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Efrat Duvdevani is the director general of the Peres Center for Peace. She spoke to Cutting Edge about its newest project, the Israeli Innovation Center, launched by Shimon Peres two months before his death

Lara Ran
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How will the Peres Center continue without Peres at the helm? What do you see as his legacy?

The Peres Center for Peace & Innovation Credit: Efrat Sa'ar

Shimon Peres established the Peres Center for Peace 20 years ago because of his belief in people and their ability to be agents of positive change. That is why he was adamant that the Peres Center not be a think tank, but rather a do tank that develops and implements impactful projects – all focused on promoting a prosperous Israel within a peaceful region. He left us with a very clear legacy: Work hard, make sure the work continues and expands, educate the youth, the leaders of tomorrow, about Israel, its story of becoming the Startup Nation, its successes, its pursuit of peace.

The past 20 years of best practices have created unique partnerships and a strong foundation that will serve us well for the years to come. 

Will he be missed? Of course. Every day. With every new project, and with every life changed for the better. But he was a statesman, a leader, a man of action and of hard work, and these values have been infused within the DNA of the organization he founded and admired so much. The best way for us to honor him, his lifes work and his legacy is to continue and work hard for a better future for all.

How are the two goals – peace and innovation – related?

Throughout his 70 years of service to Israel, there were always three things that President Peres was extremely passionate about and worked tirelessly to promote: security, peace and innovation. These three important topics were never mutually exclusive in his eyes – on the contrary. He believed that they are all crucial in promoting advancement and prosperity in Israel and beyond.

The Peres Center for Peace has always developed its projects around a need, a partnership and a theme – peace education through sport, technology and the arts; medicine and healthcare; business, agriculture, and the environment. The same is now happening with innovation.

The Israeli Innovation Center will show that technology and innovation can be put to the service of peace and act as a hub for innovation and peace.

Has the name of the Peres Center for Peace been officially changd?

The name of the Peres Center will be changed soon to the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation – so it will encompass the core values that it stands behind.

Its been noted that the benefits of the countrys startups and exits are felt by only a tiny portion of Israelis who are talented and lucky enough to be a part of these companies. What about the rest of the population – does the Israeli Innovation Center have any strategies or programs to help some of them become a part of the startup nation too?

Absolutely. One of the most important points for President Peres was to make sure that the Startup Nation is inclusive for all. One flagship project that he developed, was the placement of thousands of Israeli Arab professionals into the high-tech sector. We at the Peres Center have already begun to develop projects in the fields of innovation and entrepreneurship that will focus on the inclusion of representatives of the social and geographical peripheries such as Ethiopians Jews, ultra-Orthodox Jews, as well as joint Jewish and Arab initiatives. At the core of the Israeli Innovation Center, under the roof of the Peres Center, will be activities promoting peace, prosperity, innovation, and entrepreneurship for all. 

What other kinds of activities does the Innovation Center plan?

The Israeli Innovation Center will highlight Israels historic achievements as the Startup Nation in fields such as medicine, agriculture, technology and more, as well as be a center looking toward the future – a future of peace and prosperity. The Innovation Centers vibrant state-of-the-art exhibitions and interactive learning platform will introduce groups from Israel and around the world (projected at 250,000 visitors annually) to the content and values of the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation. 

The visitors center will include a unique virtual library where innovative methods will be used to surf the information super-highway; an expo on The Evolution of Israel into the Innovation Nation where visitors will learn how Israel became the Startup Nation; and a showcase of contemporary Israeli innovation – an interactive laboratory of current Israeli innovation, all in one place.

In addition, there will be an educational activities such as on-line academic courses in fields like innovation, sustainability, entrepreneurship, peacebuilding, project development and implementation, as well as workshops on peacebuilding, shared living in Israel, innovative and creative thinking, Israel as the StartUp Nation, entrepreneurship, technology in the service of mankind, etc.

We will continue to develop and implement peace education and peacebuilding projects that bring together Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians though innovation, technology, and more.

Are there any other such centers in the world that you looked at or borrowed from in setting up the Innovation Center?

