Thursday, March 13, 2008

Observations on Jerusalem

' Last leg of the 10-day trip: winding things up in Paris, but thoughts are still lingering back to the visit to Jerusalem last week. It is an amazing place to visit: I just wanted to include a few illustrated reflections.

  • Israel is greener than I expected.

The drive up into the hills from Tel Aviv leads from grass- and farm-land up into forests and rockyJerusalem 071 scrub. It's a cooler, wetter time of year, but I was expecting high, hard desert. Instead, the hills and, especially, the gardens (illustrate) were lush, reminding me a bit of the orange trees and palms of Seville.

  • Israel is more compact than I expected.

I remember the mental change in scale that I had to execute when I arrived in the Netherlands from the US: there is another step-order-of-magnitude that you have to make in traversing Israel. Places that sound like regions are actually hillsides just outside the city, perhaps a kilometer away.

This picture is of a settlement on the West Bank, taken from Jerusalem.

Jerusalem 065

Israeli and Arab settlements crowd onto adjacent hills, the Fence snaking along nearby, Jordan just past the next ridge. It seemed to me that the political situation can't be solved by dividing things up: it's all a neighborhood with everyone literally down the street from one another.

  • Religion defines culture and history...

Jerusalem 174More than anywhere else I've been, the immediate and omniscient presence of God's artifacts defines the city. I was constantly arriving at places of great significance that I didn't know existed.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was eye-opening; I had no idea that the actual tomb, the spot of the crucifixion, and more, were all compacted together there. Similarly at the Western Wall, or around the Dome of the Rock, legend became tangible.

Jerusalem 228Too tangible, sometimes: I backed out of the way of a procession bearing a cross along the Via Dolorosa, only to have them turn to me and start praying. I quickly found out that I'd accidentally backed into the Third Station of the Cross (who knew...).

You can't help but feel it: there are signs reminding you that here, Heaven and Earth touch: Divine Presence always rests close by.

  • ... yet it's all a bit Dutch sometimes

I instinctively pronounced 'ch' the Dutch way, and got every Hebrew word right. The people are simply DSC05129direct in business and conversation: the Dutch meetings are good preparation. And they close down as thoroughly on Shabbat as the Dutch do on Sundays.

There was even my beloved Random Road Art.

Despite the terrible school shootings that took place during my stay, I also felt wholly comfortable walking on the streets or visiting the bazaars. DSC05103Police and soldiers were everywhere, but people were friendly and people didn't seem to be challenging one another.

At the same time, everything from shower handles to calendar pages flipped oppositely to what I was used to, and there we a curious abundance of cats (strays and pets) and virtually no dogs.

  • Do the Old City !

I loved wandering the passageways of the Old City, haggling in the bazaar, and sampling the foods. Jerusalem 274 The corner shops and alleys are a bit like Istanbul, and it was fun haggling for crafts and candies. The bus tour that I took was nice as a general orientation, but I never feel like I've seen a place unless I've walked it thoroughly and met the people along the way.

My favorite spot was a rooftop restaurant called Papa Andreas: I sat up there with some hummus and lamb skewers and watched the sun go down, the twilight deepen, the chants mark the moment, the lights twinkle on. Absolutely magical.

Jerusalem 273

  • and, There's No Place Like...

I wearily returned to Amsterdam on Tuesday to change suitcases, 10 pm, dusty and tired. The customs agent checked my passport, noted that I was a resident of Arnhem, and gave me a wonderful "Welcome home!" greeting, in Dutch.

It made my day, on so many levels.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Education, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship

I am in Cambridge to participate in a conference on innovation and education sponsored by the Cambridge-MIT Institute (CMI). It was really a stimulating day: I wanted to share a few ideas and observations before running for the plane.

