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Tel Aviv has won acclaim for its resident-friendly e-cards, while Beer Sheva is fast becoming a global center for cybersecurity

Deborah Danan
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Tel Aviv has already won the distinction of being the city with the highest concentration of startups per capita anywhere.

Tel Aviv. More accelerators and incubators than any financial capital in Europe, but also a town that reaches out to its residents Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Now it is also blazing a trail as one of the worlds leading smart cities. 

In 2014, Tel Aviv beat out 250 other localities to bag the World Smart Cities Award at the Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona.

While Tel Aviv has more accelerators and incubators than any other financial capital in Europe, that is not what makes it a smart city.

In the urban sense, smart means something else: Its about enhancing the experience of residents by harnessing technology for their benefit –  to make the city accessible for all, increase civic involvement, and promote energy-efficient infrastructure, among other things.

The 2014 award was granted to Tel Aviv in recognition of the citys efforts in digitization, and in particular its flagship platform, DigiTel.

The idea behind DigiTel was to serve as an unfettered connection between the city and its residents. Citizens (voluntarily) upload personal information, habits and preferences that enable the platform to interact with them in a personalized way. For example, someone living on Ben-Gurion Boulevard will receive an alert – by email or text – ahead of planned road works on that street. Fans of the theater can receive last-minute two-for-one tickets to HaBima Theater. A Tel Aviv parent will be told when registration for kindergartens begins, and so on.

In the three years since its launch, 150,000 residents have signed up – that is every second household. Other cities are looking into adopting the program as well.

It was Zohar Sharon, chief knowledge officer at the Tel Aviv municipality, who conceived the idea of a residents card in 2012. When were talking about a digital world theres a tendency to think only of technology. Yet technology is not the marker of whatmakes it a success. Technology is only the enabler, says Sharon, who is, perhaps not surprisingly, not a tech person but a social worker by training.

Sharon was able to win the cooperation of some 300 municipal employees who provided the DigiTel system with relevant updates from their respective departments. 

This called for a change in attitude and organizational culture. Employees began to understand that the notion of knowledge is power – whereby each person hordes his knowledge – was obsolete and that for the platform to be successful knowledge needed to be shared and open, explains Sharon.  

Nor did the additional efforts by city employees cost the taxpayer money, because they did this without pay. Personal and professional fulfillment, coupled with a feeling of self-esteem and working for the greater good go much farther than a raise in salary, says Sharon, explaining how he won the cooperation of city employees.

Such knowledge-sharing and transparency has been key in improving all departmental practices, says Eytan Schwartz, CEO of Tel Aviv Global.

For example, were better now at irrigation. Weve increased the absolute size of green spaces while decreasing water usage, Schwartz notes.

Other initiatives aimed at making the city smarter include free citywide Wifi – even at the beach – and opening municipal databases to the public to foster resident-oriented government.

City smarts spill over into the private sector too. According to Schwartz, one third of Tel Avivs 1,500 startups deal with smart city applications in the broader sense of the term, i.e. by making city life easier, with apps like the taxi service Gett or Google-owned GPS platform Waze.

And for smart city startups in Tel Aviv, the future just got even brighter with the announcement of a new project aimed at allowing entrepreneurs to test their technologies in a real setting.

Calling it an urban municipal beta site for smart city practices, Schwartz says the project is the only one of its kind in the world.

Got a new app you want to try out? A new parking service? Lighting tech? Well allow that in a specific part of the city, Schwartz says.

The project, which is in the initial stages of planning, is slated to be launched in 2017 in conjunction with an academic institution.

Cybercapital in the desert

When it comes to smart cities, Tel Aviv shares the spotlight with a less evident contender: Beer Sheva The capital of the Negev desert is slated to become a global hub of cybertechnology.

Be'er Sheva's CyberSpark. Striving to become a global leader in cybersecurity Credit: Michael Doron

The massive relocation of the Israel Defense Forces prestigious technology units from Tel Aviv to Beer Sheva is bringing highly skilled cyberexperts to the Negev.

Then there is the presence of Ben-Gurion University with its graduate program in cybersecurity and Cyber Security Research Center.

Top that off with the companies such as EMC, Deutsche Telekom, Paypal, Oracle, IBM, and Lockheed Martin, which have decided to set up shop in Beer Sheva, and add to that the governments contribution through the Israel National Cyber Bureau (INCB) in the Prime Ministers Office. The result is a mammoth concentration of expertise from diverse sources in one city – much of it to be centered in a national cyberpark.

Launched in 2014, this hub called CyberSpark – the new Israeli Cyber Innovation Arena is a joint venture of the Israel National Cyber Bureau, Beer Sheva Municipality, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and leading companies in the cybersecurity industry.

 Academia, industry and government have joined together to represent much more than one plus one plus one is three, says Roni Zehavi, CEO of CyberSpark. 

A veritable cyberuniverse, CyberSpark gathers constellations of leading multinational corporations, governmental and military units, startups, centers of R & D, incubators, and specialized centers of training all in geographical proximity, creating a cyberecosystem that is unparalleled anywhere.

CyberSpark Industry Initiative, spearheaded by EMC, JVP, BGNegev and Lockheed-Martin, is a non-profit that aims to maximize the potential of that ecosystem.

Collaboration between those stakeholders will enhance Beer Shevas cyber ecosystem, Zehavi explains, adding that cybersecurity is the locomotive that is going to be the engine of opportunity for the region.

The park contains two buildings – already filled to capacity – and when its complete there will be a total of 10. Fifty companies have set up shop at CyberSpark and it  has just closed a deal with three multinationals – Zehavi declined to disclose anything more than that the three are an American, Canadian and European firm. Government incentives for companies to join the park include a 20 percent tax discount on every employee for nearly seven years.

CyberSpark has hosted delegations from companies with a net worth of $1.2 trillion and the one thing they all have in common, says Zehavi, is the need for cybersecurity solutions.

The transformation of Beer Sheva into a global city would enhance the entire Negev in every way, from healthcare, transportation, welfare, and general quality of life, adds Zehavi.

Having such a cybercluster will spill over into other areas, he adds, ultimately galvanizing the city to be smarter in a whole range of spheres including finance, transportation, aviation, manufacturing and industry, healthcare and utility infrastructure. 

Jerusalem has also made strides in evolving into a smart city. Last year TIME ranked it Number One for emerging tech hubs around the world.

Like Tel Aviv, Jerusalem has also opened its municipal databases to the public. Last year the municipality of Jerusalem held #JerusalemApp Smart City Contest, inviting entrepreneurs and programmers to develop apps aimed at improving urban infrastructure for Jerusalem residents. That spurred 172 registered apps.

Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are also the first cities outside of the United States to receive funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, through its Innovation Teams grants. The program promotes the development of innovative solutions to urban issues, including affordable housing, congestion, infrastructure and immigrant absorption.