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Time to Get Smarter

Why cities need to improve urban tech infrastructure

By Richard Jolley

One tech term we will all become more familiar with this year is “smart.” It has become a buzzword, hated by techies but adored by headline writers, to describe the latest developments in technology.

Smart is here thanks to the widespread availability of high-speed Internet and the fact that sensors can be embedded into everything, leading to connected products all around us.

When people think of smart technology, what may come to mind are sensors in the home that turn on the lights or set the temperature to a desired level when you enter a room.

However, the term encompasses much more than this, or even the refrigerator gadget that knows when you run out of milk and orders it online from the store. The truth is that smart tech could save the planet.

Late last year, I attended a panel discussion entitled “Smart Grid, Smart Mobility, Smart Home, Smart Anything,” organized by the German Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Japan. The event centered on the creation of a “smart city,” and how the concept could solve humanity’s greatest challenges.

Panelists discussed transportation schemes featuring electric vehicles, homes that can be remotely controlled, and a smart grid that could integrate renewable energy into Japan’s current infrastructure, allocating energy more effectively through metering.

What tied the discussion together was the urgent need for cities to get smarter. As the UN has warned, 80 percent of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2050, and cities produce 80 percent of all greenhouse emissions while consuming 75 percent of our natural resources.

If these predictions and figures are correct, and we cannot find a sustainable way of city living, then all the work that has been done globally to cut carbon emissions and conserve resources could be futile.

Domestic projects
Japan is nicely placed to take advantage of smart, sustainable urban solutions. The country already has a number of important smart-city projects in Yokohama, Kitakyushu, and Toyota City to develop technologies for domestic and international markets.

Furthermore, the Keihanna Science City, which covers eight cities and towns in Kyoto, Osaka, and Nara prefectures, has been constructed as a model for development of cutting-edge technology.

Andrew DeWit, a professor at Rikkyo University’s School of Policy Studies, has studied Japan’s smart-city schemes. “Smart systems are key to our future. You only have to see what the US military is doing to understand the kind of attention this is getting at a national level. The military has helped create Chiang Mai World Green City in Thailand and plans to support other projects in the Asia-Pacific region,” DeWit said.

“It’s very impressive what’s going on across these smart city projects in Japan. But the key will be whether Japanese companies can develop solutions that will be price-competitive in a global market,” he added.

Eiji Iriyama, regional center head of power management and multimarket in Japan for Infineon Technologies Japan K.K., is particularly impressed with what’s happening at the Kitakyushu Smart Community Project.

For him, the multiplicity of technology that will go into smart cities really suits Japanese manufacturing. He highlights the country’s strengths in suriawase, meaning the development of many solutions in tandem.

“As you might imagine, a smart city is composed of a variety of components, such as utilities, residential buildings, transportation, and so forth. I believe Japan can contribute to the systemic level of technologies, rather than the individual functionalities, devices, and technologies,” he said.

Intelligent metering
The Kitakyushu project tackles head on some of the major challenges surrounding increased urbanization. One of the project’s goals is to “establish mechanisms for citizens and companies to think about, and participate in, the process of energy distribution”—in other words, smart metering.

With smart metering, utilities move from monthly to dynamic billing, enabling time- and demand-based pricing. It makes consumers and businesses more conscious of how and—perhaps more importantly—when they consume energy, helping reduce peak loads. This, in turn, limits the need for power stations set up just to meet peak demand.

For DeWit, the project is also interesting because it has citizen involvement at its center—a factor that many experts say is essential to preventing smart technology from simply becoming a device used by corporations and governments to impose new ways of living.

As DeWit has written in The Asia-Pacific Journal, Japan has been criticized for its lack of citizen involvement in its smart city programs. To highlight what Japan should be aiming for, he points to Santander, in Spain.

There, citizens are heavily involved in the development of the city’s smart program through their smartphones. For example, using a particular app, they can report accidents, potholes in the road, and broken streetlights to city hall. Plus, they can put forward ideas, comment on proposals, and vote on local issues.

Rajendra Iyer also recognizes the important role citizens play in smart city developments. Iyer is vice president, head of power systems, at ABB, and spoke at the panel discussion, highlighting the opportunity for Japan to develop its own smart grid in conjunction with smart metering.

Given Japan’s current lack of nuclear power, rising cost of imported energy, and ongoing energy-sector liberalization, he said the time is right for smart grid development.

Moreover, he believes there are significant inefficiencies in the way power is traditionally moved around the grid—with up to 80 percent of electricity lost between where it is generated and where it is consumed.

“This is a golden chance for Japan to improve its infrastructure,” Iyer said. “My vision is for an energy highway that moves power efficiently across the country.” He sees much of this energy being renewable, tapping into Japan’s thermal, solar, and wind power potential.

Iyer has no doubts that the ongoing liberalization of the domestic power industry is being closely watched by large enterprises across Japan. Plus, power is a lucrative business. “New entrants are bound to appear if the existing utilities don’t sharpen up their cost structures,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if an organization like SoftBank jumped into it.

“The evolution of smart technology is a good opportunity for businesses as well as consumers to help create a sustainable way of living.”


Richard Jolley is an IT and business writer living and working in Tokyo.


You only have to see what the US military is doing to understand the kind of attention this is getting at a national level.