IT entrepreneur hopes to revive rural areas

American eyes vacant schools as ideal location for data centers

by Yuko Fukaya

Kyodo

An American entrepreneur has embarked on a project to invigorate rural communities in Japan and create new jobs by reusing abandoned school buildings for his IT business.

Smart Technology Partners, founded in 2010 by Carl Sundberg and now employing 30 people, opened its first data center on the premises of the former Akazawa Elementary School in Aizumisato, Fukushima Prefecture.

“In the future, I would like to open (similar facilities) in as many as 200 locations across” the archipelago, Sundberg, 54, said in fluent Japanese, a skill acquired during his many years working in the country.

Data centers are central to the burgeoning business of cloud computing, in which data and resources are stored on remote servers to eliminate the need for individuals or companies to acquire storage capacity of their own.

Sundberg’s idea of reusing vacant school buildings arose from his years working in rural areas, where the landscape is increasingly dotted with shuttered classrooms.

As society ages and people flock in ever greater numbers to urban areas, around 500 elementary, junior high and high schools close down nationwide each year. As of last May, some 1,000 school buildings were standing idle, with no plans for their reuse or redevelopment, according to the government.

During his time in Japan, Sundberg has developed an especially strong connection with disaster-hit Fukushima.

After first coming to the country at age 11 because of his father’s work, he studied at an American school in Tokyo before returning to the United States to attend university. He then traveled back to Japan after graduating and worked as an English instructor in Fukushima for four years, rotating among various junior high schools.

In his late 20s, Sundberg married a Japanese and began working for financial institutions as an information technology professional. Life was good: He earned big money and lived in a luxury residence. But over time he gradually became disillusioned with the industry’s way of doing business.

While continuing to work in finance, he turned his attention to the backwater status of rural areas in the IT era. Knowing that there were many abandoned schools all across Fukushima, Sundberg hit upon the idea of using them to train residents interested in improving their computer skills.

While pitching the idea to around 20 municipalities in the prefecture, however, he grew frustrated by the wall of bureaucracy. Most of them rejected his plan because of the “absence of precedent.”

But Aizumisato Mayor Hidetoshi Watanabe, who had been racking his brains over how to use an elementary school that was scheduled to close, embraced the concept.

In 2003, Sundberg’s vision finally became reality when an IT training program began in the vacant building. He quit his brokerage job and volunteered as an instructor for about six months.

Although Sundberg later found a new job with another financial institution, in 2008 he decided to take another break from the corporate world and embark on a motorcycle tour of the United States. After meeting people as diverse as Native Americans and aging Vietnam antiwar activists, Sundberg said he awoke to the importance of making “genuine contributions to society.”

He revisited the idea of reusing abandoned school buildings to revitalize rural Japan and came up with a plan to convert them into data centers. In February 2011, Sundberg obtained permission from the Aizumisato Municipal Assembly, with the help of the mayor, to rent Akazawa Elementary School for three years, free of charge.

But his business plan was thrown into chaos the very next month, as the Great East Japan Earthquake rocked Tohoku, devastated the coastline with tsunami and triggered the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. Since the radiation levels in Aizumisato were relatively low, some people who had fled from threatened areas were relocated to makeshift shelters in the town, including the elementary school Sundberg was using. The school continued to serve as a shelter until that summer.

Sundberg shrugged off the setback, saying that what his company ought do had become all the more clear: Use cloud computing to help municipal governments in tsunami-struck areas store taxpayer and other critical data on their residents at remote facilities in safer areas.

Given that much of that information was wiped out by the March 2011 disasters, cloud-type solutions are being adopted by an increasing number of towns and cities in Tohoku.

The snag is the scarcity of data center capacity in Japan, where labor and real estate costs remain prohibitive. Reusing vacant school buildings helps to limit the costs and benefit rural areas by creating jobs.

“I’m hoping to use this as a showcase of a sustainable business model in which people can work with pride in rural areas,” Sundberg said.