Although the use of the terms “ecosystem” and “innovation ecosystem” to describe Jewish organizational dynamics are relatively recent, the concept of a “system of innovation” has been circulating in the global world of business for more than two decades. The application of biological and ecological metaphors to economic systems dates to the mid‐1990s, and the term “innovation ecosystem” originally appeared in the early 2000s.* This initial iteration of the ecosystem metaphor focused on the interactions between organizations and actors in the production and diffusion of new knowledge. Initially, innovation thought leaders focused on networks within specific nation-states, but that has changed with the increasing globalization of knowledge and capital. The phrase “innovation ecosystem” is now being used as a descriptor of a particular type of business sector, not simply as an abstract metaphor. In the business world, it is conceptual shorthand to describe the network of organizations, people, ideas, publics, media venues, organizational incubators, and funders, within a particular sector or subsector, that develops, promotes, and diffuses new ideas, technologies, products, and services.
This report takes as a starting point that the entire Jewish communal world, including cultural, educational, social justice, human services, advocacy and policy groups, constitutes an overall Jewish ecosystem, of which the innovation ecosystem is a subsector. This is typical of ecosystems in the natural world where a multiplicity of systems are nested, overlapping or contiguous. The classic example of this is a rain forest, the totality of which is a complex ecosystem, but consists of subsystems known as the emergent level (a few trees which shoot up above the top of the forest), the canopy, the understory, and the forest floor. In the overall Jewish ecosystem there are number of subsystems, such as the Federation world, religious movements, camping, day schools, and community relations organizations, among others.
The innovation ecosystem is the particular part of the Jewish world which has identifiably distinct characteristics examined in the 2009 report published by Jumpstart, The Natan Fund and The Samuel Bronfman Foundation called The Innovation Ecosystem: Emergence of a New Jewish Landscape. This study describes the characteristics and challenges of innovation in Jewish life. The report explores the contours, trends, achievements, and implications of Jewish startups in order to encourage stakeholders (funders, policymakers, entrepreneurs, and others) to support these organizations and promote their growth. The authors argue that the emerging Jewish innovation ecosystem is at the leading edge of the American Jewish community’s transition into the twenty-first century. They suggest that the characteristic concerns of this system reflect and revolve around the needs and aspirations of many American Jews today: more open and inclusive access to Judaism, meaningful Jewish engagement, and intimate niches where diverse Jews can ‘find their way in’ to Jewish life decoupled from denominational or particularistic Jewish labels.
The concept of a “Jewish innovation ecosystem” remains contested in the Jewish communal world, even as Jewish innovators have been quick to embrace the practices that flow from the metaphor. Because of the diffuse nature of the innovation sector, and the lack of a central coordinating authority, the knowledge and social capital generated within the sector frequently does not get leveraged to make the case for the importance of innovation in strengthening and revitalizing Jewish life.
The extraordinary breadth of innovative startup organizations within the larger Jewish ecosystem is an important facet of contemporary Jewish life, one that warrants study, analysis, discussion, and support, all of which are the purposes of the think tank, the December consultation, and the focus of this paper.
*See Lundvall 1985; Moskowitz 2007; Jumpstart et al 2009, 3. The first use of the term “Jewish ecoystem” appears to be Moskowitz 2007; however, she does not draw from the management literature, but rather works directly from the ecological metaphor.
This essay originally appeared in Jumpstart Report 2: Haskalah 2.0. (Aviv, Caryn. 2010. Haskalah 2.0. Jumpstart Report 2. In cooperation with JESNA and The Jewish Federations of North America. Los Angeles: Jumpstart.)