Nechemia Peres im Peres Center for Peace and Innovation

Innovation for a better world

“We should discuss and share our thoughts and ideas together in order to build a future that can feed everyone.” For Nechemia (Chemi) Peres, chair of the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation and current recipient of the Reinhard Mohn Prize, human intelligence and creativity are the foundation for a common future and lasting peace. In this interview, the dedicated promoter of innovation explains how important it is to bring people together.

Text: Steffan Heuer   

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Foto Daniel Schraad-Tischler
Dr. Daniel Schraad-Tischler
Director
Foto Jan C. Breitinger
Dr. Jan C. Breitinger
Senior Project Manager

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change: Mr. Peres, the word innovation is used by so many people in so many different ways. What does innovation mean to you?

Chemi Peres | For me, innovation is actually about changing time, history and perspective by shifting the source of power, greatness and economic activity from natural resources to brain power, that is, everything which allows us to move forward to a new era of science and technology. It's about using our brain power to create a new reality with new products and new services that were not available or affordable in the old world.

When you were awarded the Reinhard Mohn Prize, you were recognized for your “outstanding efforts to promote innovation that serves both business and society.” Can you tell us more about the twofold purpose of innovation?

If you are coming from the business side, it means that everything you do is directed toward creating a positive human impact, whether on society, the environment, the economy, or the nation. I have tried to use my capacity as the managing partner of Pitango to not only invest in the cultivation of great companies, but also to make sure that these companies are tuning themselves toward the 17 Sustainable Development Goals defined by the United Nations by embracing ESG parameters. On the other side, as the chair of the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, I would like to use innovation, entrepreneurship and all those tools that entrepreneurs are using as a platform for bringing people together, whether within our society or between Israel and other countries in the region. Both approaches merge into the concept that we're shaping a new tomorrow. In order to cure the pains and the scars of yesterday, one needs to build a shared new tomorrow.

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Remarkable architecture with an ambitious vision: Located on Jaffa beach south of Tel Aviv, the “Peace House” building designed by architects Massimiliano Fuksas and Yoav Messer opened in 2009.

Most people in Germany are probably not familiar with the Peres Center. What can you tell us about the Center’s vision and its footprint in terms of its activities and reach?

The Peres Center was established 25 years ago by my late father Shimon Peres. The initial idea was to privatize the peace process. Peace agreements may be negotiated and signed by leaders, but they need to be adopted and embraced by people. We have to get to know each other, work together and start building a new tomorrow. For many years, the Center has been working on projects between people or “people-to-people” programs and has been initiating projects in all walks of life, especially for young adults. It can be culture, business, the environment, sports, healthcare.

Can you give us some examples of how the Center is bringing people together?

On the healthcare side, we have been running a program called “Saving Children” for the last 17 years to save the lives of very young children. We bring children aged one to two with their families from the Palestinian Authority or other places in the Middle East and provide them with life-saving treatments in Israeli hospitals. Through the years, the Center has saved the lives of 12,580 children. When the demand started to grow, we launched another program called “Training Physicians” where we take young Palestinian physicians after graduation from medical schools abroad and bring them to Israeli hospitals to train for specialization. They learn Hebrew, work at an Israeli hospital and operate on Israeli citizens. Some 270 doctors have completed the program, affecting the lives of one million patients over the years.

In sports, we focus on education for life and for peace. We use basketball and soccer and other sports to bring young adults together. We call it the play fair methodology, where they learn how to play without referees. If there is a misunderstanding, they need to solve it peacefully, even if they don't speak the same language. They need to take those values back home to their real lives.

In recent years, we decided to add another layer to make our activities more impactful and created the Israeli Innovation Center that is deployed over four galleries in a guided tour in different languages. It inspires people to understand the power of entrepreneurship – what individuals can do if they use technology and innovation to make their work more effective.

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Israeli innovations and entrepreneurial success stories to inspire future generations. More than 100,000 people from all over the world visit the interactive exhibitions at the Peres Center every year.

How many people have you reached over the years with these programs?

The Center hosts about 100,000-150,000 domestic and foreign visitors every year, ranging from school children to CEOs and investors, diplomats and heads of state. Towards the end of 2021, we're launching our digital version of the Center. We will increase our global reach to millions of people every year. It’s important to note that we are not a political platform which allows us to talk to different parts of our society, left or right. At the end of the day, all of us live in one universe on one planet, in our case, on one island. So we'd rather share and discuss our thoughts and ideas and build a tomorrow that feeds everyone. Innovation is becoming tantamount to peace-building. When you think about COVID-19, the international response to the pandemic is a reflection of this vision. Instead of fighting each other, nations came together to learn how the virus operates, decode it and develop vaccines.