Background: CMI is a collaboration between Cambridge Univ and MIT, created by the British government six years ago to stimulate entrepreneurial growth. It is responsible for overseeing six "science enterprise" MPhil programs at Cambridge, ranging from computational biology to nanotech, sustainable development and socially aware tech policy. I graduated from the MPhil program in biotechnology a couple of years ago, a wonderful mid-career experience. Several of us were invited back to participate in a discussion of how the programs could be improved: Achieving the Knowledge Economy: Integrating Technology, Management and Policy in Graduate Education

The conference attracted a diverse group of academic, government, and industry participants to discuss both successes and shortfalls of the courses. The programs had developed clear goals to foster technology transfer, stimulate business understanding, and develop social policy, and had implemented a coherent high-quality network of lectures, resources, internships, and relationships. I hadn't realized the scope of their effort: 130 lecturers in biotech alone, apart from the business classes, for the 25 students in the program. Challenges resulted mostly from resistance to interdisciplinary and industry-linked programs at the University, and institutional diversity that hindered creating consistent teaching methods and assessment standards across disciplines. Hardly surprising for an 800 year old collection of colleges, though.

There were three good areas of discussion.

First, can entrepreneurs be created in the classroom and by internships?

There was agreement that it takes intense individual insight and passion, and that the best that the programs can do is to hand out the tools and show the way.  Practical business plan competitions and meetings with seed-fund investors may give further motivation, but the consensus was that it's unlikely (even undesirable) to force a clever bench scientist to become a tooth-and-claw startup.

Second, what is the proper role of industry?

I think that MIT has gone too far over, becoming more of an incubator than a research institution (I think Stanford has a better balance). Part of it stems from MIT's reliance on large-company partnerships, and in gauging their success by placing grads in senior roles in big finance, defense, and manufacturing companies.

The UK prefers smaller-scale enterprises, less industry counsel for academic programs, and more reliance on shared business activity through clusters. This is a better model, to my mind, but they have got to help provide better access to small scale equity finance (~50K GBP), facilitated connections into their collaborative clusters, and mentoring approaches to business plan creation and startup development.

Finally, what prevents graduates from starting businesses?

Social conservatism and fear of failure, according to the government reps. I'm not sure of that, though: I'm concerned by how many graduates go into consulting rather than into product development. They say that they want more experience and understanding of business before taking on a project themselves. I think this lack of confidence leads them away from something that they are perfectly able to do. Better use of networks, consultancies, and mentoring by seasoned industry professionals during (and after?) the program would be worth trying.

Overall, though, it raised a lot of interesting questions about identifying, nurturing, and developing talent and ideas to their full potential.

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Logo credits Cambridge MIT Institute

Monday, March 10, 2008

British transport on Sunday night

Back from Jerusalem...some amazing times there, but a long flight back...stories to tell in the coming days.

However, the trip to London seems more difficult than it should have been, and I think I'm starting to sour on British Airways. An hour and a half late at departure; 45 minutes on the ground at Heathrow waiting for a gate, and this has been the norm, lately. Maybe things will get better with Terminal 5, but then again...

So I am out at 10 pm rather than 8: it's Sunday night, and I need to get 70 miles from Heathrow to Cambridge. A quick rundown of the options include:

  • National Express: 27.50 GBP, but arrives at 2 am
  • Train: Heathrow Express to Paddington, Underground to Kings Cross, train to Cambridge...but not running late on a Sunday night.
  • Taxi: Simple, direct: 220 GBP (!) One Way (!) -- I could fly round-trip to Amsterdam for that (!) Twice (!)
  • Rental Car: EuroCar: 56 GBP, two days, plus gas.
  • Transfer a car: to Stansted Airport and take a bus or train to Cambridge: The rental car agencies weren't buying the offer.
  • Hire Car: None in sight, unless I want to identify myself as someone else.
  • Walk, Bike: Even the Dutch would shudder...
  • Local Hotel: Call it a night, and soldier onward in the morning. Tempting, but the M25 or the Underground at 7 am would be a nightmare.

I hate to do it, but EuroCar is the winner.

I arrive in Cambridge at 11:45, in time for a Guinness and a bit of reading before bed. I wish I hadn't had to drive, but public transport just hasn't reached the point (or it has descended from the point) where it makes sense to take an alternative. Unfortunate...

However, I have to say that the hotel booked for the meetings in Cambridge is stellar...something to write home to TripAdvisor about (a big tub bath next to the bed, no less. If it wasn't 1 am, I'd try it...)

Photo credit Heathrowairport.co.uk