How Smart Are Israel's Cities? It's Complicated

While Israeli municipalities increasingly embrace technology and innovation, no one’s figured out yet how cities should be run in the future.

Amitai Ziv
Amitai Ziv
Aerial photograph of the city of Modi'in, an example of homogenous Israeli architecture.
Aerial photograph of the city of Modi'in, an example of homogenous Israeli architecture.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
Amitai Ziv
Amitai Ziv

By 2014, New York City realized that pay phones had become an anachronism. That year the city launched a cooperative venture with large technology companies called LinkNYC, which replaced hundreds of pay phones with new Internet-enabled kiosks. Each kiosk provided superfast, free public Wi-Fi, phone calls, device charging and a tablet for access to city services, maps and directions.

What happened, however, is that homeless people began to hog the kiosks, and some were using them to watch pornography in public. In September, yielding to a stream of complaints, the city disabled the web-browsing feature.

This illustrates just part of the complexity of what’s being called the “smart city.” It’s a trendy term that mayors and anyone who deals with technology and urban planning like to use, but it’s also elusive. There are far more stories of failures and millions of dollars that went to waste, than there are of successes.

Research on the subject here in Israel has been done by the Knesset Research and Information Center, led by researcher Roy Goldschmidt. The research highlights the importance and urgent need to develop and implement new technological solutions for transportation, energy use, water, waste disposal and policing in a world of rapid urbanization – but it also raises questions and problems. Israel, as a start-up nation, “could be a place for testing, implementing and later exporting projects and technologies in the field,” Goldschmidt writes. But it’s hard to say that Israel is at the forefront of these fields.

What is a smart city? According to Goldschmidt, there is no single definition of the term, which is often used to brand and market cities. “There’s a definition that stressed the use of technological tools, like sensors and communication networks, to collect and monitor the information received from them to streamline urban processes and provide decision-makers with real-time reports.”

A “softer” definition, he writes, refers to municipal applications and digital platforms as tools to promote public involvement in decision making and transparency.

The Knesset study raises problems posed by the smart city, like perpetuating inequality. “While certain cities have difficulty supplying basic services to their residents, other cities offer advanced digital applications, innovate transportation solutions and more,” Goldschmidt writes. “It’s clear that there are gaps between the ability of cities to invest in technology and innovation, like parking sensors and lighting.”

Even among residents of the same city there are differences in ability to adapt and use technology, what is often referred to as the “digital divide.” Urban innovation, noted Goldschmidt, must be used to advance and enrich everyone.

The second challenge posed by smart cities is preserving privacy and preventing cyber attacks. “The growing use of products that make extensive use of sensors and extensive documentation of what’s happening around them, along with technologies like surveillance cameras, location-based information and the like – all these can be expected to create a situation that will even further challenge both privacy and cyber defense,” Goldschmidt writes.

Just a few weeks ago, security researcher Amihai Neiderman demonstrated at a security conference how he was able to hack Tel Aviv’s Wi-Fi network, Free_TLV. The Tel Aviv municipality has stated in the past that although the city is monitored by 160 surveillance cameras, these result in very few police calls – eight in 2013 and 15 in 2014.

A third problem with smart cities is the relationship between the municipalities and the technology suppliers, with Cisco, IBM, Motorola Solutions, Intel and Microsoft all players in the smart city technology arena. Too often it will be the supplier who dictates the solution, while there’s also the problem of being dependent on a single supplier. Goldschmidt says the way to reduce such dependence is by using open code systems that can interface with other systems.

A fourth challenge is connectivity. Smart cities need Internet infrastructures that are advanced, inexpensive and available. Advanced services based on video need heavy broadband access. The Communications Ministry, the Knesset report says, has already warned that the wide use of smart-city technology could lead to problems in conveying huge quantities of information on wireless infrastructure, which will make it necessary to lay fixed cables in the cities.

