Engineered serendipity: Creating space for innovation and risk-taking

The state of funding innovation in the Jewish community presents encouraging and discouraging realities at the same time. Los Angeles and New York are foci of innovation in the Jewish world and the vibrancy of Israel as a center of innovation is undoubted (I refer, of course, not to the high-tech sector only, but to myriad innovative social programs). Also the newly rebuilt Jewish communities of Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union are producing innovation in community programs. It’s understandable why: they aren’t limited by a tradition of community work and they have to rebuild communal life from scratch.

There’s also innovation in the way we fund. We see the emergence of giving circles, venture philanthropy, impact investing, collaborative funding, co-investment and the like. These innovative ways of funding are only being timidly tested in the Jewish community but they are gaining ground.

On the other hand, we are seeing big issues and discontents in the field of innovation. To describe them I will use three metaphors: the coffee shop, the printing press, and the recycle bin.

The coffee shop: innovation rarely happens in a vacuum. It needs an ecosystem, a breeding ground that is conducive to the generation of ideas. Innovation comes from an environment in which ideas are shared and networks provide a platform for exchange that is somehow structured but mainly serendipitous. The model for that is the coffee shops that sprung up in Paris, London, and Vienna in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, where savants, polymaths, philosophers, and scientists conversed freely. Benjamin Franklin, for example (as Steven Johnson aptly remarks) is a product of that culture: he didn’t patent a single one of his inventions.

The lack of a “coffee shop-like” space in the Jewish community is hurting innovation. Turf and proprietary programs and information put a brake on innovation. We need to re-create a space where people from different disciplines can exchange information and talk about new ideas with each other—a space where ideas flow freely and information breeds creativity.

The printing press: we all assume that Gutenberg invented the printing press around 1430 in Mainz, Germany. In fact, he didn’t. The actual creator of the printing press is a Chinese inventor called Bi Sheng. Gutenberg’s innovation made movable type more efficient and revolutionized the mechanism with which the press operates. Gutenberg lived in the winemaking region of Germany. So Gutenberg’s “invention” was in fact an adaptation of two different, older technologies: the wine press and Bi Sheng’s printing press. This does not detract from Gutenberg’s genius—rather the opposite. What Gutenberg did is something that we call “exaptation,” taking something from an external, seemingly unrelated field and adapting it to our own. Creation ex nihilo (from nothing) pertains only to G-d. We, humans, create by combining, adapting and exapting existing knowledge. “Invention” in Latin shares the same root as “inventory.” One can only invent with what one has.

Fields of knowledge that are self-contained produce less innovation because they lack exaptation. The Jewish community is far too insular and if we are so, the possibilities for exaptation are limited. The best laboratories of ideas are always a little contaminated.

The recycle bin: innovation cannot take place without a culture of high tolerance for risk and failure. Many of the big ideas of humanity were, actually, mistakes or failures. They came from the “recycle bin,” but they were not dismissed. Viagra failed as a heart disease medication, but it created the best pharmaceutical business in history. Imagine if somebody had emptied that recycle bin at Pfizer…. A culture in which we learn from both past failures and successes is critical. Innovation is almost always born out of an iterative process of trial and error. In many cases, it’s born out of reusing and recycling previous failures.

We sometimes pay lip service to failure but our actual tolerance for risk and failure in the Jewish community is limited. We don’t support those that fail, we don’t circulate the learnings that stem from failure, and we don’t reward risk-taking.  Moreover, we don’t create structures that facilitate the process of learning from failure and capitalize on the lessons of past experience. Learning needs vehicles, structures and channels. As it’s often said: we need to fail fast, cheap, and smart.

The post-modern organization necessitates a new model, one in which leadership is distributed and not concentrated, and in which information is shared and not owned. The networked organization will be the ultimate vehicle for innovation to take place.

In sum, we need to invent a new way of inventing.

Andrés Spokoiny is President & CEO of the Jewish Funders Network. This op-ed is excerpted from his keynote remarks at Innovation to Transformation:  Changing Jewish LA, Changing LA Jewishly, a philanthropy summit organized by Jumpstart and JFN in January 2013.  For his complete essay, and the full summit report by Dr. Saba Soomekh, please visit