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Smart community conference Tokyo

Last week I attended this most interesting conference. One striking element of the event was that every Japanese presenter mentioned ‘the disaster’ at least once in their presentation. This is how they refer to the Fukushima nuclear disaster. They almost never specify the ‘nuclear’ disaster; if they don’t just use the word ‘disaster’ they refer to it as ‘the earthquake’.

There has still been no decision made regarding the restarting of the 50 nuclear power stations. Businesses are calling for it but public opinion is still very much against it; especially women. In the meantime the cost of providing the country with other (fossil) resources is costing them billions of dollars.

The official policy of the government, as presented by Minister Ms Midori Matsushima, is:

Priority 1: energy saving

Priority 2: renewables

Priority 3: developing export opportunities from all of this for economic growth.

A very interesting presentation was given by Professor Kazuhiko Ogimoto. A key element that he adds to the above priorities is ‘flexibility’ – his view is thata multi-energy mix will have to be developed in order to safeguard the way of life, affordability and sustainability.

Smart communities have become a central policy issue in Japan. As in many countries this is now the broader concept, moving away from the more limited smart grid focus. But the definition of smart communities that is used in Japan is much broader even than what is being talked about elsewhere in the world. It is seen more as a social experiment than an energy or ICT issue. It broadly includes the following elements:

  • Strengthening community help (self-help) – comfort, health, safety, security (community awareness)
  • Urban revitalisation (resilience) – life and business defence against disasters
  • Business continuity and energy independence in the event of emergencies

With increased climate change events around the world, the new definition of ‘smart community’ as set by Japan is also relevant to other parts of the world. The key is that this can only be implemented through smart policies and smart management. Lack of holistic national policies and the will to implement them is a serious area of concern.

Following the Japanese line of thought, the infrastructure that underpins this is the power grid; on top of it is the layer that manages the energy for buildings, communities, factories, homes, hospitals, transport (rail), etc. This is made possible through the ICT tools.

This approach is very much driven by the ‘emergency scenario’, and it made me rethink my conceptual approach to smart communities. It is an interesting subject for further discussion.

Despite many good initiatives Japan also suffers from the ‘death by pilot’ syndrome. Upscaling pilots and projects to regional, nationwide or even municipality-wide levels remains elusive; the issue being that the investments needed cannot be monetised by the private sectors involved. The benefits are social and economic and this requires government investments and/or governments taking the financial risks for the projects. Furthermore any of these benefits are long-term, while significant upfront short-term investments are needed.

It looks as though it takes events such as ‘the disaster’ to spur governments into action; but even then large scale  implementation is becoming increasingly entrenched. Political stalemates – a global phenomenon – are making decisive action in the national interest very difficult.

Paul Budde