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EXCLUSIVE - Enhancing Efficiency, Flexibility and Resilience through Sustainable Smart City projects in Japan

OpenGov discusses the Japanese experience in developing Smart Cities with Dr Masaru Yarime, Project Associate Professor of Science, Technology, and Innovation Governance (STIG), Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Tokyo. He also has an appointment as Honorary Reader of University College London (UCL) in the Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy (STEaPP).

Dr Yarime’s research interests lie in the areas of public policy, corporate strategy, and institutional design for promoting science, technology, and innovation for sustainability.

What are the essential components of a Smart City?

The concept of Smart Cities originally came from the energy sector. Old and deteriorating infrastructure for energy distribution and cost pressure to improve energy efficiency were the drivers. Smart energy systems continue to be one of the most important components.

It is about the exchange of information and energy between supply and demand sides. The objective is to establish efficient energy systems to manage the balance between energy supply and demand efficiently through consumers’ participation in cutting energy consumption during peak periods.

The idea of Smart City has been expanding to include other areas, such as transportation, housing and health. These are increasingly linked to the Internet of Things (IoT).

Can you tell us about the Japanese experience in developing Smart Cities?

There were four big projects funded by the Japanese government, located in Yokohama, Toyota, Keihanna (in the Kansai area), and Kitakyushu. These projects were implemented over 2011-2014. Relevant stakeholders, including local communities and residents were brought together and technologies like demand-response and dynamic pricing systems were tested and demonstrated.

In Yokohama, there was large scale introduction of renewable energy and electric vehicles over a wide-area metropolis. Home Energy Management Systems (HEMS) were installed in 4000 households. In Toyota, there was focus on local production for local consumption and 67 households in separate housing were equipped with solar panels, household fuel cells and storage batteries.

In Keihanna, the project involved 700 houses and HEMS and consulting businesses about saving energy. In Kitakyushu, large steel and metal companies supplied power over a designated area, with dynamic pricing system for 180 households.

Traditionally, housing, transportation and energy sectors have been rather independent. There is a trend towards integration. For instance, in Toyota, there is an initiative for electric vehicles to be connected to smart housing and then to the energy grid, so that they can exchange energy. But there is still a long way to go.

What role can be played by public private partnerships (PPP) in developing smart cities?

In the four big projects I mentioned, there were consortiums set up in each region, comprising the local government, private sector and users. PPP is very important but there is a challenge. There is a knowledge gap between the private sector, which is normally represented by big companies with advanced expertise and technologies, and the local government and community. Sometimes, the local governments are not familiar with the latest technologies. They lack the capacity to understand and discuss with the big private players on an equal footing. This asymmetric knowledge and capacity poses a problem.

How do you think this gap can be bridged?

From a long-term perspective, I think it would take some time for the local governments to develop the capacity and human resources. But a short-term measure would be to hire experts from the private sector. Exchange of human resources could be one way of addressing it.

What are some common challenges faced in implementation of Smart City projects?

One common challenge around the world is how to get the end-user, the consumer or the citizen to join actively in these consortiums created at a local level. There is scope for significant improvement in the degree of their participation in the implementation of Smart City projects. Getting the end-users involved at an early stage in the projects could improve the situation.

The local governments could support getting their involvement in the consortia. Ideally, it would be co-creation of the project.

Could you tell us about the use of IoT in Smart City projects in Japan?

Smart meters were one of the first IoT technologies to be used. They can measure energy consumption and are also linked with other houses, so that collectively energy can be managed at the community level. These kinds of community energy management systems (CEMS) are very important.

This system could also be linked to other electronic products, even your TV and refrigerator in the house, so that the whole system could become responsive and sophisticated. Data related to energy consumption of each item could be managed.

Transportation could also be integrated. Individual vehicles could be linked and potentially it could be linked to public transportation also. By combining public and private transportation, the whole urban transportation system could become more efficient and convenient. These are also not implemented yet but could be important in the future.

