Smart City: it all starts with a visionary Mayor

Tel Aviv

Smart city development is a question of when, not if –a question of how, not what. Why? Because we live in a world experiencing economic turmoil, climate change, aging populations, and rapid urbanization. But we also live in the midst of tremendous technological innovations that have the potential to address the major issues that challenge every city.

By Uri Ben-Ari

Smart cities are a future reality for municipalities around the world. These cities will use the power of ubiquitous communication networks, highly distributed wireless sensor technologies, and intelligent management systems not only to solve current and future challenges, but also to create exciting new services. Smart city officials will be essential visionary leaders who drive smart city progress using public-private partnerships to invest in scalable projects, smart regulation to connect city laws to new digital realities, and innovation clusters to create jobs and vibrant economies.

Every smart city program around the world started with a visionary mayor. No smart city program can succeed –or even begin– without a visionary and smart mayor.

Visionary mayors understand the benefits of transforming their city into a smart city. This transformation enables them not only to save costs and energy, but also to improve the quality of life of their citizens, improve environmental quality, and improve their city’s competitiveness to attract both new citizens and new businesses. It also reduces the churn rate of residents and businesses leaving the city.


Smart City Benefits

With the right planning and investment, government and municipal leaders can make our cities more livable, more workable and more sustainable – both economically and environmentally. According to the Smart Cities Council (SCC), enhanced livability means a better quality of life for city residents. In the smart city, people have access to a comfortable, clean, engaged, healthy and safe lifestyle. Some of the most highly valued aspects of such cities include inexpensive energy, convenient mass transit, good schools, faster emergency responses, clean water and air, lower crime, and easy access to diverse entertainment and cultural options.

Enhanced workability, according to the SCC, means accelerated economic development. Put another way, it means more and better jobs and increased local GDP. In the smart city, people have access to the foundations of prosperity –the fundamental infrastructure services that let them compete in the world economy. Those services include: broadband connectivity; clean, reliable, inexpensive energy; educational opportunities; affordable housing and commercial space; and efficient transportation.

Ashdod Monart2

Enhanced sustainability, according to the SCC, means giving people access to the resources they need without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Merriam-Webster defines sustainability as a method of using a resource so that it is not depleted or permanently damaged. When the SCC uses the term, it refers not only to the environment, but also to economic realities. Smart cities enable the efficient use of natural, human and economic resources and promote cost savings in times of austerity; as such, they are careful stewards of taxpayer dollars. It isn’t about investing huge sums of money in new infrastructure, it’s about making infrastructure do more and last longer for less. Life is better in a smart city – better for people and better for businesses.

What is a Smart City?

A smart city is a city that tackles these livability, workability and sustainability challenges, and seeks ways to overcome them. However, it does so not by the “old way” but rather with a smart city program. A smart city is one that uses information and communications technology (ICT) to enhance livability, workability and sustainability.

While widely used, the term “smart city” is a bit ambiguous. Some people choose a narrow definition –i.e. a city that uses ICT to deliver services to their citizens. Some prefer a broader definition: a smart city uses ICT to be more intelligent and efficient in the use of resources, resulting in cost and energy savings, improved service delivery and quality of life, and reduced environmental footprint –all supporting innovation and a low-carbon economy.

I would like to add that a smart city is not just about technology. Although technology is a core enabler in smart city planning and implementation, there are other models and methodologies that must be taken into consideration when drafting a smart city master plan.

A smart city is also a city that thinks smarter and more strategically – and that happens only when the mayor is smart, visionary and strategic.

Smart City Master Plan

Every city striving to become a smart city must have a master plan for accomplishing the relevant goals and objectives. Strategic in nature, the smart city master plan should include: an assessment of the city according to international smart city indicators; the city leadership’s vision, strategy and operational plan; and key performance indicators (KPIs) for measuring success.

Development and implementation of the master plan should be directed by a multi-disciplinary consultant who understands innovative smart city technologies, business processes and models, as well as municipal politics.


Smart City Initiatives

Many cities around the world have already invested in smart city initiatives –spending time and money researching, piloting and/or deploying discrete projects. The reasons for smart city investments vary by city, but they often begin with the need to reduce operational costs. High water costs from aging infrastructure may lead a city to invest in water sensors for rapid leak detection and repairs. Residents’ complaints about commute times or parking availability in central business districts can lead to investments in real-time traffic information systems, smart parking meters or parking sensors. Most cities are deploying these projects department by department, and using them to prove the business case for further investment. However, smart city initiatives require cross-department connections and scale to realize their full potential.

