International Recognition of the Tel Aviv Brand: Going Global

A significant moment in the Tel Aviv branding story occurred in 2009 when Israel’s moniker was famously coined in the title of Senor and Singer’s book, The Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle. The book offered a compelling thesis: that Israel’s economic success was largely a result of mandatory military service and immigration, setting the resilience and ingenuity of immigrants settling in a new country within a framework of self-discipline and teamwork derived from the military. Fraiberg (2017) suggests that this resourcefulness and tech-savviness were heavily influenced by former members of the military’s cybersecurity corps, Unit 8200, from which many Israeli cybersecurity companies have emanated. But Tel Aviv is more than a techsavvy ecosystem of start-ups; it is “composed of an array of meetups, hackathons, lectures, training sessions, mixers, social media sites, conferences, co-working spaces, venture capitalists, angels, and accelerators” (Fraiberg 2017: 352.) What was happening in Tel Aviv around 2010 was a perfect storm of city making, city branding, international recognition, economic growth, and pointedly the tipping of interest for global investors looking for “unique combinations of audacity, creativity and drive” (Senor and Singer 2009: 11).

Tel Aviv’s global presence has been heavily supported by the national government, and there is an ongoing relationship with bilateral feedback and collaboration (Oren 2017). Supported by Tel Aviv Global & Tourism, a city-transformation exercise was instituted with the aim of expanding the city’s status as a global financial center by attracting domestic and foreign investment, large-scale real-estate capital, high-income knowledge workers, and international tourists. The Israeli government is well known for its efforts to support venture capital projects and programs by offering attractive tax incentives and investment matching (Yozma Group, an independent venture capital fund, originated as a government program). This was essentially the basis on which Tel Aviv’s economic growth was founded. It led to reduced city taxes for start-ups and a 50 percent discount for software firms. Currently, Tel Aviv has 1,450 start-up companies (out of 2,800 in the greater Tel Aviv metropolitan area); this equates to one start-up for every 290 residents — the highest per capita figure in the world (Oren 2017: 118).

Reviewing the Development of the Smart City Movement

Smart cities, digital cities, virtual cities, connected cities — these are terms used to describe contemporary urban environments that embrace technological innovations and ways of communicating, to positively impact and create efficiency in the lives of communities by involving sectors such as “transportation, civic entrepreneurship, democratic transparency, clean energy, and services provision” (Almirall et al. 2016: 141). The ideology behind these city descriptors is rooted in 1990s discussions of telecommunications, telematics, and information services (Graham and Marvin 1996), at a time when the internet was predominantly found in libraries, military units, and universities. Graham and Marvin’s original thesis proposed that “contemporary cities can only be understood as parallel constructions within both urban places and electronic space” (1996: 377) and that innovation in cities is “socially, politically and culturally shaped rather than being purely technical” (1996: 113). Nam and Pardo (2011: 283) offered their commentary of the smart city definition arguing that “[it] is not novel, but in recent years it has taken on a new dimension of using ICTs to build and integrate critical infrastructures and services of a city.” Graham and Marvin’s thesis, considered progressive 20 years ago, proposed an urban experience that relied heavily on a relationship between technology and infrastructure.

ICT and the City Experience

Batty et al. (2012: 483) claimed that “the term smart cities has many faces,” but, essentially, a smart city will aim to connect technologies that might normally be disconnected. A smart city is “a city in which ICT is merged with traditional infrastructures, coordinated and integrated using new digital technologies” (Batty et al. 2012: 481). Batty et al. retrained ICT as integral to the operational functioning of the city through its planning mechanisms and citizenry, using the city as a laboratory for innovation, using urban simulation for good design outcomes, developing technologies to ensure equity in the city, and developing digital platforms that can be accessed for widespread use (2012: 283). They advised that, in the future, city government and governance at every level will need to develop new frameworks that will account for, and give access to, information that a “contemporary citizenship now makes possible” (2012: 512). In other words, the dissemination of information from local governing bodies will need to keep pace technologically with their citizens if they want to remain relevant institutions. Almirall et al. (2016: 143) supported this, commenting that “governments have had to rethink themselves in many ways... [tjaking us from understanding Governments as providers of services, to thinking of them as data facilitators.” To do this, technology will not only be integrated; it will need to collect, measure, and monitor data and then make that data available to local government agencies (Coudounaris and Edwards 2017) as it will be integral to urban management strategy in understanding the people, and the places and spaces they experience that make up the city. Leszczynski (2016: 1694) refers to big data as:

a nebulous placeholder [characterized by] volume, variety, and velocity (the ‘three’ V’s) of continuous, real-time flows of information commensurate with the rise of content, the cloud, mobile computing, transactional capta, distributed sensor networks, and the digitization of records.

