Dan Swinhoe (Asia) - From Disaster To the Future - Japan's Smart Cities

Out of the ashes of the disaster at Fukushima, Japan has had an eneragy rethink, and embracing Smart Cities. Dan Swinhoe investigates.

In March 2011, Japan was rocked by a nuclear disaster on a par with Chernobyl. An earthquake that measured 9.0 on the Richter scale sent a tsunami hurtling towards the North-eastern coast, leading to a nuclear meltdown. The event cost thousands of lives, hundreds of thousands more had to relocate, and hundreds of billions dollars' worth of damage.

Over a year on, and the impact is still being felt: the economy was hit hard and still hasn't fully recovered; reports of radiation in food, wildlife and even cars still pop up in the news; and many companies are leaving the country, concerned about their future if they remain. But slowly things are getting better. The Reconstruction Agency is leading the redevelopment and trying to gain investment in the reconstruction effect. Recovery in the region is being measured in inches, not miles, and delays over the future of nuclear power have done nothing to help.


But change is coming. The disaster has led to a rethink of energy in Japan, where 30% of the country's power was nuclear, and plans are in place to increase the amount of electricity generated by renewables to 20% and cut carbon emissions by 25%by 2020, as well as install solar panels on more than 10 million rooftops by 2030. In order to achieve this, attention has turned to smart cities. Eight smart city projects in the disaster-hit north-eastern Tohoku region have been selected, including Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate, and will receive subsidies through to 2016. The aim will be to reduce energy consumption and waste, and rely on clean energy. Companies involved include Hitachi, Sharp and HP, and so far the government has put aside over ¥8 billion (over $100 million) to help with the initiatives - a number not insignificant during a time of austerity budgets.

For Japan this is a significant step forward. While the US, for example, has hundreds of smart city projects of various size and scope, the land of the rising sun has largely ignored the concept. While the concept is gaining traction across the world, a survey conducted by JD Power found that only 11% of Japanese consumers have varying degrees of familiarity with the term, compared with 21% in the US and 58% in China. Recognition of the term smart meter in Japan, at 8%, is even smaller. For a long time the few that had knowledge of the concept didn't see any value in it. "Before March 11, the reason to build the cities was unclear," Teruyoshi Takesue, an analyst specializing in advanced technology at Nomura Research Institute Ltd told the Japan Times. "But after that day, the central and local governments strongly felt the necessity to tackle the issue as a step to protect the infrastructure from natural disasters."

Before the disaster and subsequent change of heart, Keidanren had launched its future city model projects, which envisioned Fukushima as a Medical Care Service City. The plan involved better communication between ambulances and hospitals to provide instant care, and providing remote health consultation and medical care through information terminals such as video-telephony, as well as more support for families and children through IT. The project is still on-going and starting to see progress.

New Projects

Much of this planning is part of the Tohoku Smart Community Initiative which aims to create a "smart community model for the purpose of creating a community that is safe, environmentally friendly, full of attraction and vitality for the citizens living and working there, and is sustainable over generations." The leading light within Japan at the minute is Kashiwa. Located East of Tokyo on a former gold course, the 273-hectare site has introduced solar- and wind-power generators and a 2,000-kilowatt storage battery, and secures water supply by tapping groundwater, cutting carbon emissions 60% by 2030. It's due to be completed in 2014, and its estimated population will reach 26,000, featuring high-rise housing complexes, university campuses, parks, a shopping mall and a hospital.

Seiji Nakata, a Mitsui Fudosan project manager of the planning group for the campus city, said the community in Kashiwa is expected to serve as "a lab for smart city experiments" so that companies involved can build similar energy-efficient cities overseas. "The definition of smart cities is not yet fixed in the world, so we'd like to create a de facto standard," Nakata said. "The important point is to involve people who actually live in the community, instead of relying too much on the logic of companies."

Other projects exist too. Panasonic have been working on a smart-town project in Fujisawa, while Honda, Hitachi and Toshiba are working with municipal bodies in Saitama, Yokohama and Kashiwa. As well as tech companies, the government is looking for outside help. Experts from Masdar, Abu Dhabi's main smart city, recently spoke in Fukushima during a seminar attended by local government officials. They highlighted the importance of integration on all levels, while experts in water management and recycling from Israel are being brought to help with rebuilding in the city.

More than Just Cities

It's not just infrastructure and energy that's seen developments because of the disaster. Mobile phone operator Softbank announced plans to release the first smartphone with a built in Geiger counter, while elsewhere renewed focus has been put on disaster rescue and recovery. Two robots used during the containment and decontamination of the plant recently won a Special Award for Social Contribution at Japan's 5th Robot Awards, and the boffins at DARPA are aiming high for the future, hoping to create a fully working, human-like, disaster response robot, something which Japanese scientists are in the very early stage of developing. Less futuristic, but no less ambitious in scope, is a powered suit for workers, creating a radiation proof exo-suit for contaminated areas.

Super tech and smart cities aside, it could be years, if not decades, before the situation on the ground returns to a real semblance of normal. Obviously there's still much work to be done, but creating a real plan for the city is an important first step. It's now up to the government to keep the momentum going and restore Fukushima to beyond what it was before.

By Dan Swinhoe, Editorial Assistant, IDG Connect