Tel Aviv provides free citywide Wi-Fi. Photo by Kfir Sivan/Tel Aviv Global
Tel Aviv provides free citywide Wi-Fi. Photo by Kfir Sivan/Tel Aviv Global

Imagine a city so smart it can guide you to a parking spot, tell you when the bus is coming, turn on street lights and collect trash according to need, and alert you to water leaks and air-pollution pockets.

All this and more is already happening in forward-thinking municipalities that have invested in Internet of Things (IoT) infrastructure, and there is much Israeli ingenuity driving this trend.

From the tech side, Israeli R&D teams of major multinationals including Intel, Cisco, Motorola and Microsoft are developing the sensors and apps that enable constant and automatic data transfer among interconnected systems. Countless smaller Israeli companies are innovating smart-city technologies, often in tandem with the larger players.

From the implementation side, Tel Aviv was named the world’s smartest city at the 2014 Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona, beating out 250 other contenders for first prize.

Tel Aviv, the world’s smartest city

Smart parking, free citywide Wi-Fi, a municipal geographic information system and other digital innovations are only part of the reason Tel Aviv won this honor, says Michelle Sofee, urban affairs coordinator for Tel Aviv-Yafo (Jaffa).

“In the world of local governments and smart cities, there’s a debate between the approach that values technical infrastructure and hardware and the approach that values using this technology as a means for improving the lives of citizens,” Sofee tells ISRAEL21c.

“Most cities take the first approach because it’s a lot easier to put up a bunch of cameras, smart sensors and smart lighting than to use this technology to open a forum for your citizens to engage you with their ideas, comments and complaints. In Tel Aviv, we’ve taken the path of engagement and even pioneered this approach.”

Two years ago, Tel Aviv introduced Digi-Tel Club cards for residents 13 and older. Based on personal information provided during registration, club members receive customized emails and/or text messages connecting them with municipal services, alerting them to traffic tie-ups along their usual route, reminding them of school events and offering relevant discounts on goods and services, among other features.

“It’s not just about infrastructure for smart parking, transportation, tourism, sustainability and efficiency,“ says Hila Oren, founder and CEO of Tel Aviv Global, a company affiliated with the Tel Aviv-Yafo municipality.

“Smart cities must use the infrastructure to listen to all their residents and offer them tools for civic engagement.”

Since making headlines in Barcelona, Tel Aviv has hosted groups from Amsterdam, Mexico, Peru, Warsaw, Rwanda, Prague, the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard and City University of London to demonstrate how Israel’s second largest municipality runs its smart-city program.

“We’re now sharing our knowledge with cities including Paris, London and New York,” says Oren. “Beyond the startup nation, we can be a strong model for others as smart-city mentors.”

Jerusalem the smart

On May 6, Jerusalem City Hall hosted the finale of the “#JerusalemApp Smart City Contest,” which drew 172 app ideas for improving transport and urban infrastructure; tourism, recreation and culture; access to municipal services; city appearance; and enhancements for the Yerushalmi residency card.

The app contest welcomed ideas for advancing Jerusalem’s smart-city status.
The app contest welcomed ideas for advancing Jerusalem’s smart-city status.

Checks for NIS 20,000 each went to Playkers, an app enabling amateur athletes and field owners to organize neighborhood sporting events; Check In, an app for ordering hotel services via smartphone; SmartBus, an app that provides instant price comparisons for hiring buses for events; NOP, a local navigation app; and Yerushalmi+, helping holders of the residents’ card geo-locate discounts at neighborhood businesses while providing user data to the city for targeted urban planning.

Yerushalmi+ is being developed by ZenCity, a new Tel Aviv startup whose first app, Alternative, is beginning a year-long pilot in Tel Aviv to serve a similar dual purpose: to help users make smart transportation decisions while simultaneously building a database of information for the city to better understand public transport usage and how to encourage more people to use it.

ZenCity CTO Ido Ivry believes Israel has a major role to play in smart-cities technology. “In the Israeli high-tech scene, our data-analytics companies are amazing, and data is where we will influence the smart-city revolution,” he tells ISRAEL21c.

Intel inside

Smart cities are a core area of interest for the new Intel IoT Lab in Haifa, Intel Israel’s Guy Bar-Ner tells ISRAEL21c.

Intel is integrating its technology with innovations from several established and startup Israeli companies for specific projects: In Tel Aviv, to add smart elements to the Tel-O-Fun bike-rental program and the Woosh Water network of drinking-water stations; and to establish smart gas stations that will recognize your car, pump it full of the right kind and amount of fuel, and take payment automatically.

“We work with the companies and make sure we have an end-to-end solution based on Intel technology, and then we help them go to market abroad in smart cities like San Francisco, Barcelona and London,” says Bar-Ner.

“Israel’s place is front and center in this revolution because we’re seeing hundreds of companies that are active in the IoT space or want to get into it, and on top of that we have a large, thriving development community for hardware and software. From Intel Israel’s perspective, we want to harness that goodness and funnel it to where it’s needed.”

Steve Elbaz, business development and innovation manager at the Israeli branch of the France-based multinational Schneider Electric, tells ISRAEL21c his company is involved in more than 200 smart-city projects around the world in the areas of energy, mobility, water, public services and buildings.

Elbaz says each city must identify its particular needs and bring together partners from the public and private sector to collaborate on integrating a variety of technologies linked to a single dashboard for efficiency and optimal data collection and analysis.

“You also need to add innovation, and this is a strength of Israel,” Elbaz says.

“Israeli technologies, like smart heating-ventilation-air-conditioning systems that can bring energy efficiency to a house, can be moved to the macro level. If you have a municipal water leak, you can figure out exactly where to shut off water through sensors connecting to cloud-based software. With cameras installed around the city as we have in Jerusalem, you can identify dangerous roads and figure out why they’re dangerous, and then make changes.”

Smart parking is a cornerstone of any smart city, given that about one-third of urban traffic results from drivers circling around looking for parking.

Israel is the home of many advances in smart parking, with apps and technologies including ParkoPango,  AnagogHi-ParkSpaceek and Polly The Parking Fairy.