 27 opening of Shalva's new headquarters (Courtesy)
Judoka Or Sasson at the April 27 opening of Shalva's new headquarters (Courtesy)

I recently had the privilege of speaking at the launch of discussions to build an economic plan and platform for Jerusalem sponsored by Hitorerut, the municipal political party. I was asked to jump-start the discussion groups with some ideas and I thought it might be helpful to jot them down for broader discussion purposes.

Humbly, I think Jerusalem has spent too much time trying to chase Tel Aviv. I was dinged when I walked in to the event by a number of the participants because earlier in the day I had tweeted that Tel Aviv was the coolest city. I love Jerusalem. I have lived there 24 years and raised my children there. It is interesting, vibrant, diverse, complex, important, inspiring, deep, thoughtful, caring and thought-provoking. But it is not cool.

I believe that economies and businesses of cities spring from core values and authentic expressions of its residents. You cannot make a city into something it is not, without very significant investment and massive change. Particularly in an era when human capital matters most, no inauthentic industrial incentive scheme will work to bring in human beings. A city needs to build appeal around its core values and assets, appealing to the interests, values and psyches of the human capital it hopes to attract. Trying to brand or turn Jerusalem into the second generic startup city of Israel is a recipe to play second fiddle to Tel Aviv. There is no reason for that.

I suggested that Jerusalemites’ core attributes were deep values and extraordinary empathy. As the nation’s capital, with a largely religious, traditional, young and academic population, social values and civic responsibility are true to Jerusalem’s core. Witness the incredible value to societies growing on the hillside of the neighborhood of Givat Mordechai. In a 10-minute walk, you have three incredible social institutions: Zichron Menachem which helps cancer patients, Shalva, which helps special children and Yad Sarah, the medical equipment loan organization that trail-blazed affordable home healthcare. These institutions are inspiring and, in fact, incredibly innovative. Yad Sarah’s business model and its human capital model is awe-inspiring. Shalva’s new campus, treatments, transportation and ethos is heartwarming and truly groundbreaking. Zichron Menachem has saved the lives of parents and children battling cancer, giving hope and respite to an incredible number of people.

The new Shalva National Center building in Jerusalem, dedicated to assisting children with disabilities. (Courtesy)

Why are these organizations headquartered in Jerusalem? Because Jerusalem has deep values of compassion and empathy. Because the creative juices and social moorings of Jerusalemites lead them to innovate in social services. And because there is an incredible cluster of health science around Hadassah Medical Center and other institutions. So, I suggested that Jerusalem should be the innovation capital of the world for non-profits or businesses innovating in social and health services. We can define social services and health services broadly. It could include becoming a 21st century nursing home center, a hub for personalized medicine and social services. It would and should innovate in caring for society’s disadvantaged or special needs citizens. With that focus, we should attract the talent that empathizes, that wants to build a better human spirit and solve health care and social service challenges the world over. With a globally aging population, this is also going to be big business and it jives with the caring, empathetic values Jerusalemites hold dear.

I also think a lot about my partner Elie Wurtman’s initiative to innovate the school system by creating an organization that teaches robotics and 3D printing in schools. He started in tough neighborhoods and now is moving into all the city’s schools. Schools, education, 21st century skills and tough neighborhoods is an empathy industry that creates badly needed skills to enable social mobility for the 21st century. What is that 21st century education? It includes grit and an open mind. Optimism and resilience in a changing world. Skills and not spoon-fed knowledge. It teaches that I can create a 3d printed item in Jerusalem and sell it in Beijing or Bali and if the 3d printer is obsolete, I will learn to build a replicator or create a good old fashioned neighborhood garden to produce food for my family and neighborhood.

Jerusalem is also Israel’s capital, its seat of government and a city upon which all of the eyes of all the other capitals are focused. It has Hebrew University, with its great computer sciences department and special degrees in government and economics. Hence, Jerusalem should be the global innovation hub for e-government services. This also links to empathy because government’s job is to care for people and build cities and governing structures suited for the future. It should be making services more accessible and more citizen friendly. Jerusalem should innovate to bring government into the 21st century. Needless to say, it has a lot of work to do on itself, as the municipality’s own online services leave much to be desired. However, a commitment by the municipality to a major initiative in this sphere can have major impact, considering the city is also the seat of government. Imagine everything from garbage collection that works like Uber (if only Uber worked in Israel), religious services at the push of a button, and digital currency that gave you access to municipal services. I am not sure why Haifa and Tel Aviv each have a local currency ahead of Jerusalem. The city could jumpstart it by allowing use of such a currency for paying for its services.

Jerusalem can be the city that exports its heart and values. As a home for innovative empathy industries as well as service companies and institutions rooted in deep values, it can innovate government in a meaningful way, empowering and enabling citizens while dramatically reducing bureaucracy. The City could set a goal to have zero face to face interface with city clerks by 2025. A paperless city with on-demand garbage pick up and a Waze tourist guide for handicap access. The opportunities are endless. By being small, yet diverse, we can become a global leader. Jerusalemites can attract the talent drawn to these values and challenges of the 21st century. It can then export this know-how, service, IP and the city’s traditional values and its citizens’ empathy using very modern tools.

About the Author
Michael Eisenberg has been a key figure in Internet and software investing in Israel since 1995, playing a central role in the development of many of Israel's leading companies and startups. In 2013, Michael launched Aleph, a $140MM early stage venture fund together with Equal Partner Eden Shochat. Aleph focuses on building big companies out of Israel and servicing the hell out of entrepreneurs.
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