Social Innovation and Smart Cities are about the Present and not the Future

Social Innovation and Smart City Week

For the past 4 years, Nikkei Business Publications, Inc. (NikkeiBP) has organized a Smart City Week event in Yokohama. The first event, in 2011, was primarily a conference, with 5000 participants. In 2012 and 2013, the conference and exhibition expanded, with the number of attendees growing to 22,601 (2012) and more than 30,000 (2013). In particular, the number of guests from overseas expanded from 940 (2012) to more than 3000 (2013). This is not unsurprising considering the considerable expansionary efforts of the Japan government to grow tourism and the export of ecological technologies.

This year, the event evolved to include the concept of Social Innovation to Smart City Week. It is likely that this is because the concurrent shows, such as Next Generation Healthcare, Energy Security/Management, and Disaster Preparedness, as well as Display Innovation, point towards not merely smarter cities but innovation that lead to greater happiness and quality of life for societies.

Whatever the reason, it seems to me that the Social Innovation/Smart City Week event is one that should continue to grow in stature and importance in the coming years. The role that large urban areas play in moving societies to more sustainable means of organization and function continues to grow. Governments, enterprises, and educational institutions can each play a vital role in making our cities smarter.

Yokohama and Minato Mirai

One of the features that is a highlight of the event is that it is held in Yokohama. Most of Japan's major exhibitions are held, of course, in Tokyo. Certainly Makuhari Messe, in Chiba has long been the venue of major exhibitions, but Tokyo Big Sight and Tokyo International Forum are the sites of the lion's share of major exhibitions. But the Pacifico Yokohama Conference Center and Minato Mirai is an ideal venue for the event.

The venue itself is in Minato Mirai, which means "Future Port" in Japanese, shedding light on the idea that a port city should be a focus point for efforts to make a better future. The location itself is the result of a more than 20 year plan to revitalize a large waterfront zone that was, at the onset, fairly dilapidated and dirty. Today, after the project's first 20 years, which coincided with the collapsing of Japan's "Bubble Economy" and the "Lost Years" of economic doldrums, the entire Minato Mirai area is home to some of the most sought residential, retail, resort, and office locations. The iconic Landmark Building, Queen's Square, the Red Brick Warehouse, and Pacifico Yokohama are all shining lights of the Minato Mirai 21 project, which will continue to make Yokohama on the brightest starts of global Smart City programs.

In the conference and exhibition program itself, the Yokohama Day event has become one of its highlights. The event features booths and presentations from people representing government, industry, educational, and non-profit sectors. It showcases cutting edge technologies and innovative programs from enterprises both large and small.

There are two factors, though, that I think are critical to its success. First, Yokohama's history as a port city, where much of the international freight continues to pass through, makes it a beachhead for social innovations that can have a global impact. Second, as an industrial city, Yokohama and Minato Mirai were not as clean as current development seem to indicate. Rather, even fairly recently - even 30-40 years ago - the air and water pollution around the port was exemplary of the worst side of industrial development. So when Yokohama, Kawasaki, Yokosuka, and Kanagawa Prefecture boast of advances in the ecological environment, working and living conditions, and the general quality of life improvements the city is making, it is a story not of a Prince's life, but of a pauper with princely aspirations and principles that make a difference for the entire kingdom.

Smart is fun

Ultimately, the impact of Social Innovation/Smart City Week must be felt in the cities and communities in which we live to be meaningful. Ecological concepts are only good if they affect our lives in a way that help make human activities sustainable for future generations of people on this planet. For me, one of the critical ways in which this can be sustained is that it's gotta be fun.

It's probably not surprising, then, that I found displayed in the event a brain wave controlled helicopter. It has many limitations, of course, but the idea that one can control the helicopter's flight path by thinking about where it should go is delightful! Packaging, too, is important. We can certainly use less of it in what we use, but there is no doubt that we need some packaging for pretty much everything we need. Getting smarter in designing, reusing, and recycling it is critical for sustainability.

There is so much more I could write about the event - I will in a few more specific features - but in a nutshell, the event is fun. It does not feel like work to consider all of the possibilities and find companies to collaborate with. It is great work, but the work is great because it is good for the world, smart, and loads of fun!

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