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FEATURE STORY November 17, 2020

Addressing the New Urban Challenges Posed by COVID-19 – Unpacking Japanese Cities’ Practical Experience


Shibuya, one of Tokyo’s most iconic neighborhoods (Photo provided by Tokyu Corporation)

November 17, 2020

Currently, half of the world's population lives in cities and the urban population is projected to reach 80% by 2050.  Rapid urbanization increases the demand for city services, and the capacity of local governments to meet such demand is now being challenged. In recent years, the concept of smart cities has been promoted as a means to transform urban areas into more livable and sustainable environments through the use of innovative, digital solutions.

Over the years, the World Bank, through the Urban, Disaster Risk Management, Resilience and Land Global Practice (GPURL) and Tokyo Development Learning Center (TDLC), has partnered with Smart City Expo World Congress (SCEWC), one of the largest global smart city events, to bring the latest Japanese and global knowledge and experiences to its City Solutions Workshop at Smart City Lab. This year, TDLC hosted a side event at Smart City Live 2020 with a special focus on the impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic on Japanese cities and how they are creatively responding to such challenges. 

Shibuya: Developers rethinking its approach for regeneration under COVID-19

Shibuya is one of Tokyo’s most iconic neighborhoods, known locally as a youthful commerce and entertainment district and also the hub of the city’s IT industry; internationally, its famous “scramble crossing” has become a visual shorthand for Tokyo — exuberant and dense. The neighborhood is currently undergoing a once-in-a-century transformation, with one of the major players being the Tokyu Corporation, a private sector transportation operator and real estate developer.

Ryosuke Toura, Executive General Manager of Tokyu’s Shibuya Development Division called attention to a noteworthy aspect of Japanese cities: Development is often driven by private railway operators, who develop the land along their rail lines, and especially around their hub stations, which in the case of Tokyu is Shibuya Station. For this reason, Japan is often looked at as a model of sophisticated transit-oriented development. 

The pandemic had a big impact on Shibuya’s regeneration plans: passenger traffic was down on rail lines — the primary means of getting around in Japanese cities — and entertainment and commercial districts like Shibuya went quiet. Yet Mr. Toura sees this as an opportunity: in the midst of building as usual, the pandemic has pushed the developer to rethink its approach.

"With COVID-19, you need to really think about the resilience of cities and towns. For one thing, offices and houses must be in closer proximity to each other."
Ryosuke Toura
Executive General Manager of Tokyu’s Shibuya Development Division

Ryosuke Toura (left) from Tokyu Corporation and Victor Mulas (right) from TDLC discuss the impact of COVID-19 on Tokyo’s Shibuya neighborhood. Photo: World Bank Group

Kobe, Yokohama and Fukuoka: Engaging citizens to realize smart city goals under COVID-19 

Kobe, Yokohama, and Fukuoka also shared their smart city initiatives and approaches to address the new COVID19 reality. In Kobe, an existing network of smart phone data, sensors, and surveillance cameras provided useful information to the city, confirming that citizens were heeding warnings to avoid congested areas during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Taisuke Matsuzaki, Director for Smart City Projects at the city’s Planning and Coordination Bureau, explained that the city is workshopping best practices for data visualization as part of its push to improve data literacy among citizens as the city becomes increasingly digitized. Toru Hashimoto, Director General for Development Cooperation at Yokohama’s International Affairs Bureau, also sees digital technologies as powerful tools for communicating with citizens and also for sharing solutions among cities. 

While the Japanese cities covered a broad range of topics—including data visualization, AI, transport, and open-source data—they agreed on one thing: the need to engage citizens in order to realize smart city goals. Koichi Matono from Fukuoka suggested that demonstrations and hands-on experiences can help to convey the merits of new technology to a skeptical public. “Without users, innovation doesn’t spread,” he said. 

However, city initiatives by itself are not enough for widespread availability and impact of smart city solutions nationwide. Tak Nagumo, Executive Director of Smart City Institute Japan, concluded this event sharing a macro-level perspective from Japan and emphasizing the importance of both regulation and deregulation — and striking a balance between the two — to create a baseline condition that is conducive to deploying smart city strategies. Deregulation is often required to reform outdated regulations; in Japan, for example, regulatory schemes created during the economic high growth era are unsuited to the digital era and require reform.  

"In developing smart cities, you need to think about the technical coordination among different stakeholders. At the same time, you need to consider the deregulation of the existing framework."
Tak Nagumo
Executive Director, Smart City Institute Japan