Digital vs. analogue at Habitat III meeting on civic engagement

With Israel home to a red-hot tech scene, digital options for public engagement dominated most — but not all — of the Tel Aviv-hosted thematic meeting.

Habitat III Secretary-General Joan Clos addresses the Tel Aviv thematic meeting on civic engagement. “Civic engagement is about the roots of democracy,” he said. “It’s about the personal rights of humans to have a say in their everyday life and the form of urbanization.” (Greg Scruggs)

TEL AVIV-YAFO — What is the best way for residents to engage with their city hall, in old-fashioned meetings or via new-fangled technology? In the Israeli city that considers itself the capital of a “start-up nation”, digital tools are increasingly popular to connect citizens and city services. But during social protests in 2011, community leaders organized a massive, 10,000-strong in-person roundtable event in a public square outside of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

This debate between tradition and the cutting-edge formed the grist of this week’s Habitat III thematic meeting on civic engagement. The meeting was the first of a series of such encounters that will flesh out the meat of the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year urbanization strategy that will come out of next year’s U. N. cities conference.

“Civic engagement is about the roots of democracy,” said Joan Clos, the secretary-general of Habitat III, which will take place in October 2016 in Quito. “It’s about the personal rights of humans to have a say in their everyday life and the form of urbanization.”

Clos spoke alongside the mayors of Amsterdam, Freiburg and Tel Aviv, as well as the deputy mayor of Paris and others, as part of the sixth annual Cities Summit, a daylong symposium during Tel Aviv’s annual tech bash, the DLD Innovation Festival. The Habitat III thematic meeting was in turn a subset of the Cities Summit.

For host Tel Aviv, the event was an opportunity to showcase its accolades. The city won the World Smart Cities Award during the Smart City World Expo Congress in 2014 chiefly on the strength of Digi-Tel, an e-government app and smart card for Tel Avivians. “The Smart City committee told us we won not because of how smart we are, but how we do engagement,” said Zohar Sharon, Tel Aviv-Yafo’s chief knowledge officer.

“Tel Aviv is the start-up city of the start-up nation, and it was clear to us that civic engagement needed to be in a digital format,” said Mira Marcus, international spokesperson for the City of Tel Aviv-Yafo. “We listen to every resident about what their needs are and how we can address them — no longer by town-hall meetings but rather by giving them a digital option how and when to be engaged.”

Tech town

The term “start-up nation” was coined by authors from the Council on Foreign Relations, a U. S. think tank, in 2009. Their book of the same name analyzes how young Israel, with few natural resources, a small population and huge defence expenditures, has achieved such rapid economic growth, especially in the areas of high-tech services and biotechnologies. Tel Aviv, the country’s largest city and financial capital, has the highest density of tech start-ups in the world.

“Tel Aviv is the start-up city of the start-up nation, and it was clear to us that civic engagement needed to be in a digital format.”

Mira Marcus
Spokesperson, City of Tel Aviv-Yafo

As a result, the buzzwords of the global tech community — disruption, innovation, reinvention — were very much in the air at an event whose slogan was “cracking the innovation code”. Hila Oren, chief executive of Tel Aviv Global, the municipality’s international-relations arm, described the summit, founded in 2009 to commemorate the city’s centennial, as “a vision to create a platform for brilliant urban minds to be inspired by Tel Aviv, the nonstop city”.

Although Oren was quick to state that city was “proud to host the first Habitat III thematic meeting,” at times the focus on that event seemed like an afterthought to the start-up and business ambitions of the Cities Summit and the broader DLD Innovation Festival.

This was especially so with a keynote speaker like David Shing, AOL’s much-maligned “digital prophet”. His claim that “cities are just like brands,” followed by a rapid-fire exploration of trends in digital advertising, smartphone apps and wearable tech devices, did not contribute to a meaningful discussion of urban innovation or city-to-city learning, much less public participation and civic engagement.

Tel Aviv-Yafo Mayor Ron Huldai was more on the mark, if occasionally off-colour. He provided a vision of a city ruthlessly committed to learning from others and sharing its successes. Tel Aviv adopted a bike-sharing programme from Paris, he said, and co-working spaces from a New York City model.

“Urban innovation is part of the city’s DNA,” he said. “Only people with Israeli chutzpah can dream of a city with no water. Only very creative people can envision a financial and cultural centre in the middle of nowhere. And they succeeded.”

Digital tools

Beyond Digi-Tel, social entrepreneurs in Israel have invented a handful of useful tools for civic engagement and public participation, including some that tackle issues far more complex than citizen complaints about garbage pick-up. Most relevant to the Habitat III meeting, Insights, founded by a former adviser to the prime minister, is currently crowd-sourcing contributions to the Tel Aviv Declaration on Civic Engagement.

