The city of Tel Aviv has a sterling reputation as a smart city, using its influence as one of the world’s ‘techiest cities’ to drive digital initiatives that serve as a blueprint for other municipalities. It is also renowned as the epicenter of Israel’s startup ecosystem, tapping into the entrepreneurial spirit of its residents for urban development.
In 2014, the city was crowned the “World’s Smartest City,” besting 250 competing locations including London, New York, and Amsterdam at the Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. It remains a badge of honor and the city’s efforts for smart transformation have increased tenfold since then, striving for digital revolution.
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“Tel Aviv has a technological savvy-ness that is easy to implement. We’re using that technology as a tool to serve both residents and visitors. We want to be attuned to their needs,” says Eytan Schwartz, CEO of the city-sponsored Tel Aviv Global initiative, a project started by the Tel Aviv Mayor’s Office in 2010 dedicated to elevating the city’s global position as a business center of innovation and entrepreneurship, and as a magnet for foreign companies, startups, visitors, and students from all over the world.
Schwartz spoke to NoCamels on the sidelines of the DLD Tel Aviv 2018 Digital Conference this week, where he moderated the “Tel Aviv Smart City” panel. The event is an annual two-day conference highlighting Israel’s prominent tech scene that is part of a four-day festival considered one of the largest high-tech meetups of the year.
Schwartz and a team of municipality leaders, which include Lior Meyer, deputy CEO (marketing and communications) for Tel Aviv Global, Liora Schechter, chief information officer of the Tel Aviv municipality, Yaron Klein, CEO of Atarim municipal corporation, and Avi Tamir, co-CEO of the CityZoom Innovation Community, took the panel at DLD to to highlight four projects that they say are accelerating the digitization of the city and enhancing its image.
The DigiTel network
Tel Aviv’s personalized digital communications network DigiTel, launched five years ago, is a project Schwartz calls the “crown jewel” of municipality’s efforts to establish Tel Aviv as an urban innovation leader.
Though the network has been around for some time, its current goal is to “build up a database of content” that will engage both tourists and residents and help them get the most out of their city in a digital capacity, he explained. The Tel Aviv Smart City booklet says over 250 municipal employees from different departments feed data into the DigiTel platform in order to update users on services and information relevant to them.
The DigiTel platform also caters to visitors through the city’s mobile app, serving as a virtual tour guide with notifications of cultural events and recreational activities around the city. The municipality says it wants tourists to experience Tel Aviv like locals, and they can even get a customized look at what to do in the city by creating a personal profile.
“We want to create a personal discussion with people,” Meyer says, “If something is going on in the city, why shouldn’t they know about it?”
DigiTel Residents’ Club and City Card
The DigiTel communication platform has also been enhanced further for city residents according to chief information officer Liora Schechter. Residents, starting at the age of 13, can sign up to be members of the DigiTel club and use a special city smart card for discounts on city services as well as cultural, musical, and sports events. They also get customized digital services (including special services for parents and dog-owners) and a unique personalized service that provides important information about the city through emails and text messages (including citywide events, street closings, and construction.)
The municipality has been adamant about opening municipal databases to the public. When this first happened, the city even launched a competition where residents could develop mobile apps for public use based on the open databases. Schechter says the move was a tactic to make encourage residents’ proactive participation. With a profile, residents can actively participate in the improvement of their own neighborhood, municipal services and projects, and become involved in the dialogue about the management and design of various areas of the city.
The municipality says over 60 percent of Tel Aviv residents are registered to the service.
Tel Aviv’s most important asset
The city’s Mediterranean coastline is one of its most important aspects, and its digitization is vital to the transformation of the city, says Yaron Klein, CEO of Atarim, a state- and municipality-owned corporation engaged with the planning and development of tourist and recreation sites, art and cultural compounds, leisure areas, and other elements that promote tourism in Tel Aviv.
Klein says the beach, which runs 14 km north to Herzliya and south to the suburb of Bat Yam, needs to be “smart” because it has over 9 million visitors a year.
“It’s our biggest asset,” Klein says, and points out that while much has already been done to enhance its design, with further construction on its boardwalk, the installation of bike lanes on the shoreline, and the upgrading of facilities like the marina and Gordon Pool, there is still much to be done.
“The coast has become the city living room, but it has also become the workplace, where business decisions are made,” he said. It’s more than just setting up wifi on the beach, though he emphasizes that Tel Aviv has the widest wireless distribution of any Israeli city, with 80 connection zones.
Klein says the Old Jaffa Port, the ancient port of the city of Jaffa that has blossomed into a modern mix of trendy restaurants and boutiques, art galleries, hip bars, and local fisherman, is the focal point of the new plans. The idea is to bring local companies to the area by setting up startup hubs and using the port’s resources including its 10KW R&D power station developed by Israeli company Eco Wave Power, which developed technology to extract energy from ocean and sea waves and convert it into electricity.
Smart city hub
Startup hubs and shared workplaces in Tel Aviv-Yafo are everywhere. According to Avi Tamir, co-CEO of the CityZoom Urban Innovation Community providing a support platform for planning and cooperation between government officials, local municipalities, investors, academics and multinationals, the municipality is also investing in the establishment of accelerators, labs, incubators, and shared workspaces, in an effort to create value for startups operating in the Smart City sector.
Tamir established a partnership with Barak Goldstein of the Kiryat Atidim high-tech park in north Tel Aviv to make the location the city’s official Smart City hub. The Israeli government has also allocated about NIS 2.5 million ($689,000) to a national program to help make cities in Israel and around the world smarter, starting with Tel Aviv.
During the panel, Tamir mentioned the city’s plans for a comprehensive system for open innovation and highlighted the municipality’s efforts to work with the high-tech community, leveraging the number of foreign and Fortune 500 companies setting up shop in the city.
Other cities are watching
Tel Aviv-Yafo’s groundbreaking digital transformation is steadily improving and cities around the world are taking notice, the panelists said. During the discussion, Tamir noted that Tel Aviv’s smart city zone project bringing hubs, labs, and workplaces, has already reached an agreement with the city of Berlin, which wants to partner with local startups, though he wouldn’t go into details about the deal.
Schwartz also noted that Thane, a metropolitan city just outside of Mumbai, India has taken an interest in the municipality’s DigiTel platform and wants to use it for its own area.
“We are very proud to be an example to other cities around the world,” Schwartz said, “This is one project where we find the combination of technology and the understanding of basic human needs blends perfectly for us and does something special for the people in Tel Aviv.”