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Digitisation and new tech to help regenerate rural areas in Japan

How can countries regenerate and bring new life to underpopulated regions? Japan, with its ageing population, is using innovative digital technologies in a new programme: Digital Garden City.

In 60 years the village of Kamiyama has lost 70 percent of its population, yet it is still an example of how to beat this trend. This village of 5,000 people has awakened thanks to one man and intensive broadband development. “I asked myself, can I transform this beautiful place into a Silicon Valley and that’s why I began the digitalisation of the town, explains Ominami Shinya, director of NPO Green Valley who grew up in the area.

Satellite offices built in old houses

Engawa company, satellite office of Plat Ease is set up in an old house with a veranda. Mr Sumita, owner of the company, with his employees. A dozen or so companies created satellite offices, often in renovated traditional houses. Most are from the Information and Telecommunications sector.

Accompanied by Green Valley, this Tokyo entrepreneur opened the village’s largest satellite office in 2013, employing around 15 people.“In our case, employees can choose to work either in Tokyo or in Kamiyama – the positions and the salaries are fundamentally the same in both places, says Sumita Tetsu, president & CEO of Engawa Corporation,_ I think the number of companies using digital technology in rural areas will only go up.”_

“Create a town where you can sense the potential and feel the excitement”

Today the number of people moving to Kamiyama is higher than the number leaving. 70 percent of the children in the nursery are from families who have moved to Kamiyama.

The regeneration of Kamiyama began in 1999, with the hosting of artists from Japan and elsewhere. Then Green Valley decided to start making it easier for companies to relocate here.

“We want to build a town where you can sense the potential and feel the excitement, says Takeuchi Kazuhiro, Managing Director NPO Green Valley, Inc. So we support companies by, for example, showing them properties and putting them in contact with neighbours.”

Bring medical care closer to people

The city of Ina is also using digitalisation to improve local people’s lives. It delivers the elderly with drones, or like here, brings the hospital closer to the elderly and isolated patients.

Here in the Japanese Alps it often snows in winter and it is another obstacle to get around. The mobile clinic was a boon for Mr. Nishimura. He was able to access treatment at home, an hour from the nearest hospital. A doctor from the hospital conducts the consultation via video conference.

“When I go to hospital there are people around and there are things I don’t get to say. Here, face to face, I feel I can really explain my concerns, he says.

But for doctors, this method seems to be beneficial too. “Reducing travel time means I can spend longer with my patients,” says Dr IKUO Kamiyama.

Bringing back people to Fukushima

Mr Wada settled in the region in 2005 and was evacuated in 2011. He moved to five different places before coming back to his place. Regional revitalization in Japan is not just about rural areas. Another province that wants to attract new residents is Fukushima, evacuated after the 2011 nuclear catastrophe.

Since 2014 this incubator in Minamisoma has welcomed start ups, sometimes from other regions. Its founder also determined to accelerate the return of evacuees to his city, 20 kilometres from the power plant.

“If there are a lot of problems and people don’t think they can live here, well, I am ready to create 100, or even 1000 Small and medium-sized companies, and that’s my mission, explains WADA Tomoyuki, CEO of Odaka Worker’s Base.

Among the 18 businesses launched with the support of Odaka Workers base, is one started by a professional rider. His company offers horseback tours to tourists, in a town famous for its equestrian traditions.

The Haccoba team opened an artisanal SAké brewery, the famous Japanese beverage, and setting up shop in this area is no small matter. “Working here makes me feel I can add something to our fabrication. For example, in a zone close to the power plant there are rice growers, and we can showcase their efforts through our saké to the whole world, tells us SATO Taisuke, CEO at haccoba, Inc.

Robots in rural zones

In Minamisoma, there is an innovation movement for the future. Revitalization is not only through digital but also through technology. And this unique robot testing center settled in the city has a role to play. In the air, underwater, on the ground – companies test all types of robots, particularly those specialising in disaster work.

Robots can, for example, deliver shopping or medicine in isolated zones. Professor Suzuki is the director of this test centre in Fukushima and thinks the introduction of robots in rural zones is “very promising”. He adds that putting some in these areas could “create new jobs”.



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