How can countries renew underpopulated areas and bring new life? With its aging population, Japan is turning to innovative digital technologies under a new program called Digital Garden City.
Tokushima’s Kamiyama village, home to 5,000 residents, is a good example of this type of renewal. Its rebirth can be attributed to one man and the massive development of broadband. “I asked myself: Can I turn this beautiful place into a Silicon Valley? That’s why I started the digitalization of the town,” explains NPO Green Valley manager Ominami Shinya, who grew up in the area.
Satellite offices installed in old houses
The company Engawa, a satellite office of Plat Ease, is set up in an old house with a veranda and hosts the owner Mr. Sumita and his employees. About a dozen companies, mostly from the Information and Telecommunications sector, have set up satellite offices in the area, mostly in renovated traditional houses.
Sumita Tetsu, a Tokyo entrepreneur who is president and CEO of Engawa Corporation, opened Kamiyama’s largest satellite office in 2013, employing about 15 people. “In our case, employees can choose to work in Tokyo or Kamiyama; positions and salaries are basically the same in both places,” he said. “I think the number of companies using digital technology in rural areas will gradually increase.”
‘Create a town where you can feel the potential, where you can feel the excitement’
Today, the number of people moving to Kamiyama is greater than the number leaving. 70 percent of children in kindergarten come from families that moved to the village.
Green Valley, a non-profit organization based in Kamiyama, has the mission of solving regional problems through art and culture. He initiated the renovation of the village in 1999 by hosting artists from elsewhere in Japan and from outside the country, and subsequently facilitating companies to move there.
“We want to build a town where you can feel the potential and feel the excitement,” said Green Valley General Manager Takeuchi Kazuhiro. “That’s why we support companies, for example, by showing them properties and putting them in touch with their neighbours.”
Bring medical cure closer to people
The city of Ina is also using digitalization to improve the lives of local people. The company, which delivers medical supplies to the elderly via drones, has taken steps to bring hospital services closer to the elderly and isolated patients.
It often snows in the Japanese Alps in winter, creating another obstacle to overcome. The mobile clinic was a godsend for Mr. Nishimura, who was able to access treatment at his home, an hour away from the nearest hospital. A doctor from the hospital conducts consultations via video conferencing.
“When I go to the hospital, there are people around and there are things I can’t say. Here, face to face, I feel like I can really express my concerns,” she says.
It seems that this method will also benefit doctors. “Reducing travel time means I can spend longer with my patients,” says Dr IKUO Kamiyama.
**Bringing people back** to Fukushima
Regional revival in Japan is not just about rural areas; Another prefecture looking to attract new residents is Fukushima, which was evacuated after the 2011 nuclear disaster. Mr. Wada settled in Fukushima prefecture in 2005 and was evacuated in 2011; it has since moved to five different locations before returning to the area.
Since 2014, an incubator in Minamisoma, a city in Fukushima Prefecture, has in some cases welcomed start-ups from other regions. Its founder is also determined to expedite the return of evacuees to his city, which is about 20 km away from the power plant.
“If there are too many problems and people think they cannot live here, I am ready to start 100, even 1000 small and medium-sized companies, and this is my mission,” said WADA CEO WADA Tomoyuki. Focusa Workers’ Base.
One of the 18 businesses launched with the support of the Kolaya Labor Base was started by a professional horse rider. His company offers horse tours to tourists in a town famous for its equestrian traditions.
The Haccoba team opened a craft saké brewery where they produce traditional Japanese beverages. “Working here makes me feel like I can contribute something to our production. For example, there are rice growers in an area close to the power plant, and we can showcase their efforts to the whole world through our saké,” said SATO Taisuke, CEO of Haccoba.
Robots in rural areas
A future-oriented innovation movement is gaining traction in Minamisoma by promoting revitalization through technology. A unique robot testing center in the city has a role to play. Companies are testing all kinds of robots in the air, underwater and on the ground, especially those that specialize in disaster work.
Robots can, for example, deliver shopping or medicine to isolated areas. Professor Suzuki is the director of the test center and thinks introducing robots to rural areas is “very promising” and could “create new jobs”.