Pettit et al. (2018: 23) have also found that to be a smart city, the mechanisms that drive governance have had to embrace a new paradigm of people and place-making strategies in cities. They have had to think creatively about how best to use mass data-collecting techniques and analysis (big data) to inform what is really happening in city centers and within smaller neighborhoods, to “break down silos, spur innovation and embrace greater ICT connectivity.” Han and Hawken (2018) believe that how people experience a city has changed fundamentally and rapidly since the onset of personal ICT platforms and applications; these have contributed to a numerical and digital understanding of people and their city experiences through big data analytics. Recognizing the importance of both the human and numerical assets of a city, Gardner and Hespanhol (2018: 54) argue that the smart city characteristics which are “less talked about are the human-scale implications and user experiences” and that big data analytics has come to signify evidence-based decision-making about managing city-scale operations. Vallicelli (2018: 26) even argues that, as a result of the smart city movement, “digital technologies don’t only impact individuals: they are progressively integrated within administrative organizations for urban policies and design.” The smart city initiative discussed below demonstrates the integration of ICT and its power to harness ideas from a community and introduce them into policy and practice.

A Smart City Best Practice Model: Community Engagement

In 2011, Tel Aviv Municipality decided to take a chance on doing something different with residents. It wished to be more than an institution whose relationship with its city and residents was more than “tax collection or parking tickets, legislation, or top-down influence of policy decision” (Weinstein 2017: 160). It realized that “a kind of disconnect exists between what citizens think about the city and what they really think about the local municipality’s managerial-level relationships” (Weinstein 2017: 160). The only way to find out what citizens thought was to ask them.

Long before municipalities were talking about digital platforms or e-planning, de Jong critiqued local decision-making arguing that the “process [needed] to value qualitative data... to value local community opinion, perceptions, experiences and memories” (2002: 83). Van Waart et al. believed that, historically, discussions about the use of smart technologies were “catalysts for future city developments related to societal challenges” (2016: 709), but that since then a debate has surfaced that emphasizes the “voice of the citizen.” Over a three-month period, Tel Aviv Municipality conducted focus groups with over 150 residents from mixed neighborhoods and various stakeholder groups. The task was simple: it asked residents about their daily challenges as citizens of Tel Aviv and their relationships with various municipal departments. The municipality wanted to hear about the residents’ conflicts; the lack of, or need for, better services; how residents belong; and how they could be more easily connected to their local neighborhood and involved in making it better. Residents were asked about their travel patterns to and from work places, markets, and schools. This exercise was more than a query about the placement of new parks or vibrant streetscapes; it engaged with people’s homes, families, hopes, and aspirations as Tel Avivians, and most importantly their expectations of the municipality.

This was a rich, deeply involved, qualitative process that afforded Tel Avivians the opportunity to participate in a mass place-making exercise in which their commentary would be used to inform a new digital platform aimed at making their lives easier and more integrated with city missions and values and with their fellow residents. For example, the findings revealed a lack of support from the municipality to provide an affordable local beach-going experience: Tel Avivians expressed their discontent with the cost of parking near the beach, the cost of food in the cafes, and the cost of hiring beach equipment (e.g. lounges, chairs, umbrellas). Throughout the municipality, including the stretch of beach promenade, the Tel Aviv Municipality has enabled free Wi-Fi; this too was a significant resident need revealed in the findings.

The focus group technique would help frame the core of the Digi-Tel technology, well and truly, integrating what the municipality heard to create a citizen-led change in how the municipality would interact in the future with its citizens and create a reciprocal means for citizens to feed information back to the municipality. The findings from the focus groups, although originally designed as an exercise in improving and changing the culture of the municipality, was the springboard for an even bigger idea that would meet the needs of the citizens: Digi-Tel.

The chief knowledge officer of Tel Aviv Municipality, Zohar Sharon, essentially proposed a municipality-resident interface that would harness the knowledge of 9,000 siloed municipality workers and create a platform that would holistically address the needs of citizens. What was proposed was nothing new: the private sector had already been doing it. For the municipality, it was “a neo-liberal approach towards introducing e-democracy, the residents became clients of the city with open and free access to its multiple services” (Weinstein 2017: 160). The technology already existed; what Sharon and his team did was merely bring together the various silos of the municipality and use the information to create a citizen-centric approach to communicating with the municipality, providing resident-specific and needs-based information to users. Digi-Tel was not only a new model of digital infrastructure, but also a public start-up — the very essence of the Tel Aviv brand, both local and global.

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