It’s the beginning of 2020, but also the opening of a new decade. Many technologies that emerged in the 2010s will certainly develop at an accelerated pace in this new decade and change our lifestyles dramatically.
This year’s Tokyo Olympics and Paralympic Games will likely be the first game changer. Next generation 5G wireless networks will finally debut in Japan, allowing superfast mobile communications and various services. Toyota Motor Corp. has already unveiled its e-Pallet concept autonomous EV, which will operate in the athletes’ village. Various translation devices are already available to help foreign tourists, but wearables that can instantly translate languages may arrive soon. Hyper-fast connectivity, advanced automation and an augmented sensory digital world will become reality and they will surely transform our life for the better.
But demographic changes will likely to shift balance of power in the world. Japan, with its rapidly aging society, will need to think about how to survive in the swiftly changing world.
According to a United Nations estimate, India’s population will be the world’s largest around 2027, surpassing that of China. In 2030, India will have 1.536 billion people, while China’s population will be 1.464 billion. Japan’s population, which stood at around 126.15 million in 2019, will gradually shrink to 115.22 million by 2030, and the aging rate of its population will be an estimated 31.8 percent.
In terms of economic strength, by 2030 the size of China’s economy will surpass that of the United States. India will rank third and Japan is expected to slide to No. 4.
In the digital world, GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) in the United States and BATH (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, Huawei) in China will continue to be unrivaled titans possessing the world’s most advanced technologies and massive data. If they continue to wield overwhelming influence over the digital world as well as the physical world, will Japan become a marginal country?
It may be premature to be pessimistic about Japan’s future. Take agriculture for instance. Japan’s aging farmers desperately need help, and AI and other technology can save the agricultural industry. Major heavy equipment makers such as Kubota Corp. have already developed autonomous tractors. Sensors and AI will control and monitor temperatures in greenhouses, and advanced drone technology will aid farmers in determining the best timing for harvests.
Japan is also the largest producer of robots, accounting for some 60 percent of the global output. In the near future, robots and AI could become an alternative work force in the elderly care service industry, which is expected to suffer from a major shortage of caregivers. Demand for caregivers is predicted to rise sharply from 1.7 million in 2013 to around 2.5 million in 2025. Sensors to monitor the elderly and the communications robot Palro developed by Fujisoft Inc. have already been introduced at many nursing homes across the country.
Education, however, is the key to creating people who can foster innovation in Japan. Unlike in the past, intangible assets like data and ideas carry more weight than hard assets in modern society. How and what children learn matters in nurturing their creativity and uniqueness.
The work environment also needs to change. According to Efosa Ojomo, a senior research fellow at Christensen Institute, and Clayton Christensen, a professor at Harvard University, the right kind of innovation not only builds companies, but also countries. Japanese companies such as Sony Corp. used to engage in innovation by making new products with cutting-edge technologies. But recently they have not been successful in fostering market-creating innovation. Thus the two experts suggest that rather than sticking with the old model, major Japanese corporations should establish independent units that can nurture entrepreneurship to create seeds of innovation.
Diversity could also be another important factor for growth. Japan ranks 58th in the 2019 United Nations’ World Happiness Report, its lowest showing ever. The World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap index also ranks Japan at 121st. The results are disappointing but at the same time they show that there is tremendous room for improvement. If more and more Japanese workplaces embrace diversity and work-style reforms, such as a four-day workweek and remote work, employees will be happier and be able to spend more time thinking creatively and coming up with ideas that may create business opportunities or solutions for pressing global issues such as environmental problems and poverty.
What is necessary now is to imagine the world of 2030. Think about what kinds of challenges people will face and what kind of solutions we can offer in the future. Manga robot character Doraemon created lots of excitement for children by bringing many future inventions to help his friend Nobita solve various problems. As Doraemon and the saying “Necessity is the mother of invention” show, problem solving can also lead to creativity and innovation.
In an effort to speak with an authoritative voice on issues we deem important, The Japan Times Editorial Board will put more resources toward focusing on a single editorial each week that offers a fresh and informed perspective. Our weekly editorial will appear in print each Friday.
The Japan Times Editorial Board