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Euronews Debates: How can digital innovations regenerate a region?

By Jonny Walfisz  & Euronews
How can digital innovations regenerate a region?
How can digital innovations regenerate a region?   -   Copyright  euronews

Many of Japan’s regional communities are at a crossroads. A major change is on the horizon, as the government has announced its intention to tackle widespread issues such as depopulation and ageing populations through an innovative revitalisation plan.

Bringing new digital technologies to the towns and villages in need of regeneration is at the heart of the strategy, encompassing everything from 5G provision to developing infrastructure that can support future services such as automated driving and dynamic traffic control, along with satellite offices.

Euronews brought together a group of influential and experienced policymakers and industry insiders to debate best practices in regeneration.

You can watch the full debate back in the video player above.

Why are rural areas being left behind?

The shift from rural areas to urban sprawl has been seen in all countries. The allure of city life has long been increasing with higher wages and a broader variety of jobs but rural area flight has created structural issues for those left behind.

“There are a lot of problems due to the lack of labour,” KATO Yuriko, CEO of M2Labo.inc., explained. “Young people don’t want to go into farming because it’s dirty, it’s hard work and has low pay.”

Joining the discussion, Chris Starkie, CEO of New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership reflected on the similarities in the UK.

“In the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk, we have a strong pull for young people to go and work in London. The issues around rural life, farming and young people wanting more resonate with our part of the world as well,” he said.

While rural areas have seen a decrease in their younger populations in the past few decades, the trend is beginning to reverse, KATO noted.

“Now young people have realised they don’t need to be so rich. Or they find themselves on the farm joining some growing wealthy farming companies,” she said.

Similarly, the COVID pandemic has shown many people their jobs don’t need to be done from an urban location, just one with an internet connection.

“COVID changed the problem that people felt about where they wanted to live. The pandemic caused younger people to consider moving more rurally, which might also encourage governments to help revitalise areas,” Starkie said.

The Digital Garden City Nation

Aware of the importance of revitalising Japan’s rural regions, the country’s Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida, has put forward a policy called his Vision for a Digital Garden City Nation.

The policy centres on four key pillars:

  1. Building digital infrastructure across the entire country. This includes projects to achieve 5G coverage for 90 per cent of the population by 2023 and optical fibre a universal service for 99.9 per cent of households by 2030.
  2. Developing and securing human resources with digital skills. This focuses on training people to encourage the dissemination of technological solutions and aims to train 450,000 people to bring digital solutions to 2.3 million Japanese by 2026.
  3. Implementing digital services to solve rural issues. This combines digital infrastructure and personnel so that rural industries like agriculture can benefit from modern digital technology.
  4. Initiatives to leave no one behind. This encompasses the goal for the digital revolution of rural areas to be inclusive to older populations.

Announcing the new policy in a recent speech, Kishida said:

“It is the regional areas that play the leading role in a new form of capitalism. We will vigorously promote a Vision for a Digital Garden City Nation and resolve issues common to these local areas while also realising bottom-up growth, from the regions to the nation as a whole.”

He added: “By creating new rules instead of merely deregulating, we aim to give rise to new services in local communities and enrich people’s daily lives.”

“The key goal is to create sustainable businesses and to discover the unique values of different regions and empower them with digital technology,” Mitomo Shigeki, counsellor, cabinet secretariat of the Council for the Realisation of the Vision for a Digital Garden City Nation said in the debate.

Countryside success stories

So what does this look like on the ground? There have been some standout successes in recent years that can undoubtedly serve as inspiration for communities looking to their own futures.

The town of Kamiyama in Tokushima Prefecture, Shikoku, a small, mountainous community that struggled with an ageing population, turned its fortunes around through a series of innovative and creative projects – underpinned by digital development.

A rapid and extensive fibre-optic broadband rollout meant the town became able to support satellite offices for larger companies from Tokyo. Along with arts and international exchange programmes, these changes attracted new residents who in turn breathed new life into the local schools and economy.

Other locations, such as Ina City in Nagano Prefecture tackled the challenge of a shortage of doctors with the help of technology, setting up a mobile health clinic that connected local people with a doctor who could examine them remotely.

VEGI-BUS, a project led by KATO also exemplifies how digital solutions can improve rural residents’ daily challenges by simplifying systems reliant on the big cities. The VEGI-BUS is a web-based system that has locals order groceries directly from local farmers to then be delivered by the Vegi-Bus.

