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Technology and Business Could Bring a Little Hope

Generation Y thinks it could succeed where politicians have failed

[Jerusalem] – Money was once famously described as the root of all evil, a notion that probably would not have gone down well at the recent Forbes Under 30 Summit at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum. Amidst the shoulder-rubbing of the attendant rich and successful entrepreneurs, a distinctive note of philanthropy through innovation could be detected. Not only could new technologies resolve existing problems, but young Israeli and Palestinian business people could cross boundaries where their political counterparts had failed, attendees said.

Billed as “a day of inspiration and problem solving,” the summit put together by Forbes business magazine was aimed at entrepreneurs yet to reach their fourth decade. The choice of seating -beanbags and sun-loungers – and the tone of the opening addresses, including a discussion of hip-hop and open-mike poetry, were clearly aimed at the younger crowd, but the message was anything but frivolous or flippant. Many of the attendees had founded more than one start-up already; the issues addressed ranged from the deadly Ebola virus and global energy needs, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Jessica O. Matthews, a speaker at the conference who had travelled to Jerusalem from New York, was typical of the conference entrepreneurs, combining business sense with innovative ideas to help people. Her company, Uncharted Play, is a consumer-energy enterprise with a twist. “We’re a little different from normal energy companies because we want to change not only the way that people generate energy, but also the way in which they consume energy,” the founder and CEO told The Media Line.

The concept behind Matthew’s company is simple, but could potentially impact on the lives of millions of people across the globe. Everyday kids’ toys – a soccer ball or a skipping rope – have been adapted to “harness the kinetic energy of motion generated during normal play, (so that they) can be used as an off-grid power source for lighting and other small electronics.” Miniaturized and low-cost energy generating systems are able to capture otherwise wasted kinetic energy, but the twist comes when the technology is applied to other common items, not just those used for play.

Imagine charging your phone by pushing your child’s stroller. In the developed world this might merely be a convenience, but in developing nations where a constant supply of electricity is not a given, such technologies could mean real improvements in people’s lives. Matthews pointed to the way populations in under-developed countries adapted the emerging mobile phone technology to access the now ubiquitous internet. “Landlines weren’t cutting it so people just got cellphones and now that’s the status quo,” she said.

Eventually it should be possible to build generators so cheaply that they can be placed in any manner of object, Matthews explained, adding, “I envisage a world where our technology is built into everything.” This could contribute to democratizing people’s energy needs, the CEO said, suggesting it would complement, and not replace, other existing renewable energy sources.

Matan Berkowitz, another of the event’s key-speakers, showcased a new technology that he believes will improve people’s lives. With a background in music and film he has created a company called Shift which aims to use technology to make music accessible to all. Demonstrating one of his products, Berkowitz played music on stage using a sensor attached to his hand and connected to a computer. The technology would allow disabled people – those with amputations or who are blind or paralyzed – to create music, and could even be applied in therapy and children’s learning, the founder and CEO told The Media Line.  “At the center is the idea of making music as accessible to as many people as possible. Music has a very strong symbolism in the way it allows us to express ourselves freely,” Berkowitz said.

But technology was not the only medium discussed through which global improvement might be effected. The conference also focused on ways of dealing with the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Bassel Sader, a 20-year-old Palestinian studying law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said business might be able to succeed where the Israeli and Palestinian leadership had not. “Politics is politics, so you have to be able to say one thing, do another and mean a third thing. Whereas business has no religion and no nationality, it’s just business, making money,” Sader told The Media Line.

In the past economics has been able to turn enemies into allies and it could do so again, he said, pointing to the economic cooperation between France and Germany in the decades after the Second World War which led to the creation of the European Union.

Sader clearly knows a thing or two about business. Although he is 20-years old, in his spare time he runs his own app, Azmeh (meaning congestion in Arabic), a program designed to help Palestinians avoid the congestion at Israeli checkpoints. “On the app you can see all the checkpoints that are in and around the West Bank, you can see if there is traffic or military clashes, or if searches are going on at the checkpoints,” he said.

Communications technology that bypass national boundaries are part of the process (of conflict resolution), Moriya Rosenberg, another speaker and a member of YaLa, told The Media Line. Using online educational courses YaLa encourages communication and citizens’ journalism; some of its greatest successes have been in creating dialogue between people in Israel, the Palestinian Territories, and other parts of the Middle East and North Africa, Rosenberg explained.

“The biggest success is seeing people after they’ve engaged in our courses (and watching them) dive into the action… it might be the first time they’ve ever met an Arab or a Jew and you see their fear really break down,” she said.