There's talk establishing an outpost of the Center, and Berlin was mentioned as a possible location. Where do those plans stand — and why Berlin?

The plan, after building the Peres Center in Jaffa, was to have other countries build centers, too, to inspire their young generations to build their nations as innovation nations. Our idea was to develop centers in the United States, China and other Asian countries, the Arab world and Europe as nodes in a network of innovation affairs, not foreign affairs. One important area is Germany because we think that it’s essential that Germany and Israel continue building a different future from what we have experienced in the past. There’s a lot that we can do together as Germany has so many industries that are undergoing the transformation to industry 4.0 and a lot of healthcare and medical research is conducted in the country.

But the coronavirus shut down all these efforts, and we discovered that we don't need to have physical centers. So we started to build out the Center in the digital sphere. We will open it toward the end of this year. People will be able to connect and take live, guided tours in different languages. That will allow us to reach bigger audiences of a million people or more a year. Until we can get back to business and build a physical presence together, we will focus on the digital aspect. The mission still is to have ten centers in ten years around the world.

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The "Inspiration Hall" at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation - floor-to-ceiling screens make the exhibition an unforgettable visual experience. Visitors discover how Israeli innovation has made its mark on humanity in a variety of fields.

You served in the Israeli Air Force as a pilot for 10 years before you went into the startup and tech scene as an institutional investor at the age of 28. What lessons and skills did you learn from this experience that you can apply today?

The military is a great school that prepares you for life. I learned several things which helped me in my business life as a venture capitalist and at the Peres Center. Number one is recognizing the importance of the quality of individuals. The human factor is becoming so critical when you are in a system that endorses meritocracy and forces you to be successful and achieve missions on very tight schedules. It forces you to become a leader and understand the power of systems, technology and devices. Second, the limits to what we can do are way, way further down the road than we think. That teaches you to take risks. Third, you learn to be scrutinized in public for your actions. In a debriefing after an exercise or mission, you have to be very honest about your weak points and strong points because it's the only way to really learn and improve. Also, you learn to think independently, not just getting orders, but to question them. At the end of the day, it’s about teamwork. I also learned that it's better to have peace than war. It's better to create and build things.

For such a small country with a little more than nine million people, Israel has produced an astounding number of innovative technologies and companies. What are the contributing factors that made this possible?

For many years, innovation has been driven by the blessing of nothingness and by necessity, since Israel did not have natural resources. We had to build everything we needed with our brainpower. For us, it was the basis of survival. But now that we are strong, economically and militarily, the question is what will drive innovation and keep us in the forefront of innovation? My father said that the greatest contribution of the Jewish people is dissatisfaction because we're never happy with anything, and that will continue to drive innovation. But it's not enough. Now, we must let purpose drive innovation. We need to shape the future not just for ourselves, but for the rest of the world as well. I think some of the Jewish and Israeli values are universal values. We believe in solidarity and “Tikun Olam,” as we say, repairing the world and making it better.

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In his element: Chemi Peres, Reinhard Mohn Prize 2020 Laureate, at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation.

Investors like to talk about the disruption that innovation brings. Only recently has the concept of impact investing, which pursues other, more sustainable goals, been added to the vocabulary. Do you consider yourself a bit of an outlier?

Disruption, the word itself, belongs to the old world when we used to disrupt each other to win in a finite market with a certain number of customers. When you think about the vocabulary of business, it's very much taken from the world of war. You penetrate the market, you take the lion's share, you disrupt, and so on. We need to change the language and think about constructing new markets as opposed to disrupting markets, making them more affordable, not necessarily making us more rich. We also have to measure our impact not only through the lens of financial parameters, but in a broader view of categories and key metrics.

When you talk to people around the world — whether they're business leaders, investors or politicians — do you see this new mindset taking hold?

No doubt. We all see climate change taking place in a significant way as people are experiencing fires, floods and droughts. We see what happens if we are ruthless and drive forward in trying to achieve one thing and neglect all the others. If you think that profits are the only thing that humanity can earn from a company, we’re not going in the right direction. We are running against the clock. Will we be able to change ourselves before it is too late? Some companies are trying to really leverage that pressure for turning themselves into leaders of change. But we need more regulation and clear guidelines for assessing and measuring companies as well as much more collaboration on a worldwide basis.

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We need to shape the future not just for ourselves, but for the rest of the world as well.

Nechemia Peres, Reinhard Mohn Prize 2020 Laureate

This article is an excerpt from the current change Magazine (2/2021) (only available in German).

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