'Our Greatest Fortune: We Had Nothing'
In this interview, the president of Israel considers the crucial role of human capital, the possibilities of new technology, and the way of the start-up nation.
'Our Greatest Fortune: We Had Nothing'By Yuan Chou
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 525 )
Israel is the world's most entrepreneurial nation. Its head of state, the man who is spearheading this push for innovation, is President Shimon Peres.
Born in 1923, Peres has served twice as defense minister, thrice as foreign minister, and twice as prime minister.
In 1993 he negotiated the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the following year. He became Israel's ninth president in 2007.
Regardless of what position he has held, Peres has always actively encouraged citizen innovation.
This is because he personally experienced Israel's nation-building process. To be able to construct a prosperous modern society in the Middle East while surrounded by antagonists called for an unyielding spirit of innovation among the people.
Since 2000 Peres has been leading Israel in investing in nanotechnology. He was instrumental in founding the Israel National Nanotechnology Initiative and has raised funds for starting enterprises in the industry.
He is convinced that if computers can be shrunk to the size of the head of a pin, they can be used in military affairs to track down terrorists endangering national security, and in medicine, to be injected in the human body and treat disease.
In 2011 he made a new proposal. He hopes his country can break new ground in neuroscience, and provide advanced nations that have large aging populations with solutions to Alzheimer's disease and other illnesses.
The NGO he has helped founded, Israel Brain Technologies, provides funding for organizations that discover major breakthroughs in this area.
"The only crime I committed was to be a little bit ahead of time," Peres quips.
To live long and keep learning through life may be Shimon Peres's greatest talent. Despite his brilliant political record, he dislikes talking about his own story, preferring to listen to his grandchildren tell of their work, and absorb new knowledge.
"What I did yesterday, for me it's boring," he says. "My mind is set to see what will happen tomorrow."
He will turn 90 on the 2nd of August, and on June 18-20 he held the fifth Israeli Presidential Conference.
Peres first initiated this international conference in 2008, inviting global political leaders, scholars and figures in the fields of culture and the arts to come together to discuss how to face the challenges of the future. This year's guests included former US president Bill Clinton, former U.K. prime minister Tony Blair and the film star Barbara Streisand.
On the eve of the conference, Shimon Peres took time out for an interview with CommonWealth Magazine, looking back on his life of service over the last 70 years, and sharing his insights on scientific research, the younger generation, and the spirit of innovation.
Q: As you look back on your political career, what do you think was the pivotal point when Israel decided to build a nation of start-ups and entrepreneurship? What were the challenges you hoped to find a solution to? Were there alternative paths Israel could have taken?
A: I remember the days when scores of young, hopeful pioneers arrived to the Promised Land. With swamps in the North and deserts in the South, the land was refusing and water was scarce. From the very beginning, we had no other choice than to turn to the only – and the best – natural resource we had, the human potential. Israel is a story of a people who enriched a land. From the very first seed we planted, in spite of the overwhelming odds against us, Israel was born as a start-up nation.
Q: As leader of the nation, what were the things you did to bring this vision to fruition? What were the policies and infrastructure provided by the Israeli government to encourage entrepreneurship?
A: Israel's success as a start-up nation is due to the spirit of the people. I have always believed that the greatest contribution of the Jewish people to humanity is dissatisfaction. The spirit of entrepreneurship, which our government encourages, stems from a long history of dissatisfaction. Our constant striving to question the situation as it is and seek to better it.
Q: What are the key factors that ensured Israel's success as the Start-up Nation?
A: Our greatest fortune was that when we came to the land, we had nothing. It was upon our shoulders to turn the Promised Land into a Land of Promise, instead of relying on the Lord's blessings. Recognizing and harnessing that human capital was the key to turning our dream into a reality.
Q: Please tell us about the education system in Israel, and how it channels the spirit of entrepreneurship from one generation to the next?
A: With the era of science and technology, we have entered a new realm of progress. Children all over the world are no longer interested in the lessons of the past. They look at their parents, shrug off their experience, and tell them, "What kind of a world have you left us? Broken by wars, wounded by prejudice, shattered by discrimination." I do not blame them, there is no advantage to the mistakes of the past over the mistakes of the future. The young generation is ready for tomorrow. They are better equipped, more informed. I have complete trust in them. It is up to us to empower them with the tools that they need for the modern world and to create the space for them to thrive.
Q: What are some of the challenges a nation of start-ups faces? For instance, you have given your support to both the development of nanotech and brain technologies. Is there such a thing as too many directions for one country to take? Also, what are your views on the possible crisis of a brain drain, and of Israeli talent being spread too thin amongst too many start-ups?
A: For Israel to remain successful we must be at the forefront of new developments. Science knows no boundaries, innovation is limitless. When I was a young man, I used to be fascinated by the moon. I would look through a telescope and see the vast expanse of space, dreaming of the treasures that could be found in its immensity. Over the years, we have found that the same bottomless well of knowledge can be found in a single atom. From telescopes to microscopes, research has provided us with an unprecedented insight into the functioning of our world. The most illustrious instrument of the universe is the human brain. It lies on our shoulders and contains the secrets to ourselves. If there is one thing we have learned from the history of scientific research, it is that discoveries come from unexpected places and in unexpected ways. It would be a mistake for a start-up nation to limit its fields of research.
Q: What are the areas in the global economy Israel and Taiwan could cooperate on, and what roles could our nations play, respectively?
A: Israel and Taiwan are both export orientated economies, and the strength of our respective nations comes not from vast natural resources but our human capital. Science and academia are based on global exchanges and cooperation; in the fields of medicine, renewable energy, water technology, advanced agriculture and many others there is great scope for cooperation between our two nations. Israel prides itself on hi-tech start-ups and creative technological solutions while Taiwan has developed into a leader in large scale manufacturing of state of the art devices. A synergy exists in economics, just as it does in the history of our two great peoples.