Smart Japan: Observations from an interdisciplinary urban design studio

by Emma French

Shibuya Crossing in Central Tokyo, reportedly the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world

In March, I had the incredible opportunity to travel to Japan for a week with 18 students for Georgia Tech’s Smart City Urban Design Studio led by Professor Perry Yang. The purpose of the studio is to explore how smart city technologies and tools such as 3D GIS, urban energy modeling, eco district certifications such as LEED ND, IoT (Internet of Things), pervasive computing, and big data can be incorporated in design processes to support the shaping of ecologically responsive, resilient, and human sensing urban environments. Comprised of Georgia Tech graduate students in city planning, architecture, policy, industrial design, and interactive computing, the studio represents a collaboration between Georgia Tech, the Global Carbon Project (GCP), the National Institute for Environmental Studies (NIES), and the Department of Urban Engineering of the University of Tokyo.

At the beginning of the studio, we divided ourselves into four groups based on our interests and areas of expertise: Conceptual Design (mostly made up of architects), Performance Modeling (mostly planners), Smart City Computing (a mix of industrial designers, interactive programmers, and planners), and Community Engagement (planners and policy students).

Our task: To design a framework for the smart development of a satellite city called Urawa Misono in Saitama Prefecture, Japan. About 45 minutes from Tokyo by train, Urawa Misono is the last stop on the the Saitama Rapid Railway Line. Every two weeks thousands of REDs soccer fans swarm the station and walk or drive to the massive Saitama Stadium that was constructed in 2002 to host the FIFA championships.

Georgia Tech students walking from the train station to Saitama Stadium on their site visit in Urawa Misono

Saitama Stadium will be an important site for the 2020 Olympics, prompting local and regional officials to think about how they are going to accommodate the massive influx of people coming in for the games. Even without the Olympics, Urawa Misono’s current population of a little over 7,000 is expected to triple in size to over 32,000 by 2030. To top it all off, the national government has identified Urawa Misono as a potential site of smart development, leading to increased investment in the area by smart city leaders, such as Toyota and IBM.

Japan is already considered one of the smartest countries in the world, with its tech savvy population and concentration of tech conglomerates. Japan’s national Smart ICT Strategy published in 2014 by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications laid out the country’s goal of becoming a global leader in ICT innovation by 2020.

We experienced many of Japan’s smart technologies in our first hours on the ground. From the public toilets that have heated seats and play music to ensure privacy, to the heated floors in our residence, the most obvious innovations seemed closely tied to individual human comfort. Other innovations, such as the rapid transit systems and compact residential developments focused more on efficiency and convenience than individual comfort.


Top: Smart toilets in Japan allow you to adjust the temperature of the seat, play music, and flush by simply waving your hand in front of a sensor. Bottom: Japan’s extensive urban rail network transports 40 million people daily. Biking is so prevalent on the University of Tokyo’s campus that individuals are required to register for a parking spot at $20/month.

Due to the purpose of our visit, I found myself noticing things that I probably would have overlooked on any other trip. Things like the reflectors set up along the highway that eliminated the need for energy intensive overhead street lights. Or the six different types of trash and recycling receptacles lined up in Ueno park. Perhaps the most intriguing innovation was a road in rural area that we visited that played a song as your drove over it. The purpose of the musical road was to announce to visitors that they were entering a particular region known for its fruit production.

Our studio forced me to think not just about the initial purpose of these smart innovations, but also about their ongoing performance. Leading up to our trip, one of the biggest challenges for us as a studio had been effectively integrating the work being done by each of the subgroups into one coherent proposal. During an initial charrette we came up with our own parameters for a smart city, as one that is sustainable, adaptable, and equitable. Designing a framework for the development of such a place—in a country we knew very little about—proved exceedingly difficult. As the conceptual design team drew initial plans and the performance modeling group came up with performance measurements with which to evaluate those plans, the smart city computing team grappled with the challenge of creating adaptable public spaces and structures and the community engagement team attempted to use technology to communicate with residents in Urawa Misono to ensure that our studio’s proposals were grounded in local customs and needs.

The challenges faced by our studio—making our design proposals sustainable, adaptable, and locally relevant—are some of the fundamental challenges facing smart city initiatives around the world. While smart infrastructure has the potential to improve urban functionality, in order to create truly smart cities we need to be continuously evaluating them based on more than just technology deployment. A comprehensive, ongoing evaluation system, perhaps something along the lines of Bloomberg’s newly released National Standard for Data-Driven Government, is needed to ensure that smart city initiatives are not solely about technology, but also about achieving long-term efficiency, addressing local needs, and promoting equity.

To learn more about the Misono Smart City Studio check out of blog:


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