While there are a lot of initiatives that are built around innovation, technology and entrepreneurship, there is no one place that brings everything together - from showcasing the successes, to implementing innovation projects to promote inclusion and Tikkun Olam. That is our added value.

Peres envisioned the Innovation Center as something that would ultimately brighten the future of not only Israeli society, but also that of neighboring nations. How realistic is that?

He did envision the Startup Nation becoming the Startup Region, and there is no reason not to believe that that is possible. We have done it before as a nation and as the Peres Center. People around the world are enjoying cherry tomatoes, agriculture across the globe has benefited from drip irrigation, drivers are navigating their way to work every morning with Waze.

Through Peres Center projects, thousands of Palestinian doctors, businesspeople, agriculturists, educators and high-tech professionals have cooperated with Israelis and their capacities have been enhanced through these partnerships. Some 12,000 children have received life-savingtreatment, 30,000 youths have participated in in-depth activities. These things happen every day, and we will continue to make them happen for the benefit of Israel and the region as a whole.

Who are the Innovation Centers partners and funders?

A large group of partners and supporters are joining us in this unique endeavor — from local startups to multinational corporations who understand that Israel can and should be the center of their R&D, local and international academic institutions, relevant governmental ministries, representatives of Jewish communities, and much more. The Israeli Innovation Center will be open to all people from all backgrounds, and this is mirrored by the diverse partnerships formed around its establishment.

To what extent is the Peres family involved in the Innovation Center?

The Peres family is engaged in the work of the Peres Center, and therefore is of course engaged in the establishment of the Israeli Innovation Center. We are thankful for their desire to give, and they bring with them not only experience and good will, but also the spirit and values of Shimon Peres.

The Peres Center was the venue for the shiva of the late former president. Were there any particular things you learned about Peres (through the multitude of visitors) that you didnt know before? And how, if at all, does his unexpected death affect your plans for the Innovation Center?

I think that the Peres Center being the venue for the shiva was a true testament to who he was. He was a man of the people, always wanting to meet and speak to groups and individuals - whether they were world leaders or young students. He worked his entire life for the State of Israel and loved its people so much, and it was heartwarming to see how much they loved him back. Thousands of people, representatives of the multicultural and diverse Israeli society, took time out of their day to pay their respects to his family. They stood together quietly and respectfully, and approached his three children, who took the time to listen to every story and shake every hand. It was extremely moving.

And now we will do what he taught us to do – work hard and continue to strive for a better future. The continued work of the Peres Center and the establishment of the Israeli Innovation Center will be a true testament to his legacy.

How to turn the impossible into the possible

The late 9th President of Israel Shimon Peres words delivered at the launch of the Peres Centers Israeli Innovation Center, in July 2016.

The Innovation Center that will be established here will showcase our national pride and will advance peace between people. It will highlight inventions already created as well as those yet to be developed in fields such as science, technology, medicine and healthcare, agriculture, and industry. This Center will, of course, showcase achievements of the past, but its primary focus will be on the path to the future.

We will prove that innovation has no limits and no barriers. Innovation enables dialogue between nations and between people. It will enable all young people – Jews, Muslims and Christians – to engage in science and technology equally. Here we will emphasize that we can promote peace from childhood, and we will spark the imagination of every boy and girl and enrich their dreams.

All my life I have worked to ensure that Israels future is based on science and technology as well as on an unwavering moral commitment. They called me a dreamer. But today, when I look at Israel, we all can see clearly that the greater the dream, the more spectacular the results.  I am proud of our young people. They have created a new reality. They are gifted with independence, creativity, and Israeli chutzpah. They overcame the obstacles along the way and answered every challenge that appeared.

Who would have believed that the entire world would one day use Israeli navigation software in their daily lives? Who would have believed that this stubborn and infertile land would produce an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables, and that Israel would become self-sufficient in water? Who would have believed that millions of people would utilize an Israeli developed stent implanted in damaged heart arteries allowing sick patients to breathe? Who would have predicted that we could give paralyzed individuals the ability to walk through robotic legs that were created in Israel?

Our innovative spirit has been recognized the world over, and of course, my heart swells with pride when I see how many nations turn to the tiny State of Israel to learn from our bold innovations, to learn how to turn the impossible into the possible.