How can countries regenerate and bring new life to underpopulated regions? Japan, with its ageing population, is turning to innovative digital technologies as part of a new programme named Digital Garden City.
The village of Kamiyama, in Tokushima, which has 5,000 residents, is a good example of such regeneration. Its rebirth can be attributed 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, a satellite office of Plat Ease, is set up in an old house with a veranda and it hosts Mr Sumita, the company's owner, and his employees. Around a dozen companies, most from the Information and Telecommunications sector, have created satellite offices in the area, often in renovated traditional houses.
Sumita Tetsu, an entrepreneur from Tokyo who is president and CEO of Engawa Corporation, opened Kamiyama’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," he said. "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. As many as 70 per cent of the children in the nursery are from families who have moved to the village.
Green Valley, a non-profit organisation based in Kamiyama, has the mission of solving regional problems with arts and culture. It kicked off the regeneration of the village in 1999 by hosting artists from elsewhere in Japan and outside the country, then by making it easier for companies to relocate there.
“We want to build a town where you can sense the potential and feel the excitement," said Takeuchi Kazuhiro, Managing Director of Green Valley. "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 medical supplies to the elderly with drones and has taken steps to bring hospital services closer to the elderly and isolated patients.
In the Japanese Alps, it often snows in winter and this presents another obstacle to overcome. A mobile clinic was a boon for resident Mr Nishimura who was able to access treatment at home, an hour from the nearest hospital. A doctor from the hospital conducts the consultations via video conference.
"When I go to the 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.
This method seems to be beneficial for doctors too. "Reducing travel time means I can spend longer with my patients," says Dr IKUO Kamiyama.
**Bringing people **back to Fukushima
Regional revitalisation in Japan is not just about rural areas – another province that wants to attract new residents is Fukushima, which was evacuated after the 2011 nuclear catastrophe. Mr Wada settled in the Fukushima prefecture in 2005 and was evacuated in 2011; he has since moved to five different places before coming back to the area.
Since 2014, an incubator in Minamisoma, a city located in Fukushima Prefecture, has welcomed start-ups, in some cases from other regions. Its founder is also determined to accelerate the return of evacuees to his city, which lies around 20 km 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 1,000 small and medium-sized companies, and that’s my mission," said 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 horserider. His company offers horseback tours to tourists in a town famous for its equestrian traditions.
The Haccoba team opened an artisanal saké brewery where they produce the traditional Japanese beverage. "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," said Haccoba CEO SATO Taisuke.
Robots in rural zones
In Minamisoma, an innovation movement for the future is gaining traction – promoting revitalisation through technology. A unique robot testing centre in the city has a role to play. Companies test all types of robots, particularly those specialising in disaster work, in the air, underwater, and on the ground.
Robots can, for example, deliver shopping or medicine in isolated zones. Professor Suzuki is the director of the test centre and thinks the introduction of robots in rural zones is "very promising"and could "create new jobs".