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Japan's smart cities: Technological dreams or 'Big Brother' nightmares?

by Eric Johnston

Staff writer

Late last month, the Diet passed a revised bill paving the way for so-called “super cities” or “smart cities.” Supporters tout them as high-tech marvels where artificial intelligence and big data are to be used to provide more efficient and cost-effective solutions to social problems, especially in areas faced with aging and declining populations and a reduced tax base. Opponents warn that data leaks could lead to privacy violations and even a surveillance state. Here’s a look at Japan’s Super City Initiative.

What was the purpose of the recently passed bill?

In order to realize the creation of smart cities in various parts of the country, any number of basic regulations involving multiple ministries needs to be changed. The May 27 revision to a national strategic special zone law included measures the government can now take to do that more quickly and under more specific guidelines.

The revision means local governments that are selected by the central government to become smart cities, or super cities, can work with private technology firms to come up with plans for creating their own smart city.

What is Japan’s vision for future super cities?

As outlined in February by the Cabinet Office’s Office for Promotion of Regional Revitalization, AI and big data would be used to manage at least five of 10 areas within a designated city. The 10 areas are transportation, logistics, payments, municipal administration, medical and nursing care, education, energy and water, environmental management and waste control, crime prevention, and disaster control and safety.

Working with the central government and private technology firms, data networks in these areas would be linked. Drones would be introduced to deliver goods to local residents, while computer data would monitor local energy usage and provide locally produced energy sources, especially renewable energy sources, in a more timely and cheaper manner.

A super city’s medical system would allow patients in need of medical or certain kinds of nursing care to receive consultations and assistance remotely via a computer. Online classroom learning would become more common. Data linkage between elementary, middle and high schools would, the government says, allow for learning services that are tailored to individual users. Self-driving cars could be programmed to pick up and transport people to specific destinations.

The need for carrying cash would be reduced as everything could be payed for electronically. In its vision for future super cities, the Cabinet Office suggested that volunteers in a super city would be able to receive points as a result of their charitable or other activities that could be redeemed for a locally issued electronic currency that could be used for other services.

All of the data would be collected and organized by a city’s data linkage platform, a giant storehouse of data on a city’s residents that records information on how they live and work, which could be shared across different fields.

What are some of the controversies surrounding the creation of super cities?

The main concern is that the collection of personal data could either be hacked or used unfairly. Japanese Communist Party member Mikishi Daimon warned the Diet on the day the bill passed that it could lead the nation toward becoming, like China, a surveillance state.

“China’s Hangzhou, the role model for the government’s super city initiative, has introduced the world’s latest information technologies as part of its own smart city initiative,” he told an Upper House plenary session in May. “But that means it’s also the world’s latest surveillance society, with several thousand surveillance cameras throughout the city.’’

In addition, while the central government has promised to obtain local consent before approving plans for super city projects, a local mayor on his or her own initiative can decide to apply to become a super city on behalf of a town. There’s no law officially stating that the agreement of the local city assembly is required, raising questions about local legislative oversight.

How have smart cities elsewhere fared?

A report released in June 2019 by Navigant Research, a U.S.-based firm that analyzes the international smart city movement, noted that there were at least 443 smart city projects in 286 cities worldwide. The firm estimated that, for the next decade through 2028, the cumulative global smart city technology market will reach $1.7 trillion.

While smart city projects in cities like Boston, Seattle, Calgary, Singapore and Seoul are touted as success stories, there have been difficulties elsewhere. Last month, plans for a smart city neighborhood in Toronto called Quayside suffered a huge setback when a Google-related company, Sidewalk Labs, decided to pull out of the project. The economic uncertainty due to the coronavirus outbreak was cited as the reason. But the withdrawal also followed years of local criticism that the project was shrouded in secrecy and that there was an unwillingness by project investors to address concerns about data governance.

What happens next with Japan’s plans?

As of May, there were more than 50 project proposals and requests from local governments for smart city funding. But only about five areas nationwide will be set up as designated smart city zones. The government will formally start soliciting proposals by this autumn and decide the winners by the end of the year. However, there are already smart city projects under way in some municipalities.

After that, the plans will be firmed up and start to be realized after 2022. Japan also plans to use the Osaka 2025 World Expo to showcase some of its super city technologies.

However, with the coronavirus epidemic is causing many firms to rethink their mid- to long-term strategies, and with the smart cities concept still facing a wide range of criticism and concern about privacy and budget issues, the actual state of smart city development in Japan by the time of the Osaka Expo remains uncertain.

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