Smart cities: Tsunami brings rethink on sustainability







While municipal administrations around the world have raced ahead with smart city projects, these had a lower profile in Japan – until March 2011. That was when the massive earthquake and tsunami hit the country, precipitating meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Now, as its appetite grows for sustainable energy sources, Japan is pushing ahead with ambitious smart city plans.

“Before Fukushima, the drive towards smart cities and towns was to catch up on the innovations in countries outside Japan and to strengthen core Japanese industries and their global market potential,” says Nobuko Asakai, who leads the sustainability practice in Japan for Accenture, the consultancy. The firm is working on projects in cities such as Yokohama, Fujisawa and Fukushima.

“The earthquake changed the agenda,” says Lluís Gomez, director of international business at the Smart City Expo World Congress and co-ordinator of the November 2012 event’s Japanese delegation. “They have to change the model.”

Globally, smart city initiatives cover a range of technologies and infrastructures, many of which promote environmental sustainability. These include energy efficient buildings, use of clean energy, information technology-enabled transport systems and water supplies, and digital control of everything from traffic management to street lighting.

The 2011 earthquake raised awareness in Japan of the need for these technologies in securing sustainable urban power supplies. “Smart city programmes in Japan are very focused on energy security,” says Mr Gomez.

As a result, Japan has launched its “Smart Communities” projects, to develop smart grids and promote clean, renewable energy generation and energy efficiency in cities.

Japan has certain advantages in pushing the smart city agenda. “It has very strong communications and high-tech manufacturing,” says Ms Asakai. “These companies are very strong in research and development.”

Added to this is strong government support in the form of co-financing and efforts to connect Japanese smart communities with similar projects outside the country.

Meanwhile, a Japanese state agency, the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization, promotes energy saving and renewable energy technologies.

In developing smart community pilot projects, Japanese policy makers have chosen different areas of focus – and IT and engineering companies, and consultancies are lining up to benefit. In Kitakyushu, for example, real-time energy management is being developed in homes and businesses through partnerships with Fuji Electric, General Electric, IBM and Nippon Steel.

Another pilot is in Yokohama, where Accenture, electrical appliance makers Toshiba, Panasonic and Meidensha, and carmaker Nissan are developing plans for multi-town integration of energy systems, heat and energy reuse and the retrofitting of 4,000 smart houses and office buildings.

The challenge, says Ms Asakai, is to take innovative projects such as these and scale them up. She cites the example of Yokohama, where the smart community initiative includes the rollout of 2,000 electric vehicles.

“That is a fairly sizeable number,” she says. “But there are 3.6m people in Yokohama, so 2,000 electric vehicles is not for everybody.”

While developing smart city energy systems is a priority, Japan faces another challenge: a shrinking population. With the country’s slowing birth rate and the highest proportion of older adults in the world, policy makers are preparing for a time when elderly people will be the largest group of residents in many cities.

For smaller cities, this is compounded by the fall in population as young people move to bigger cities such as Tokyo and Yokohama.

Smart communities initiatives are also a way to revitalise declining cities and build industries to attract younger people, as well as to redesign cities with old age-friendly infrastructure and activities.

In addition to improved public transport, technology is seen as a critical part of helping older people remain connected to society and the economy, and for assisting them to maintain healthy, safe lifestyles.

Telemedicine, for example, could permit remote healthcare for older people, cutting costs and enabling medical conditions to be monitored from mobile devices, while robotic aids could help people remain in their own homes for longer.

Smart homes, with appliances controlled online or via mobile phones or televisions, are being discussed as ways to enhance life for elderly people.

However, Japanese policy makers have an additional agenda in developing smart cities: the promotion of Japanese industry in global markets.

Japanese companies stand to benefit from a potentially lucrative market – Pike Research estimates global investment in smart city technology infrastructure will reach $108bn by 2020.

“With such big companies offering a lot of innovation in mobility and technology for energy, Japan wants to be one of the leaders,” says Mr Gomez. “So in some ways, smart cities are a way for Japan to show it is ready to export this technology to the world.”