Building bridges: Jerusalem, Emirati teens work together to solve water scarcity

REGIONAL AFFAIRS: The young innovators of Jerusalem were brought together with their Emirati counterparts in Dubai by PICO Kids for a makeathon.

 THE PICO KIDS Water Scarcity Makeathon at the Dubai Future Foundation. (photo credit: Barak Alkobi)
THE PICO KIDS Water Scarcity Makeathon at the Dubai Future Foundation.
(photo credit: Barak Alkobi)

DUBAI – When news of the Abraham Accords hit the headlines on August 13, 2020, PICO Venture Partners co-founder Elie Wurtman knew that his PICO Kids flagship program had a place in the shared future envisioned by Israel and its new ally the United Arab Emirates.

Founded in 2013, PICO Kids works to combine technological and scientific activities with the 21st-century skills of children and youth from first to 12th grades in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas.

The program works to enhance the knowledge of the next generation in subjects such as science, technology and social entrepreneurship, while also building bridges of pluralism and diversity.

The program, situated in the heart of Jerusalem, hopes that, besides learning technological skills and abilities, participants will also learn the importance of empathy-based education as a means to create peace and solutions to shared challenges.

In the building housing PICO’s Maker Space, children from all parts of Jerusalem’s colorful landscape come together, without the interference of the barriers of social class, ethnicity and religion, which are so rigidly in place in the city.

 THE PICO KIDS Ambassador Program participants alongside the participating Dubai high schoolers at the conclusion of the Makeathon. (credit: Barak Alkobi) THE PICO KIDS Ambassador Program participants alongside the participating Dubai high schoolers at the conclusion of the Makeathon. (credit: Barak Alkobi)

Having previously sent delegations of teenage PICO Kids participants to both Shanghai and Hong Kong, Wurtman saw an opportunity in the signing of the Abraham Accords, one that would bring the young innovators of Jerusalem together with their Emirati counterparts in Dubai.

Together with leading figures in Israel’s tech community, Wurtman began to plan his vision. As the first delegation of its kind, the group would meet with Emirati innovators, gain a deeper understanding of the technology and innovation that serve as the driving force of the UAE, and forge connections with peers, paving the way for a stronger, more peaceful future.

And, Wurtman hoped, this would not be a one-off delegation, but, rather, the first of many. It would create a precedent for future delegations to follow, allowing for a constant exchanging of ideas between the youth innovators of the two countries.

And so, 14 months later, after multiple COVID-19-related delays, a delegation of 16 Jerusalem teenagers landed in Dubai, ready to meet their peers from the Gulf country and work together with them in a makeathon focused on creating solutions to water shortages.

“When the Abraham Accords were signed, I thought this is the moment, this is the greatest opportunity, to bring kids from Jerusalem to these countries, the UAE and Bahrain, to bring more talent together to solve problems,” Wurtman told The Jerusalem Post.

In this case, the problem they would be addressing was water scarcity, an issue that affects both Israel and the Gulf states.

“We felt that kids from Jerusalem and kids from the UAE could come together to problem-solve and build bridges for a better future,” Wurtman explained.

“My goal is that these kids understand how to be an ambassador of Israel, of our values, how to share with the kids in Dubai who they are, where they’re from, and what’s important to them.

“I couldn’t be more excited to see what this trip presents,” said Wurtman. “The youth will be the future, and we want to get them started.”

THE DUBAI Makeathon brought together 16 members of the PICO Kids Ambassador Program and 30 students from two Dubai-based schools. In six groups they worked together to solve issues relating to water scarcity: consumption, purification and agriculture.

“Since the 1970s, the UN has recognized water scarcity as a real crisis,” PICO Kids Managing Director Meidan Alkobi explained to the groups seated in the auditorium of the Dubai Future Foundation. “The demand for clean water is always growing, and the availability is not. Of the 2.5% of [all water on earth today that is] fresh natural water, the majority is found inside ice.”

Solving water scarcity, however, wasn’t the only goal of the PICO Kids delegation. They also had the opportunity to represent their home country and the city of Jerusalem, showcasing the best aspects that it has to offer in just a few short hours.

Taking the challenge of representing their country head-on, the PICO Kids teens created short presentations, explaining the culture of Israel and Jerusalem, as well as their journeys and experiences since joining PICO Kids.

“PICO is like a second home to me. They helped me become a better version of myself,” shared 15-year-old Shoval Parada.

“Before I joined PICO, I was a shy and quiet girl, and I didn’t have the confidence to speak up, but the moment I joined, I made important connections and learned how to express myself.”

And, eager to share more than just words, the Israeli teenagers handed out bags of Bamba and bars of Israeli chocolate to the students, who were delighted to be trying new food and to hear more about what each item was.

Although shy and quiet at first, the groups began to mingle and laugh together as they played the Israeli card game Taki, with a Dubai student proudly announcing that he had won, despite never having even heard of the game before that morning.

