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Making Auckland a smart and global city

Ten months after taking office, Phil Goff will, this month, finally present his vision for Auckland.

It is hard to recall the impact previous vision statements, from previous mayors, have had.

Yes, Len Brown coined the term “World’s most liveable city” but Auckland’s traffic nightmares put a sizeable dent in that one.

Do these visions/slogans/brand identities even matter?

Well, according to one of the world’s leading “city makers” they do. So does the mayor.

Hila Oren has played a key role in positioning Tel Aviv as a globally-recognised city and says “The mayor is vital. They are the leader of the city, they must pick a great team and back them, give them an opportunity to make the city great.”

Oren is in New Zealand this week to talk about how Tel Aviv turned itself into a city of global significance, a city with clout.

Her visit was sponsored by a New Zealand-owned bank, a South Island construction company, a marketing company and ATEED.

Oren, who started her own successful company at the age of 25 was hired by Tel Aviv’s Mayor Ron Huldai to come up with a story, or a brand, for Tel Aviv.

“We were a wannabe city, we wanted to be recognised globally but we didn’t know what our USP, our unique selling point, was. We thought it was hi-tech, but that was wrong. We thought about fashion, we thought about our beach culture (Tel Aviv has 14 kilometres of pristine beaches) but it wasn’t until Saul Singer (a local journalist) wrote his book Start Up Nation that it clicked, we were the start-up city!”

Phil Goff’s vision will likely include innovation and technology but might not embrace the creativity of Tel Aviv. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Singer’s book on why Israel produces so many entrepreneurs became an international best seller and Tel Aviv has put its shekels where its mouth is.

There are currently 1000 start-ups in Tel Aviv and countries including Australia, New Zealand, France and China have beaten a path to Tel Aviv’s landing pads (special places where start-ups are accommodated and helped) to see how it is done.

Start-ups pay lower taxes but, according to Oren, the biggest thing has been creating an environment where it is OK to fail.

“Failure is just a chance to learn. I think in New Zealand you have a culture where this is not so OK? We are culturally different to a lot of countries and that gives us some advantages.”

Part of that cultural difference was subtly illustrated during my interview with Oren at ATEED’s office in downtown Auckland.

When we were offered tea or coffee she asked for hot water with honey. Our slightly bemused host suggested there might not be any honey. Oren replied “Well, just see. It is OK if you don’t.”

“Well you need to decide what you want to be – a global city, a cosmopolitan city or an international city, they are all different things – then minimise the red tape and truly collaborate. Proper collaboration means things can be done faster and that’s really important or you get left behind in the race.” 

Israelis, she told me later, “are never afraid to ask for things – anything, I think a New Zealander would be too polite. And Israelis are not worried by the answer, we just adapt.”

Oren says that to break into the ranks of the World’s top 20 cities, she and her team went in search of best practice.

“There is no need to re-invent the wheel, we just took the good ideas from other cities and did them fast. For instance, in 2010 I went to New York and saw co-working spaces for the first time and thought we need something like this.”

Huldai, who has been Mayor since 1998, backed the plan and, according to Oren, cut through the red tape.

“Six months later we had our first one, in an old library building.”

When I tell Oren “we have those too” she replies, “but not seven years ago and I bet it takes more than six months to get one. City makers have to cut through the red tape.”

Advice for Auckland then?

“Well you need to decide what you want to be – a global city, a cosmopolitan city or an international city, they are all different things – then minimise the red tape and truly collaborate. Proper collaboration means things can be done faster and that’s really important or you get left behind in the race.” 

“It is sometimes hard (for councillors and council officers) to put ego aside but if they do then you can get a result, the ego can come back in at the end and claim success if something works.”

Oren says open data is transforming life in Tel Aviv.

"A smart city knows how to listen to its residents, with their needs, their family’s needs and the needs of their neighbourhoods.”

The city has free Wifi and most citizens have what’s called a “digital card”, a sort of online profile, that allows them to receive tailored information from the municipality.

“We know where they live, how old they are, how many children they have and even what they earn. We can then give the stuff that makes their lives easier.”

The digital card holders can also use an app to source cheaper parking and other benefits like discounted show tickets that the city has bought in bulk.

“And it allows us to get real time feedback from people. A smart city knows how to listen to its residents, with their needs, their family’s needs and the needs of their neighbourhoods.”

I put it to Oren that privacy concerns would be an issue in New Zealand and her reply again illustrates the cultural differences between the two countries.

“Israelis aren’t so bothered about privacy. Perhaps external threats to our security play a part and everybody knows everyone's salary anyway.”

The digital card idea is being taken up by some major Indian cities and Tel Aviv is now working on a “digital currency” called PubliCoin.

So how could Auckland get a jump on other smaller cities with global aspirations? Where is Tel Aviv heading next?

Oren says it is all about the “attracting the creative class”.

“Everyone is doing technology; human talent is the big thing now. You have to hug the talented ones.”

“Tel Aviv has an average of 60 cultural events every day, we are now one of the world’s most creative cities.”

It is a fair bet that Phil Goff’s vision will include innovation and technology but could Auckland embrace the “creative” future that Tel Aviv thinks will sustain its rise in the ranks? 

Who knows, but according to Oren it is the soft things like social cohesion and creativity that will, in the end, define the world’s best cities – not infrastructure.

Oh, and for the record, ATEED did have some honey for her hot water. I asked her if she was as impressed by this as I was.

“Not really, everybody in Tel Aviv has honey and olive oil in their hot water – it is the latest thing.”

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