First steps

The Knesset reports surveys several smart-city experiments in Israel. Tel Aviv is promoting the DigiTel resident’s card, which offers residents discounts and relevant updates based on the resident’s location and personal interests. Holon has set up solar installations in the roofs of schools to produce electricity. Rishon Letzion and Givatayim have introduced smart systems to collect household waste, Haifa has a computerized system for street cleaning, and in Ashdod they’ve installed a control system for street lighting that it says saves hundreds of thousands of shekels a year.

In August, Bezeq launched an experimental project in Modi’in that it described as “a full urban management system with a range of municipal services, including parking and smart transportation, trash collection, lighting, free web browsing on the city’s streets, security cameras for a smart and safe city, monitoring of the water and sewage systems and more.”

For the second stage of the project, Bezeq turned to the mPrest company, which offers proven advanced command and control systems. It provided a solution that allows absolute computer-guided control that monitors a large number of sensors installed throughout the city, in schools, public institutions, municipal installations and public parks that convey information at all times and allow decisions to be made in real time. Mprest is a subsidiary of Rafael Advanced Weapons Sytems and GE; among its products is the command and control apparatus for the Iron Dome anti-missile system.

“The park in Modi’in is our playground for the smart city issue,” says Yaki Zano, Bezeq’s vice president for technology. “We are always adding smart city censors to more areas and more fields. At this point we have three suppliers for trash collection, three for lighting, and other fields like security and parking. Some of the solutions are our idea, while some come from requests by the municipality, which is part of the issue for us. The Modi’in municipality is allowing us to expand the pilot project by integrating into its information systems and into its “Modi’in in the Palm of Your Hand” app.”

Smart from the start

Rafi Rich, the CEO of SUiTs (Smarter Urban IT and Strategies), a smart-cities consulting firm, believes in smart cities but says there’s a long way to go in implementing the vision.

“Now everyone’s excited about the smart city,” he says. “It’s a little like sex among teenagers – everybody’s talking about it but no one is doing it. Control rooms with screens are nice, and make mayors ecstatic but in some cases the smart city is merely a combination of funding and desire to show that we’re ‘doing something.’

“DigiTel is an interesting move that’s based on an information systems department of 400 people – that’s a monster. Many cities are excited about the technology, but they don’t have the ability to manage it or its risks, as in cyber [security] and privacy. If you’ve installed sensors all over and are collecting information, but you can’t produce any insights from this information, then the money has gone down the drain. If you’ve built a system but the regulatory regime restrains, then another few million have gone down the drain.”

He explains: “Let’s take a city that has a serious problem with parking and public transportation, and the city wants to improve it. But in general cities have no say with regard to transportation, it’s all managed by the Transportation Ministry. If a municipality wants to streamline its waste collection and it adopts a smart garbage receptacle or an app that manages waste, but the sanitation company has a union, you think you’ll be able to streamline their work? Or if the sanitation company is an outside contractor and the contract with him is for five years – go tell them to pick up less trash.

“There are a few successes in the world that we can learn from, like in Boston, where they launched a municipal application that’s linked to all operations teams in the field, and some 400,000 of the city’s 700,000 residents use it. Two-thirds of the calls to the city hotline come through the app and they’re dealt with within three hours. In Israel, if you look outside Tel Aviv, maybe 1% of residents have installed the municipal app that the municipality spent good money developing.”

Rich recommends taking technological solutions in account from the start of the planning process, which he says is the only way to broaden the use of smart electricity grids and renewable energy. “I’m a partner in such a process now in Rova Hayam in Hadera, with an eye to what they want to do three years’ hence, when it’s much easier. The second thing is that in municipal tenders they must decide what the objective is, not what technology they want. If they want to reduce waste collection by 50%, that should be the measure – a measure of performance, not a specific technology.

“The third thing is that the process must be led by the decision-makers and not by the computer and IT people. The role of IT is to provide solutions and screen out bad solutions, but the demand has to come from the top. I also think that cities have to use models of trial and terror – to launch small pilot projects, say, with a budget of $5,000, and what doesn’t work, dump.”

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