Mayor Soichiro Takashima envisions Fukuoka as a living lab for internet of things

by

Staff Writer

Assessing damage caused by natural disasters with just a glance at a monitor screen. Controlling water levels and knowing the best time to fertilize crops without actually visiting your farm. Checking the whereabouts of your son or daughter who is returning from school by using location-based services.

These are just some ways the “internet of things” can make your life drastically easier.

Fukuoka Mayor Soichiro Takashima hopes to make his city a living laboratory for such cutting-edge technology. With a budget of ¥10 million, the city will set up key stations for Long Range Wide Area Network (LoRaWAN), a wireless communications network which uses minimal electricity to cover wide areas, and let businesses that are looking to provide internet-of-things services use the network free of charge to test their services.

“Fukuoka is not a mega-city like Tokyo or Shanghai. For such mid-size cities, the strength will be to attract people having the ‘frontier spirit’ who are willing to test and create innovative models for the future society,” Takashima said in a recent interview.

About 70 percent of the city will be covered by the LoRaWAN network this fiscal year, setting a wide testing ground for future services. LoRaWAN transmits data from various devices to a central network server. Using this network, companies will be able to transmit and receive data from different points around the city to collect the necessary information needed to start their services.

For example, development company Thinkledge, Inc. has already started planing to use the network to test its ability to locate stolen bicycles and motorbikes by using a small device attached to them.

According to city officials, about 100 companies which showed an interest in joining the project attended a briefing session held Thursday. The city will accept applications from businesses later this month, and participating firms will be able to start conducting tests in August.

The internet of things and the Fourth Industrial Revolution have been hot topics among business leaders across the world — dominating discussions at a conference hosted last month by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum in Dalian, China, according to Takashima, who attended the conference.

At the Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2017, dubbed the “Summer Davos,” leaders from business, politics and academia feverishly discussed the rapid technological progress that gave birth to innovative products, services, new means of transportation and robots, the mayor said.

“But I thought something was missing from the discussion,” he said. “How will we test those technologies in the real world? How are we going to remove regulations and people who are already living there in order to test new technology?”

True, it’s difficult to find a place to test these technologies in a real-life environment as it often requires social infrastructure and the removal of legal restrictions.

Fukuoka, designated as a national strategic special zone by the central government, is conducting 29 projects under this designation to facilitate startups and create jobs.

In October 2014 the city inaugurated StartUp Cafe, a networking hub for startups to assist people who want to set up their own businesses, and more than 100 companies have been created so far. The city also eased requirements for foreign venture founders to get a visa in December 2015.

The city of Fukuoka also carried out two drone tests last November and December between the city center and Nokonoshima Island in the middle of Hakata Bay, about 2.5 km offshore. During the experiment, drones carried household items such as toilet paper and laundry detergent that had been ordered by island residents.

Takashima said delivery by drones may pose a challenge to existing businesses with vested interests, and it requires a good cause to gain people’s understanding.

“For example, if drones can deliver medicines to homes, local drugstores may lose customers. If shopping can be done through Amazon, department stores will be out of business,” he said.

“If we were to introduce a new method, we should first start in a small area and expand it,” he said. “But what is more important is whether we have a good reason or not. Our aim is to solve social issues and enable people who live on an island to have access to daily goods.”

Takashima also wants to create a conducive environment for self-driving vehicles as well as other next-generation infrastructure, and the city is hoping to utilize Kyushu University’s Hakosaki campus, whose function will be moved to another site next fiscal year.

“Collecting data and test operations may be done in rural areas, but such areas with small populations often cannot attract investment and service users. Considering these factors, Fukuoka is a good size for companies to test their next-generation technology,” Takashima said.