All of the known smart cities began their journey thanks to the vision of their mayors who showed the way and supported their teams in developing and implementing their smart city plans. This was the case with the mayors of Barcelona, London, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Santander, Vienna, Paris, Stockholm, Hamburg, Berlin, Helsinki and other known smart cities.

Additional examples of leadership can be seen in: the 100 Smart Cities initiative in India, which was initiated by current Prime Minster of India Narendra Modi; and the "What Works City Standard" for smart cities in the US, initiated by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

An analysis of smart city initiatives in Europe* shows the number of smart cities compared with the total number of cities in Europe according to size (inhabitants) of those cities.

Mapping Smart Cities in the EU

"Mapping Smart Cities in the EU" – European Parliament Directorate General for Internal Policies, Policy Department A: Economic and Scientific Policy, 2014

According to the same analysis, most cities implement only some of their smart city plans. On average, there are 4+ initiatives per city dealing with 2+ characteristics of a smart city (people, economy, environment, mobility, life, governance).


Mapping Smart Cities in the EU

"Mapping Smart Cities in the EU" – European Parliament Directorate General for Internal Policies, Policy Department A: Economic and Scientific Policy, 2014

Smart City Team and Leaders

When approaching this smart city challenge, many mayors transfer direct responsibility to their chief information officers (CIOs), since these mayors are sure that this is all about technology. That’s a big mistake. While technology is the enabler of a smart city, the plan must be strategic, taking into consideration many aspects of the city’s characteristics. The use of technology is merely part of the plan.

CIOs in many cities around the world are very talented, knowledgeable and creative. Many cities utilize advanced technologies to improve the quality of services to their citizens and to bring faster and more detailed information to decision-makers in city government. However, municipal CIOs are not usually the decision-makers when it comes to transportation, lighting, water, sewage, citizen engagement, or economic partnerships.

Therefore, in order to make a smart city master plan a success, the mayor has to lead the initiative, establish a smart city team that includes every relevant municipal division, and appoint a smart city chief to lead the team.

A well-designed smart city program is a strategic plan combined with multi-technology solutions. Such a smart city plan must be led by the mayor from its inception in order to have any chance of success.


Smart Cities in Israel

Israel, known as the “start-up nation” has thousands of innovative technological start-ups –such as Waze and Gett (formerly Get Taxi)– and numerous market leaders –such as Checkpoint, Teva and Netafim. Moreover, the country is known for many other unique patents, technologies and ventures in water management and solar energy.

Building on its technological prowess, the country has recently started to adopt the smart city concept. Mayors in Israel are beginning to understand the need for smart city master plans, and the possibilities that are open to them by implementing such programs.

The first mayor to adopt the smart city concept as a whole, and the first to hire a smart city strategy consultant to formulate its master plan (in 2012), was Meir Yitzhak Halevi of Eilat. Israel’s top resort city, with over 3,000,000 visitors annually, Eilat is the first city in Israel to derive over 70% of its daily electrical energy supply from renewable resources, in this case from solar energy. Recently Eilat won a grant from the European Union to establish an energy savings project in a model smart neighborhood within the city. All visitors to Eilat can enjoy free Internet access via Wi-Fi. The deputy mayor of Eilat, Eli Lankri, leads the smart city project in Eilat.

Meir Yitzhak Halevieli lankri

Left: Mayor of Eilat, Meir Yitzhak Halevi. Right: Deputy Mayor of Eilat, Eli Lankri


Many other Israeli cities are also on their way to becoming smart cities. In 2014, Tel Aviv, which is aiming to become a “global city,” won first place as a smart city award in the competition at the Smart City Expo in Barcelona. The cities of Jerusalem, Ashdod, Netanya and Rishon Lezion are planning smart city master plan “road maps,” and have hired smart city consultants to guide them through this process. Some other cities, such as Haifa and Holon, are leading, to the best of my knowledge, sporadic smart city initiatives, such as those covering Wi-Fi, environmental or transportation projects. Other cities in Israel are currently looking into smart city master plans, and soon will join the trend of becoming smart cities. Some cities have begun applying for EU Horizon 2020 Smart City funding, and there are more consortia between Israeli and European cities regarding that initiative.


Uri Ben-Ari has over 25 years of global business experience, including more than 10 years in top executive positions at public IT companies. Over the course of his career, he has undertaken senior management and business/market development activities in 17 countries across North America, Western Europe, Central and Eastern Europe, and Asia. Uri has extensively researched the smart city concept for more than three years, and has consulted with cities in Israel on their smart city master plans. Uri is also the founder and president of Athena Fund, a non-profit organization with a mission of empowering teachers in Israel by providing each teacher with a personal laptop computer and professional digital training.

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