Design firm SAYA created “Is Peace Possible?” in 2012, an interactive map that allows users to redraw the borders between Israel and a future state of Palestine. The map offers real-time information explaining how moving the line would impact on the population and territory between the two countries.

“We’re very used to hearing how intractable and unsolvable this problem is,” said Karen Lee Bar-Sinai, SAYA’s co-founder. An estimated 100,000 people have used the tool since it launched, including in some in-person settings where participants can physically move around pieces on a huge map. “Digital tools are best when coupled with real-life innovation,” she said.

The global trend toward open data has also caught the attention of some tech-savvy Israelis. Hasadna LeYeda Tziburi, the Public Knowledge Workshop, draws on hundreds of volunteers to code useful tools with publicly available datasets. OpenMuni, for instance, allows users to compare local budgets over time and between communities; OpenTaba is an interactive map of municipal zoning plans where users can see ideas for future construction and subscribe to updates in their community.

Edward Lister, the deputy mayor of London, told the Cities Summit audience, “We as governments sit on massive amounts of data, and we need to get it out there so it can be useful.” According to Hasadna’s Mary Loitsker, Israeli governments are lagging behind.

“In OpenMuni, we cooperated with a handful of municipalities; however, mostly we had to resort to Freedom of Information requests to obtain the local budget datasets,” she said. “Most cities don’t understand the value of open data and … don’t hold the budget in a machine-readable format.”

Loitsker fingered the national government as the main weakness in this, for not enforcing a standard format on local authorities, which would facilitate comparisons between Israeli cities. In general, she said, “The obstacles lay in the national-level agencies rather than in the municipal level.”

But she was conciliatory toward the host city. “The city of Tel Aviv regularly uploads the city budget on its website, and it has been remarkable in that sense,” she said. “It has been open for cooperation and showed understanding of the importance of opening city data.”

Agora revival

While technology has proved a boon to Tel Aviv’s economy, it’s an industry that also skews demographically. Doubling down on tech has also doubled the number of young people, and now a third of Tel Aviv’s population is between 18 and 35 years old.

“Civic engagement the old way, the ancient way, where we meet each other face to face in the square like in the agora in ancient Greece … We need that and we miss that.”

Danny Gal
Founder, Hub Tel Aviv

An app like Digi-Tel may be the best way for the city to engage with them — but not for everyone, argued Emily Silverman, an urban-planning professor at Hebrew University. “What about the elderly, poor and ultra-Orthodox who are not connected to the Internet by socio-economic circumstance or even by choice?” she asked.

(Marcus, the international spokesperson, said there is a non-digital option to sign up to DigiTel at a booth at city hall and at public events across the city. “In addition,” she said, “while signing up to the members club, anyone can choose to be updated via snail-mail rather than e-mail, newsletter, text messages etc.”)

Nevertheless, Danny Gal, the founder of Hub Tel Aviv, a group that seeks to bring together people from across the city to spur change, launched a paean to “civic engagement the old way, the ancient way, where we meet each other face to face in the square like in the agora in ancient Greece.” While not rejecting technology, he argued, “We need that and we miss that.”

Gal was part of a group that invited 10,000 people to a public dialogue on what the city should look like. The event took place in September 2011 in the throes of social protests over the cost of living and poor public services. In the run-up to the dialogue, Gal said, his team was plagued by an age-old fear: “The key question about civic engagement: Will they come?”

Come they did, filling plastic tables and chairs in the main square of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, each with a facilitator recruited for the job. “What they wanted was to practice solidarity, to re-experience what it means to be one society,” Gal explained. Even Mayor Hudai made an appearance — not to give a speech, but to listen as a private citizen. Gal added approvingly, “It’s a very courageous thing for politicians to come and participate.”

This nostalgia for traditional forms of civic engagement echoed with some contributors to the Habitat III Urban Dialogues online platform, which over recent months hosted a parallel digital discussion on the theme of civic engagement. As part of the dialogues, Mike Collins, social-planning coordinator for the Moreland City Council, in Australia, wrote:

I am concerned that digital tools are being seen as the panacea to community disengagement. The amount of public space is contracting in our cities. New or regenerated public spaces are often highly mediated by security, commerce or ‘placemaking’ tools which tell the people what they should be doing with the space. Large-scale political actions in public spaces across the world since 2010 has shown that communities need more than Twitter to debate new ideas and create new forms of interaction. So I suggest that, with our planning for urban spaces, we need to find a way to get out of the way and allow the people into spaces to meet, create, disagree and create new understandings.

Public space is an increasingly hot-button issue for the New Urban Agenda. Against the backdrop of this simmering discussion, the drafters of the Tel Aviv Declaration would do well to consider a marriage of high-tech and low-tech, digital and analogue.

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