IT WAS fascinating to hear the explanation why Israel had come to be known as the ‘startup nation’ and ranks third in patents awarded, after Switzerland and the US. According to Inbal Arieli, a leading figure of the country’s innovation ecosystem and author of Why Israel is a Hub of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, the culture of innovation and creativity is acquired from a very young age and has much to do with Israelis’ approach to upbringing, which to a large extent, is based on ‘mayhem’.
These qualities, she said were developed in the ‘junkyard’ playground spaces many Israeli children grew up playing in, breaking rules, taking risks, using discarded objects creatively and collaborating to get things done. This, in turn encouraged them to use their own judgment and make their own decisions, something that was further developed in their teenage years. Questioning and ignoring authority was another quality developed by this upbringing, said Arieli in a web talk organised by the Israeli embassy in Cyprus.
We do not know whether any big wig from the Cyprus education ministry or any of our politicians that pay lip service to innovation and startups, followed this fascinating talk, which should have been food for thought for our society. Nobody is suggesting that we should, even if it were possible, to change the way we bring up our children, but we should ask why our society and education system does not develop creativity, entrepreneurship and risk-taking. Why, despite spending so much on education, are we producing risk-averse, uncreative citizens whose ambition is to become a public employee?
For years we have been listening to politicians saying that schools must produce ‘critical thinkers’, but nothing ever happens, so how likely is it our schools would be able to cultivate or at least encourage creativity, entrepreneurship and risk-taking, qualities that are not greatly valued by our society. Our public schools seem to produce risk-averse, uncreative citizens the overwhelming majority of whom have the ambition of becoming public employees, shuffling papers and wallowing in mediocrity for the rest of their lives. Such are the rewards and security provided to public employees, they work as a disincentive to risk-taking and entrepreneurship.
This may explain why Cyprus is so far behind in innovation and new technology. It also exposes initiatives by different governments to make the island a centre for hi-tech industries, innovation and startups as little more than wishful thinking. The state cannot impose these things from above – it can facilitate and offer incentives but even then, without go-getting, risk-taking, ambitious individuals little would be achieved.
Israel raises about $8 billion in venture capital every year, 85% of which comes from abroad, said Arieli. Even if we are to generate a fraction of this amount, we would have to radically change our education system and its objectives.