How Tokyo is leading Japan into the future

 —  Article by Serene Lim
Tokyo, Japan view of Shibuya Crossing, one of the busiest crosswalks in the world.
Image credit: Shutterstock

As cities across Asia arm themselves with the newest technologies to become the smart cities of the future, Tokyo is doing what it does so well – quietly leading the charge with cutting-edge innovation.

The capital of Japan was named the Most Innovative City last month as part of the annual Cities Innovation Index by data provider 2thinknow, beating its global rivals London and New York.

Toyko “showed clear direction by embracing smart technology change to lead innovation and leadership in what we have identified as the twin long-term globe-shaking trends of robotics and 3D manufacturing,” says Christopher Hire, director at the research firm.

London came second in the index, with San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles rounding out the top five.

The award comes after years of specific government efforts to prepare its economy and culture for the future. In 2016, Japan introduced Society 5.0 as part of the country’s transformation to drive development and solve social issues.

The foundation of Japan’s Society 5.0

“To realize Society 5.0, the innovations from the Fourth Industrial Revolution, such as robots, the Internet of Things, big data and Artificial Intelligence, and their application to various economic sectors are critical,” says Naoko Iwanaga, research manager, JLL.

“Japan’s advantage here lies in the high levels of technologies held by companies, the strong research and development by academics here, educated human resources with high potential, and real data collected at the forefront of industries such as medicine.”

Japan’s uniqueness also lies in a cultural fascination for robots and automation – evident in animation manga from as early as Astro Boy in 1952 to Gundam in the 2000s – which help boost tech development and adoption.

Japanese manufacturing companies have invested widely and heavily in automation since the economic boom period known as Japan Inc. in the 1980s to boost output and productivity, a strategy that continues through to today. The declining and ageing population in Japan today further makes for fertile ground for technology to be implemented across the country easily without too much resistance from the labor market.

Looking ahead, Iwanaga foresees more automation spreading to industries as varied as healthcare to forestry and fishery, and in all aspects of daily life autonomous driving.

Advantage Tokyo

There are obstacles to realising Society 5.0. According to Japan’s Cabinet Office’s Council for Science, Technology and Innovation (CSTI), there is a “lack in quantity and quality of IT human resources, the inferiority of the number and size of research and development start-ups, and a “rigid socioeconomic structure and the significant lack of globalisation.”

A big boost could be on the horizon. While Japan’s government, businesses and academia are working to tackle some of these issues, the upcoming Tokyo Olympics in 2020 could give the city a leg-up as it ramps up innovative efforts in hospitality, protection against infection, accessibility, security and energy.

For instance, facial recognition technology will be deployed for the first time in the Olympics to improve security while robo taxis are expected to ply the streets to ferry both athletes and tourists.

However, other cities in Asia like Shenzhen and Seoul are nipping at Tokyo’s heels and are innovating just as fast. While Tokyo can learn a lot from these cities “it’s likely to develop and progress its own way in their smart city efforts as outlined in a four-year plan known as New Tokyo New Tomorrow,” says Iwanaga.

And such moves will continue to put the city in a strong position to attract even greater talent and real estate investment.

As Iwanaga sums up: “The world’s most globalized cities attract more than 20 percent of total investment volumes, according to JLL research,  and investors are most interested in innovative cities with the strongest potential to future-proof itself and its assets.”

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