A rendering of the high tech park proposed for Beer Sheba, Israel.
A rendering of the high tech park proposed for Beersheba, Israel.
This article appeared in the September 2015 issue of Forbes Israel
Name the first three things that come to mind when you think of the Israeli Negev desert, and especially the city of Beersheba. If you came up with words like dust, poverty and camels, you are thinking of the old Beersheba. If, on the other hand, you thought of words like IT, innovation and entrepreneurship, your name might be Rubik Danilovich. The energetic mayor of Beersheba is hoping that, in the near future, he wont be the only Israeli who associates the “Capital of the Negev” with words that today more often bring to mind  Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. He believes the city is set to become world-renowned as a center of innovation and technology, a far cry from the shabby desert image it has endured during his tenure.
“I remember growing up with the stereotypes, the prejudice and the condescension,” he says in an interview. “I remember playing away games with my youth soccer league when the opposing team would call us the ‘desert rats.’ Im still Rubik from the Gimel neighborhood, I grew up in a 44 square meter apartment in a family of five, when Beersheba was a dusty desert town. Today I look at the city and I see big changes. And this is only the beginning – Im sure of it.” Danilovich, the first Beersheba native to become its mayor, is one of those responsible for the citys ongoing metamorphosis, and which, under his strategic program, will continue to intensify in the coming years. Among those contributing alongside Danilovich are former Knesset member and Ben-Gurion University president Avishay Braverman, current university president Professor Rivka Carmi, and several senior city and government officials. “It may be hard to believe, but we put our egos aside,” he says. “What weve created here is an ecosystem, not an ego-system. This is not a one-man show. Its the collaboration between us that has made it possible to ignite this process.”
Danilovich began to promote a joint project with national government offices during his first year as mayor. After he took office in late 2008 (during Operation Cast Lead, as the city hunkered down under its first ever rocket attacks), Danilovich turned to the Treasury Ministrys budget department with a simple request: stop the “budget grants” (which the government issues to towns struggling to maintain budgetary balance). “The way I see it, these grants only reinforced our image as a city that cant take care of itself,” he explains. “Instead we asked the government to give us ‘mega projects’ that could change the lives of residents in the long run.” These mega projects include, among others, one of the most ambitious visions the city has seen in many years: reinventing Beersheba as a global innovation hub.
“There was a lot of skepticism at first,” he continues. “A lot of people didnt believe in us, laughed at us – they didnt believe the big companies would want to come to the Negev. But I believe enthusiasm is everything. The way I see it thats leadership – to be ahead of your time and to bring a totally new vision. When people saw our enthusiasm and realized we were serious about this, they wanted to take part.” What about money? Danilovich is outspoken on the issue. “Theres always money. Any public servant who says there is no money for a given project should go home,” he says. “Sure, maybe a boring, unimaginative NIS 100,000 project wont get you funding. But if you show a project that could bring about a real change, one valued at, say, NIS 1 billion, people will be interested in investing. Were thinking big. Thats how it is – if you think small, you get small results. So maybe some of these visions will take decades to realize and maybe we wont be here to cut the ribbon, but that doesnt mean were not going to plan and build the foundation today.”
A Bridge between Business and Academia
Danilovich indeed continues to plan for the future, but there are already changes on the ground. A spacious technology park has just opened in the northern part of the city, adjacent to the university. No fewer than 20 buildings are expected to be built there in the coming years, including the newly established National Cyber Bureau, which was announced by Prime Minister Netanyahu this year. As part of planned unit transfers to the Negev, the IDFs cyber security division will set up shop a stones throw away from the tech park, and military intelligence will be headquartered a few minutes’ drive away at Laqiya Junction. “For the first time in many years the government is mounting a national project here, and it is making a clear statement – we want to bring all of the countrys best minds together in Beersheba and make it a beacon not only nationally, but globally. This is happening today, and it will continue to intensify in the future,” Danilovich says.