The Prime Minister's Office and the Ministry of Construction and Housing, in cooperation with the Beersheva Municipality, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, and Soroka Medical Center, are promoting a plan for establishing an innovation district in Beersheva. The plan focuses on development of a continuous district containing Soroka, the university, an IDF computer center to be built, the Gimmel and Daled neighborhoods, and the area around the railway station. Ben Gurion Boulevard, a traffic artery along its full length that connects Yitzhak Rager Boulevard with Eliyahu Nawi Road (the road to Shokat Junction), will become a street bustling with urban life. The planners cite Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv as their inspiration for the district.
As part of expanding the area for pedestrians, some of the fences around the university and the hospital will be removed. Commercial areas will be developed, with an emphasis on food stands, at the intersection of Ben Gurion Boulevard and Arlosorov Street. Architect David Galor is designing the project.
Ministry of Construction and Housing senior department manager for strategy and planning policy Netanel Lapidot explained to "Globes" that NIS 2.2 million had already been invested in initial planning for the project, which would take years to complete. "We have defined our plan as a strategic skeleton plan. The next stage is devising an urban building plan under which building permits can be issued. Even before we launched the project, there was already interest in cooperation and philanthropy," Lapidot said.
The Ministry of Construction and Housing, managed by director general Benny Dreyfuss, said, "The stage following the plan's launch will focus on initial economic investments in sectors such as digital health, desertification, and cybersecurity, for which up to tens of millions of shekels will be raised."
"Globes" asked how the project would be financed, but received no answer; as of now, it is unclear where the budget for the project will come from.
Will what began in Barcelona continue in Beersheva?
In addition to the physical change, the plan is to create an atmosphere for development and implementation of ideas. A new concept has emerged in urbanism in recent years called innovation districts. This refers to disadvantaged areas undergoing renewal through cooperative ventures shared by the public and business sectors, with an orientation towards technology. These districts are usually compact and have access to transportation, and of course contain housing, office, and commercial space. The plan is also to have anchor institutions concentrated in the district that will create connections with startups and incubators.
The first project of this type began in 2000 in the Poblenou industrial zone in Barcelona, and the idea has since spread to dozens of locations around the world. The key concept in this is creating an ecosystem by encouraging physical proximity among research staff and creating a community. "The Negev faces health challenges, including genetic disorders, local exposure of the environment to industrial waste, solar radiation, burdensome heat, and desert dust emissions. The region therefore provides researchers with a unique living laboratory for finding ways to deal with local conditions. In view of the social and environmental distress, climate change, and global warming and desertification, Beer Sheva is trying to take advantage of its location in order to attract cybersecurity and digital health ventures, sustainable desert agriculture, and urban renewal," the document accompanying presentation of the plan states.
National Economic Council deputy head Yuval Admon, who is taking the lead in the project on behalf of the Prime Minister's Office, says, "Innovation districts usually happen in limited geographic areas within cities that contain a critical mass of academic institutions, hospitals, and startups. The aim is to achieve something similar to Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, where you meet people randomly and exchange ideas."
Urban planner Ran Wolf, who is taking part in the Beersheva plan, adds, "A great many sectors cooperated: the hospital, the university, and various types of research. Our challenge is to empower them. It was clear to us from the start that the work was for the long term. Beer Sheva may have the desert and not much money, but there is belief in the leadership."
"We'll create an ecosystem, not an ego system"
Beersheva Mayor Ruvik Danilovich told "Globes" that he believes in the process. "Beersheva understands that if it wants to be a relevant city, it has to be ahead of its time. Knowledge, innovation, and technology are becoming very, very critical, and we're making progress in this. It's all starting to focus on the city, largely because of the transfer of elite IDF units, the National Cyber Security Authority, and very soon construction of the intelligence center. All of these things show that the city is a lot more than its internal convergence. It has the potential to be part of something global.
"Globes": Why should anything change now?
Danilovich: "We have matured. Furthermore, we have put ego aside. We're establishing an ecosystem, but we're putting aside the ego system. In order to be relevant, the problem isn't money; it's the human story. No one can make a breakthrough alone. We realized the power of partnership in a changing era. These connections can be a force multiplier."
What is the initiative's significance for the old and poor neighborhoods C and D, which are in the area?
"We are making this area not only the city center, but the world center. The ideological plan will be combined with the physical plan. There will be a large investment in the public sphere. As soon as the innovation and technology concerns enter, I assume that entrepreneurship will also enter the picture, and then we'll also begin urban renewal. We will renew the public institutions. We have decided that we are leading the change; we won't wait any longer. You know how they laughed at us eight years ago, when we said that we'd make a technology center here? It was obvious to me that we had the necessary quality of higher education and human capital quality. We decided that if Silicon Valley was founded in the great US, we would found Silicon Wadi here."
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on January 22, 2020
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