Language, too, was shared between the groups, once they had started working on their projects together later that morning.

“Here’s how you write your names in Hebrew,” one girl shared, sounding out the letters as she drew them in her notebook for the curious Dubai school students.

As they worked, other students discussed how many words are similar in Hebrew and Arabic, focusing on their similarities rather than their differences.

The energy in the room was electric, with students sitting huddled over papers together, sprawled across the floor, concentrating on their models, and generally getting to know each other.

“This is the day I was looking forward to the most out of the whole [six-day] trip,” 15-year-old Shachar said excitedly.

“So far it’s been really amazing, just getting to meet each other and getting to know each other,” her fellow PICO ambassador Matan chimed in.

Divided into six groups focusing on the three central issues, the high schoolers were given just under two hours to create theoretical solutions and prototypes to solve the problems they had been presented with.

First, they were instructed to empathize with the issue they were examining.

“You‘ve got to empathize with the challenge in order to see the next steps and solve the problem,” Alkobi explained.

Presented with a board, some pens, and a pile of post-it notes, the teams got to work.

“Start writing anything you can think of, and we’ll decide the best ideas afterward,” an Israeli teenager told her Emirati peer, before theorizing about whether water could be shipped to Earth from one of Jupiter’s moons.

The students did not shy away from the common problems met by those around them on a daily basis when it comes to water scarcity. Working together, they spoke about the difficulties of transporting clean water long distances, the difficulty that poverty creates when it comes to clean water access, and the way in which children in rural areas may have to spend several hours a day collecting water, instead of focusing on their education.

Sketching her ideas on the subject of water consumption, one Dubai student suggested a series of pipes that could transport water from richer areas, where there is often overconsumption of water, to poorer areas, where water scarcity is commonplace.

A second group, focusing their energy on agricultural demands and solutions, worked to create a prototype demonstrating their vision for a sustainable vertical farming solution. As one teen cut out intricate squares from a piece of paper with a craft knife in order to create a water filter, another two used wooden boards and a hot glue gun to form their miniature vertical farm.

“We want to mass-produce the system, but also keep it environmentally friendly somehow,” one of the teenagers explained. “We hope to use recycled plastic for it.”

NINETY MINUTES and several sticks of hot glue later, the groups gathered in the center of the hall once more, ready to watch their fellow makeathon participants present their projects.

Joining them now, along with Wurtman, were Ilan Sztulman, consul-general of Israel to Dubai; Robert Greenway, executive director of the Abraham Accords Institute for Peace; and the principal of one of the participating Dubai schools.

Along with their water scarcity solutions, the groups also showed off the colorful logo designs they had been working on, which focused on the common values they discovered that they all shared despite their multicultural backgrounds.

Following the presentations, Sztulman stood up to address the crowd, including the parents of the PICO Kids group who, unbeknownst to their children, had been invited to watch the ceremony via Zoom.

“I think you touched me. First of all, you’re the first young Israelis that have arrived as a group to do something together, and the fact that you have all these different nationalities here, I think that is really, really exciting,” he said to the group members, who, no longer divided by nationality or uniform, sat mingled freely, Israeli next to Emirati.

“Water is an issue that we’re going to have to face in this world very, very fast because climate change is coming, and climate change has no borders. There’s no difference between Israel, the Emirates, Russia, the United States – everyone is going to suffer from this, so the fact that you have crossed borders to think of the issues that are going to be relevant to all of us is a big thing,” Sztulman expanded, pinpointing the issue that the groups in the room had come together to solve.

“You’re making history,” he concluded, thanking all those who had worked to make the event possible.

Next to speak was Greenway, from the Abraham Accords Institute for Peace, who focused on the urgency of finding solutions to climate change in the Middle East, which is projected to be affected more significantly than other regions in the world.

“The problems that the generations in this room are facing exist because either they were inherited from our generation or because we manufactured new problems for you to solve,” he said wryly.

“I think the efforts of programs like this and your cooperation today have created real hope that those problems will in fact be solved, and they will because you’re finding ways now already coming to work together to come to a solution.”

Like Wurtman, he also expressed his hope that the delegation would be the first of many more delegations and cross-community projects, rather than a one-time event.

Last to address the group from where he joined them on Zoom was Wurtman himself, praising the vision shared by Dubai and Israel, one that sees the limitless potential of those who dream about the future and execute their visions.

“What we’ve done today, and what I hope to continue to do, is to bring together brilliant minds from across the region and across the world. Everyone in this room is an agent of change, and everyone has tremendous creative abilities.

“I’m from Jerusalem, and Jerusalem is very much the crossroads of the ancient world but also the modern world, and so is Dubai. And we are using this great opportunity of the Abraham Accords to bring people together.

“But for me, the most exciting opportunity is to bring youth together, people who feel natural to work together, to collaborate and to go out and make a real better world for all of us to enjoy together in the future.”

The writer was a guest of PICO Kids.