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Municipal innovation teams tackle social, economic challenges in Israeli cities

Local ‘i-teams’ use tools developed by Bloomberg Philanthropies to boost civic renewal, effect change with limited resources, in partnership with Peres Center, Interior Ministry

Ricky Ben-David is The Times of Israel’s Startups and Business editor and reporter.

People sit alongside the Bat Yam promenade on March 4, 2017. (Issac Harari/Flash90)
People sit alongside the Bat Yam promenade on March 4, 2017. (Issac Harari/Flash90)

A running initiative designed to boost civic innovation in selected cities across Israel has become a “critical” part of municipal operations, according to Tzvika Brot, mayor of the central city of Bat Yam.

Bat Yam is one of a dozen cities taking part in a program called Hazira (arena in Hebrew), a partnership between Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable arm of former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, and the Israeli Interior Ministry, that offers grants and resources for municipalities to set up innovation teams (i-teams) tasked with addressing each city’s unique challenges.

A city of about 160,000 residents bordering Tel Aviv to the south, Bat Yam has an attractive shoreline but suffers from a lack of vacant land for development, longstanding financial issues, and demographic challenges such as an aging population and a large immigrant community.

The i-team quickly got to work tackling issues like city cleanliness and elderly care, issues that residents themselves set as priorities based on in-depth research and survey work, Brot told The Times of Israel in a recent interview.

Brot, a Bat Yam native, assumed office in 2018 following a career in journalism and political consulting. “When I started [the mayoral term], I found chaos; great people but little organization and original thought, and a lot of programming,” he said.

Hazira, launched in Bat Yam in 2019, “gave us a huge boost and introduced data-driven thought and decision-making,” said Brot.

The Hazira initiative builds on Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Innovation Teams (i-teams) program, first launched in 2011, to drive innovation in municipal operations and help cities tackle issues such as poverty, neighborhood revitalization, and aging infrastructure on a local government level. Over 40 cities across the world have taken part in the program including Toronto, Austin, Baltimore, and Detroit. This summer, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced new partnerships and grants to set up i-teams in Amsterdam, Mexico City, Bogota, and San Francisco, among others.

In Israel, a number of cities have been selected to take part in the two-year program including Bat Yam, Ashdod, Acre, Eilat, Bet Shemesh, Netanya, Sakhnin, and the region of the Western Negev, as part of an expanded launch of the initiative rolled out in late 2019. Bloomberg Philanthropies had already been working with Jerusalem and Tel Aviv since 2015 and Beersheba since 2017.

Participants at an event on September 4, 2019 at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation to launch the Hazira program with Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Israeli Interior Ministry. (Efrat Sa’ar)

Hazira works with the municipalities to hire a chief innovation officer who works alongside a dedicated team of city employees — the i-team — and receives technical assistance and support to start implementing changes. The program helps map each city’s innovation strategy with specific examples to improve residents’ lives.

“Cities have to find creative ways to address complex challenges with limited resources,” said former mayor Bloomberg in a statement during the program’s launch. “Innovation teams help them do that, and our program has had a lot of success working with cities in Israel.”

In Tel Aviv, the i-team tackled the high cost of living for young families with solutions that included shared study spaces, peer-to-peer tutoring, youth-led summer camps, and an affordable school lunch program. The team also took steps to improve the quality of life for residents of Neve Sha’anan, a neighborhood that is rather isolated from the rest of the city. The i-team helped to set up a hub for entrepreneurial organizations and launch a new youth center with educational, cultural, and sports programming for adults as well as kids.

The Tel Aviv municipality’s new entrepreneurship center in the city’s southern Neve Shaanan neighborhood on October 24, 2017. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

The i-team in Beersheba secured grants to help small- and medium-sized businesses in the city. And in Jerusalem, the i-team helped some 600 entrepreneurs receive consulting services to strengthen their small businesses, secured $620,000 in funding from city hall to back alumni programs and civic organizations for young professionals, and helped create a service delivery model that connects homeless youth to social services, according to organizers.

Brot said issues like cleanliness don’t immediately evoke innovative thought, but this is where the i-team’s strengths lie.

“When you think about something like cleanliness, which every city deals with, it’s hard to think of innovation at the same time. But our team conducted extensive research and involved the public, and came up with new initiatives to tackle the issue,” said Brot.

The mayor explained that existing solutions like preventative measures and littering fines were not really working, and affected people in various age groups differently, according to the i-team’s research. The team asked “a lot of questions” to set priorities and engaged in a public awareness campaign that drew in younger people, “and we saw an immediate effect; people cared more,” Brot said.

An aerial view of the coastal town of Bat Yam. October 11, 2013. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

As mayor of a city with the largest population of people over 65 years of age in Israel, Brot said a huge challenge is to provide quality care for the aging population while also aiming to draw in a younger people and families. The team is working on short-term and long-term solutions to “find the balance,” said Brot.

The i-team in Bat Yam is made up of six people from different sectors and has become so popular that different municipal divisions have asked team members for help “even for small things,” the mayor said.

“The innovation work permeates into other areas and has become critical for our city. It’s a small team that can be very agile, effective, and quick-thinking — like an elite military unit,” Brot said.

People on the Bat Yam promenade on March 4, 2017. (Isaac Harari/Flash90)

Bat Yam has asked for a one-year extension to the program, the mayor said.

The general idea of the program is “to help local government become more creative problem-solvers” that can “meet their residents’ needs in tangible ways,” said James (Jim) Anderson, head of Government Innovation at Bloomberg Philanthropies.

“The i-teams use data and new information to allow mayors to better see their communities and make better policy decisions while building trust,” he told The Times of Israel in a recent call from New York. Anderson visited Israel in September to meet with participating Israeli mayors and Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked.

“Municipalities play a key role in the lives of residents: from education, culture, quality of life, public spaces, and so on,” said Sderot Mayor Alon Davidi. The southern city, near the Gaza border, is one of the municipalities participating in the Hazira program as part of the Western Negev Regional Cluster, made up of nine local authorities with a total population of about 230,000.

A boy rides his bicycles past a painted concrete bomb shelter placed in a public park in Sderot on July 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The four member cities include Rahat, the largest Bedouin city in Israel, as well as Sderot, Netivot and Ofakim, three historically disadvantaged “development towns” created in the 1950s for Middle Eastern immigrants. The cluster also includes five regional councils, with more well-off rural communities. The area has been subject to numerous rocket attacks from the Strip.

“This is the first time nine different areas of different sizes and with different populations made up of Jews and Arabs, both secular and religious, are taking part in the program. We weren’t sure it was going to work, but it works great,” said Davidi.

In the Western Negev, the i-team is tackling mobility and connectivity to major arterial roads and public transportation services. The area is served by just one train station, in Sderot.

The Bedouin city of Rahat in southern Israel, on April 8, 2019. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

“To succeed, we need this type of collaboration, it brings people together. There should be more of a focus on regionality and letting regional leaders make more important decisions. This is extremely valuable,” Davidi told The Times of Israel.

Anderson said the program rests on the belief that “people go into local government to make their communities stronger, and there is an awareness that they need the resources to tackle big challenges.”

“Local governments are the last mile for delivery on every issue that matters. What mayors and local governments do matters a great deal,” Anderson concluded.

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