All the data about movement of vehicles could be linked. In such instance, huge amount of data would be available. The challenges are how to manage this data, who has access to it and for what purposes.

Right now, for example, the operator of Community Energy Management Systems (CEMS) would control the access to big data. It’s not easy for other parties to access it. I don’t think there is any uniform regulation regarding who owns the data and who manages it. At the moment, it depends on local conditions and local environment, the local context.

Are there any common IoT standards being developed?

As I mentioned previously, initially the focus was on Smart energy. There were discussions about standardisation of the energy systems. Open Automated Demand Response (OpenADR) was fast becoming the standard for Smart automated energy systems. OpenADR 2.0 technology standard was adopted following feasibility, interoperability and connectivity testing in 2013. It facilitated the development of HEMS and Building Energy Management Systems (BEMS).

Leading companies formed an alliance to prepare a multi-vendor device environment and integrate a range of devices from LED lights and thermostats to demand-flexible water heaters and battery storage with the IT networks.

But now you also have IoT and there are many different standards, such as ZigBee, Bluetooth Low-Energy and more. There are no de-facto standards yet in the area. Many companies, coalitions and associations are competing with each other to set standards. It is a very fluid situation. Appropriate ways of coordination need to be considered in the future.

How can smart cities help in reducing environmental burdens?

We need to reduce CO2 emissions, as climate change is a major global concern.

Renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, which fluctuate according to natural conditions, are expected to play a bigger role in such sustainable dynamic energy systems. The flexibility makes it easier to integrate renewable sources into the grid.

Government has planned that by 2030 renewable energy will constitute 22-24% of the energy mix. But that is with the assumption that nuclear power will provide around 20% of total requirements.

It might be difficult to have that contribution from nuclear energy, with the shut-down of nuclear power plants following the Fukushima accident. Hence, it would probably be necessary to increase the share of renewable energy sources to maybe 30% or even higher in the future.

How do Smart City projects cope with pressures created by population changes in Japan?

In Japan, we face a declining and ageing population. The labour force is shrinking. I think IoT provides huge opportunities in this area. IoT could be applied to infrastructure, like roads, bridges and dams. Many of them were constructed years ago and they need to be monitored and inspected, so that repairs can be made, as and when required. IoT could replace manual monitoring. It would also play a significant role in providing various types of care services to elderly people.

Application of IoT in the manufacturing sector can introduce higher efficiency and intelligence and can help offset shortages in labour availability.

These smart systems linked to IoT collect huge amounts of data. Value has to be derived from the data. It can be used for machine learning and developing Artificial Intelligence (AI). This will have huge implications in the Japanese context.

What measures are being taken for natural disasters?

As you know, Japan has faced a wide array of disasters from earthquakes to tsunamis and typhoons. All infrastructure is potentially vulnerable to the disasters.

Fukushima demonstrated the vulnerability of conventional centralized and rigid energy systems. There is a need to make the energy system more efficient, flexible and resilient. Resiliency could be improved through decentralisation, so that even if one plant or one line is damaged, energy supply is not interrupted. Thus, smart cities could play a crucial role.

One of the ways to do that is by making demand-supply matching more efficient. By doing so, you can avoid large investments in boosting the supply side.

After the earthquake and tsunami in Fukushima, the systems in the cars running on the road, people could see which parts of the road are congested, so that they could choose an alternate route. Necessary measures can be taken with that kind of information. This kind of IoT provides huge potential for increasing resilience in the face of disasters.

The monitoring of dams, rivers, ports have a more direct implication in terms of observations and creating early-warning systems in the case of typhoons, hurricanes or other disasters.

How can we add ‘Smart’ to existing cities?

In Japan, we cannot expect something entirely new, created from scratch. Smart City projects involve retrofitting the relevant technologies in existing cities. Technologically speaking, it might not be easy to install something completely new, adding state-of-the-art technologies to existing facilities.

Moreover, you already have residents living in the cities. Again this goes back to the question of how to inform and involve the users at the local level and generate a consensus from an early stage. That is the key and a big challenge.  

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