“It stops the vegetables that locals want from having to be transported to major cities first, then redistributed back to the countryside. Instead, they can have their share directly, saving on cost, money, time, freshness and CO2,” explained KATO.

Another initiative to revitalise rural areas came from debate speaker Alex Kerr – as founder and president of NPO Chiiori Trust, he has helped grow the tourism industry of Japan’s Iya Valley.

By restoring classic thatched roof houses to suit modern comforts, Kerr believes his trust has brought sustainable tourism to the area. “The importance of new industries in these areas is key,” he explained. “Agriculture, forestry and fishing have room for great changes, but they are also in trouble. If tourism can be brought to these regions and done sustainably, it can regenerate them.”

Inspirational examples such as these are setting the standard high for future projects in other parts of the country, but naturally, each community has its own unique set of values, strengths and challenges, making revitalisation an exciting, but complex prospect.

Leaving the cities

Although singular projects in the countryside of Japan have already been successful, the members of the panel all recognised the importance of concerted and consistent work to truly regenerate non-urban areas.

The Digital Garden City Nation policy is purposely made to look at broader solutions than simply updating rural infrastructure. “Infrastructure isn’t enough, people are everything,” said Starkie.

In many of the most rural areas, even with a renewed influx of young entrepreneurs, the overall population is ageing and may be reluctant to engage with new technologies.

“Education is key,” says MITOMO. “Our second pillar is human resources. Not just technology but also humanity and leadership,” MITOMO explains.

Already in practice, KATO suggested that having introductory sessions for local elderly people is a valuable way of explaining the need for the new technology as well as how to use it.

Another important factor discussed was the way different sectors need to work together to ensure the longevity of regeneration projects. This could be through using expertise at local universities, with funding from a mixture of central government and private investment.

“You need to understand the strengths and the opportunities of individual locations. There isn’t a one-size-fix-all for all locations,” says Starkie. “You need strong local leadership which comes from a combination of the private, public and academic sector.”

Finally, the simple value of people learning to appreciate the countryside was noted. “Why would you want to live in the countryside instead of Tokyo,” Kerr asked. “It’s for the blue skies. For the trees. For the rice paddies. That’s key to what we’re doing.”

Meet our panellists:

MITOMO Shigeki

Counsellor, Cabinet Secretariat of the Council for the Realization of the Vision for a Digital Garden City Nation.

With a Bachelor's degree in Economics from the University of Tokyo and an MBA from Cornell University in 1999, Mitomo joined the Ministry of Finance in 1995. In-Charge, Finance and Securities, Property Tax Policy, International Finance Organizations (G7/8/20, IMF) and Budget Inspection. Executive Assistant to Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary, Office of the Prime Minister in 2011-12. As a chief researcher at the NRI Center for Strategic Management & Innovation, he led the Japan-China joint research and the study group on the trinity shock revival strategy for the new coronavirus. He has created and founded various organisations including the SDGs Innovation HUB (SIH).

KATO Yuriko

CEO M2Labo.inc.

Kato graduated from the University of Tokyo and has a Master’s degree in Precision Farming from Cranfield University. She joined NASA's project, which looks into producing foods on spaceships. After working for Canon and serving as R&D leader at an industrial machinery company, she founded M2Labo.inc. in 2009 with the aim of achieving a sustainable society. She has expertise in regional business development, agricultural robots, and numerical analysis.

Kato was awarded the Grand Prize in the Development Bank of Japan's New Business Plan Competition for Women Entrepreneurs in 2012.

Chris Starkie

CEO of New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership

Starkie will share his experience of regenerating counties in the east of England and the role digital elements play in that. The LEP Network champions the impact and value of Local Enterprise Partnerships in building local economic growth and prosperity across England. It acts as the lead commentator and negotiator for LEPs at a national level along with government, advisers, businesses, academia, think tanks, among other key players. It also acts as a central source of information and data on LEPs at a national level.

Alex Kerr

Founder and President NPO Chiiori Trust

Hailing from Iya Valley (Tokushima Prefecture), Alex Kerr is a researcher of eastern culture and founder and president of the NPO Chiiori Trust. Born in 1952, in Maryland, USA, he read Japanese Studies at Yale University in 1974. While at Yale, he studied at the International Center of Keio University. After graduating in Chinese Studies at the University of Oxford in 1977, he moved to Japan. He has worked on projects to revitalise old houses in various parts of Japan, including Iya Valley.