Launched in July with the goal of updating regulations that hinder effective usage of cutting-edge technologies, the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Japan has been helping the government lay out guidelines for an optimal future society.

The “Fourth Industrial Revolution” is currently being brought about by the practical use of data and digital technologies to improve people’s lives in various ways. It is building on the Third Industrial Revolution, which is represented by the modernization of computers, the spread of the internet and a wide variety of digital devices. The Third Industrial Revolution is generally considered to span from the 1980s to present-day, while the Second Industrial Revolution took place from the late 19th century to the early 20th century, built on mass production enabled by electricity.

The center, an equal, three-way joint venture of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the World Economic Forum and the Asia Pacific Initiative, holds discussions on health care, data usage policies, smart cities and other innovations involving related ministries and government agencies to speed up decision making.

The center’s head Chizuru Suga, who is also a METI official with experience in policymaking, is upbeat about her current role because the center can have a “very direct influence” on policy.

“The directness of influence stems from the fact that the center is the first experiment for the government and the WEF to create a joint venture in which both parties are equal partners,” Suga said during a recent interview with The Japan Times. “I am part of the government and part of the WEF. The center can obtain shared information that each entity had previously monopolized.”

She stressed that the government and the WEF are equal partners regarding the center.

“In policymaking, the government tends to consider outside opinions as merely petitions from some interest groups. But they listen to us, and when they do, things move very quickly,” she said.

Creating a joint venture with another organization as an equal partner is also a first for the WEF. The other three WEF centers — the centres for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in Mumbai, San Francisco and Beijing — are wholly owned by the WEF.

“The WEF had preferred to be on its own as it places importance on neutrality,” she said, adding that the benefit of partnering with the government outweighs neutrality in Japan.

The joint venture brings together decision-makers for discussions that can directly influence policymaking on innovations in such areas as artificial intelligence, blockchain technology and the “internet of things,” with particular focus on data policy, mobility and health care.

On data policy, the center aims to help the government create regulations to maximize the benefits of data usage.

“We believe data is something we should use as much as possible. With everyone in agreement on that, there still needs to be rules,” she said, implying that preventing the abuse of personal data is also important.

Mobility and health care are fields in which big data can be useful to enhance convenience and quality of life, she added.

For example, detailed large-scale data on people’s health could be very helpful for medical advancements. Obtaining the information of patients with serious diseases is not enough to find a cure for the diseases. Being able to access the data of healthy people could speed the development of cures.

To this end, the center, which counts Takeda Pharmaceutical Co., Suntory Holdings Ltd., Hitachi Ltd., NEC Corp. and Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings Corp. among its 14 so-called partner companies, is trying to legalize use of some personal health data.

“We are trying to make some personal health data public property if there is potential of enormous benefit from sharing such data. It would be difficult for doctors to ask all patients for permission, and thus such data should be automatically designated as public property,” Suga said. “We are helping lawmakers create bills regarding this.”

In another example of the center’s activities, it helped the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism set up a project team to help municipalities create smart cities, which optimize efficiency in maximizing life quality. On Dec. 14, the ministry released a press release announcing that it is collecting information on technologies to realize smart cities, as well as needs for public services.

The government is expected to create presentations on smart cities for various Group of 20-related conferences later this year.

Additionally, the government and municipalities are encouraging discussions on smart cities amid Japan’s aging society and the decreasing population of rural areas.

“Some municipalities use health data wisely and digitize various data to expand resident services. Other municipalities, for example, create roads inaccessible to cars, forcing residents to walk. These will make differences in residents’ health, and we are trying to raise awareness of these things in municipalities,” she said.

“I want the center to initiate the movement of smart cities and Japan to take a leading role,” she said.

To that end, the center holds various symposiums, inviting prominent speakers to share their ideas.

For example, the center held the Healthcare Dialogue Series from Aug. 6 to 10. The series saw the discussion of various medical issues, and was attended by researchers, lawyers, medical technology company executives, medical association executives and Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare officials.

The center also held the Data Policy Dialogue Series on Sept. 25 and the Mobility Dialogue Series on Oct. 16 and 17.

Many decision-makers, including government officials, attend these meetings, helping important decisions to be made quickly, Suga said.

In addition to the Group of 20 summit in Osaka in June, as well as various G20 ministerial meetings across Japan, there will be many related international conferences held in Japan this year.

For example, Business 20 will be held in Tokyo in March, while the Urban 20 Mayors summit will also take place in Tokyo in May. Suga said she wants the center to contribute to reaching agreements during such gatherings.

“I want the center to be a headquarters where people come to have discussions on any issue at the most advanced level,” she said.

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