Why you should care
Because cities don’t work as well as they need to.
Well-designed and professionally managed cities can be highly efficient at delivering big-scale services like transportation, energy, housing, food and medical care. When it comes to performing more granular civic functions, however, they can be sinkholes of waste — sanitation departments that dispatch more trucks than necessary because there’s no way to predict the daily volume of garbage; sprinklers on automatic timers that water city greenery while it rains; traffic lights that stop vehicles for no one …
The best way to address these efficiency problems, according to some planning experts, is to install and deploy an urban Internet of Things that crunches and shares data from a vast network of sensors. Robust R&D is underway in New York City, Beijing, London and other megacities, but some of the most promising technology is emerging from midsize centers like San Diego, Barcelona and, most especially, Tel Aviv, which has become one of the world’s fastest growing hubs for smart-city technology.
Probably between 30 percent and 40 percent of all startups in Tel Aviv are currently developing something that could have a smart-city application.
Eytan Schwartz, CEO, Tel Aviv Global
For starters, city leaders aggressively back the hometown effort. Tel Aviv Global, an economic development agency, is responsible for wiring 80 public locations with free Wi-Fi, including beachside hot spots, and providing support to the city’s 84 accelerator programs and 1,450 startups. One outfit, Green IQ, was launched in 2013 in part to tackle efficient water usage, which is mission critical to a desert-adjacent city like Tel Aviv but also crucial to any urban area trying to foster sustainable growth. The company’s primary product is the Smart Garden Hub, which cuts water consumption by as much as 50 percent. Think of it as a landscaping version of Nest: The system, which can be controlled via a smartphone app, tracks weather patterns and forecasts and adjusts in-ground drip irrigation accordingly. It’s now used to control irrigation on thousands of public and private properties both in Israel and internationally, and is being considered for implementation in smart-city projects around the world.
In Tel Aviv and elsewhere, security has become a central civic function. Magos Systems, a 2007 Tel Aviv startup that markets low-cost, low-energy-consuming radar systems that provide perimeter protection and detection, initially envisioned a military market for its products, but it now sells to cities that need to protect infrastructure, neighborhoods and public venues, as well as to the private sector to guard industrial sites. Magos has been listed in a tender for an Israeli smart-city project that’s still in development and currently protects what company biz-dev VP Gadi Bar-Ner calls “sensitive areas” throughout the country on behalf of the government and the military. Outside Israel, Magos has replaced dozens of security cameras with a handful of radar systems at car dealerships in the United States, salmon farms in South America and utility subcontractors around the world.
Tel Aviv gets its spirit of urban innovation honestly, considering that Israel is home to more startups per capita than anywhere else in the world, according to The Economist. An improbable factor in the spirit of ingenuity: mandatory national service. Most residents over the age of 18 spend two years in the military, which spurs many young startup founders to develop hardware that is rugged and reliable, two key features of smart-city infrastructure. “That is probably the most common path for startups in Israel,” says Magos’ Bar-Ner. “The experience [startup founders] acquire during military service contribute a lot to their ability to found, manage and enhance the capabilities of the companies they start.”
Tel Aviv’s incubator role is enhanced by the city’s manageable size. The metropolitan area, known as Gush Dan, is home to more than 3.5 million people, but the city itself has a population of just over 400,000. “Being a very small city makes things on a citywide level easier, more manageable,” says Eytan Schwartz, the CEO of Tel Aviv Global. “Probably between 30 percent and 40 percent of all startups in Tel Aviv are currently developing something that could have a smart-city application.”
One of the organization’s most successful projects to date — the DigiTel Residents Program — earned Tel Aviv honors as Best Smart City in the World during the Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona in 2014. The program, which is utilized by one-third of the city’s population, collects basic information — where residents live, family size and composition, how workers commute, what leisure activities they enjoy — and provides real-time information on everything from road repairs to weather alerts, as well as discounts and deals tailored to individual users’ interests.
Gil Rosen, the chief marketing and innovation officer of Bezeq, Israel’s largest telecommunications company, notes that the first smart-city technologies implemented in Israel have tended to be the ones with an immediate and measurable return on investment. “Scarcity of means is very important,” Rosen says. “Because municipalities in Israel have problems with funding, the money-saving part of smart cities appeals to them.” The ad hoc development of IoT infrastructure, however, eventually may pose problems when technologically complex and capital intensive pieces of the puzzle need to be developed.
Even without a master plan for the rollout of smart-city tech and funding that’s limited compared to what’s available in larger European and American startup centers, Tel Aviv leverages a unique set of advantages to keep punching above its weight class as it wires the city of the future.