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Europe, the US and China dominate smart city developments, Singapore and South Korea are grabbing some headlines, while India floods news feeds with its own smart city ambitions.

Quietly a giant sleeps, a tech giant with the capacity for great smartness is slowly but surely developing its cities in a bid to leap frog all other countries and become the world’s leading smart nation. Welcome to Smart Japan.

Away from the noise around terms like the “Internet of Things”, the Asia-Pacific nation put together their ‘Smart Japan ICT Strategy’. The mission of this strategy is both clear and ambitious, “To be the most active country in the world – Realizing Japan’s economic growth and contribution to international society through innovation by ICT.”

The strategy’s vision is for Japan to build “a knowledge and information-based nation by 2020”. If you think that sounds too ambitious, consider Japan’s birth as an industrialized nation. In the matter of 40 years, Japan moved from a feudal, Samurai-led system to a global industrialized economy under the inspired leadership of Emperor Meiji. Once isolated, Japan sent its best and brightest around the world to learn then return and shape the nation’s future.

The transition to a smart nation is not nearly as extreme; Japan is, of course, the home of many tech-based, multi-national conglomerates. Its society is forward thinking and tech savvy, and it has the ambition to be a world leader in technology development. However, the path to a smart Japan is not without its challenges, not least turning vast existing cities into smart ones.

To achieve this, Japan’s municipal governments turned to private sector’s business savvy and technology expertise to fill knowledge gaps for “smart” city initiatives. For each smart city project, consortiums were created to match local governments with companies, with the emphasis on retrofitting existing infrastructure rather than building new cities in the already crowded island nation.

“There were four big projects funded by the Japanese government, located in Yokohama, Toyota, Keihanna, 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,” explained Dr Masaru Yarime, Project Associate Professor of Science, Technology, and Innovation Governance (STIG), Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Tokyo.

In Yokohama, development was epitomized by comprehensive introduction of renewable energy and electric vehicles over the wide-area metropolis. Home energy management systems (HEMS) were installed in 4000 households. In Toyota, home of the car manufacturer and wider conglomerate, there was focus on local production for local consumption and 67 households in separate housing were decked with solar panels, household fuel cells and storage batteries.

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

Demand reduction (DR) efforts found varying degrees of success in Yokohama City, depending on how the DR was implemented. Reductions in electricity demand ranged from 4.2-7.2% with the highest reductions seen among those who were given incentives. The large amount of data collected by the HEMS also provided the opportunity to learn a household’s lifestyle in order to balance power conservation with comfort.

The Toyota City portion of the project, entitled, “Smart Mobility & Energy Life in Toyota City” demonstrated that energy savings could be achieved with a DC control system that utilized as much of the rooftop PV power as possible, combining battery storage with DR-type strategies that utilized equipment at optimal times. Results were sufficiently encouraging that predictions suggest that rooftop PV should achieve grid parity before 2020.

More recently, a new EU-Japan collaboration looks to take smart cities to the next level with a cloud-based open data platform. The research project “City Platform-as-a-Service – integrated and open” or for short is an EU-funded initiative and partnership between government and private sector players in Japan and Europe, with a key roles being played by Bern University’s E-Government Institute and Japan’s YRP Ubiquitous Networking Laboratory.

The collaboration aims to develop cloud-based urban data infrastructure that will be used as a key foundation that all smart cities around the world can be built on. The experimental platform will work toward linking such technologies as big data, Internet of Things and cloud computing with linked open data and open government data. This will allow cities and private firms to develop new applications and services for the public and businesses.

“The platform – operated by or on behalf of a city – thus forms the basis for an open digitized society, making the city more attractive for its citizens and new businesses, and also helping the city in streamlining and improving its own governmental processes and services,” according to the project website.

Much like during the Meiji Restoration era, Japan has quietly, confidently and quickly moved from an outsider in a global technological movement to an influential global leader. With major test beds already providing constructive results and an ambitious strategy in place, we should expect to see Smart Japan leading us into a Smart World in the coming years.

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