Frustrated but determined leadership on environmental challenges facing urban constituencies is worthy of our attention and even admiration, even if “smart cities” can be problematic terminology. Nature magazine offers this snapshot from Japan:
Why Japan is building smart cities from scratch
Purpose-built sustainable communities can boost energy efficiency and support an ageing population.
By 2050, nearly 7 out of 10 people in the world will live in cities, up from just over half in 2020. Urbanization is nothing new, but an effort is under way across many high-income countries to make their cities smarter, using data, instrumentation and more efficient resource management. In most of these nations, the vast majority of smart-city projects involve upgrades to existing infrastructure. Japan stands out for its willingness to build smart communities from scratch as it grapples with a rapidly ageing population and a shrinking workforce, meaning that there are fewer people of working age to support older people.
In 2021, the proportion of Japan’s population aged 65 and over hit 29.1%, the highest in the world. By 2036 it will be 33%. Regional cities, especially, face a long, slow economic decline.
As a resource-poor, disaster-prone country, Japan has also had to pursue energy efficiency and resilience following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and the tsunamis it triggered. The resulting meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant initially encouraged a shift away from nuclear power, which accounted for less than 4% of Japan’s energy use in 2020. However, there are growing calls, led by Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, for some reactors to be reopened to provide energy security and tackle rising fuel prices.
Smart cities can improve quality of life for older people while also increasing energy efficiency and climate resiliency. Japan has a long history of creating towns from nothing. Evidence of the reclamation of coastal areas — to increase the amount of flat land in what is a mountainous country — dates back to at least the nineteenth century in Tokyo Bay.
Some of the companies that powered Japan’s remarkable economic growth in the twentieth century are at the forefront of the smart-city movement. Panasonic, for example, the industrial conglomerate founded in Osaka in 1918 to manufacture light-bulb sockets, now creates ‘sustainable smart towns’ (SSTs) in existing cities…
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