Who needs 5G? In Japan, this smart city does what its citizens need, right now

The concept of the smart city can still sound like science fiction. A place made up of millions of interconnected devices, from cars to thermostats, and much of it powered by both a next-generation telecoms network, and sometimes even wireless charging roadways. But this is the smart city of the far future, and the smart city project underway in Fukuoka, Japan is not that. It’s a smart city you can use today, which ends up benefitting the people who live there right now.

It’s the work of messaging app Line’s team in Fukuoka and running with the complete backing of the local major’s office, and although the scheme won’t transport you to work in an autonomous car just yet, it simplifies daily life, and keeps you safe should life take a terrifying turn. I spoke to Line Fukouka’s smart city team during the Line Developer Conference in Tokyo — and saw what could become the template for burgeoning smart cities around the world.

What is Fukuoka’s smart city?

“Right here and right now,” Line Fukuoka’s Chief Operating Officer Yusuke Suzuki told select journalists during a briefing, when asked to best describe the system and its benefits. It’s specifically focused on solving everyday problems for everyone in the city, young and old, rather than zapping them into a sci-fi future.

“Smart cities need to be used in order to be smart,” he continued. “We focus on issues faced by citizens now, not those on the future.”

What does this mean in reality? Line Fukuoka’s smart city services operate through the ubiquitous Line messaging app, used by more than 80 million people in Japan, and it requires you to subscribe to the local government’s official Line feed. Currently, there are 1.63 million people subscribed, more than any other government feed in Japan, and a sizeable percentage of the 5 million people living in the city.

There are three primary services offered now — infrastructure reports, bulky trash removal, and disaster/evacuation support. These are augmented by other connected services being trialed, including umbrella rental and electric scooter rental schemes.

Why these services?

Line Fukuoka’s natural disaster help page

Smart cities must serve the population, and Line Fukuoka has targeted the worst, most time consuming, and most difficult to achieve issues for its citizens. Therefore, you will need context to understand the benefits if you don’t actually live in Fukuoka. Let’s start with the decidedly non-sexy bulky trash removal. In Japan, this is a time-consuming nightmare of bureaucracy. Say you’ve purchased a new refrigerator. To get the old one taken away you must apply to the local government by phone or online first to initiate the removal, then go to pay the resulting fee at a convenience store, and finally wait for a future, usually inconvenient and unchangeable collection date.

Because Line is working with the government on the project, all the above is completed through the messaging app and with a chat bot. The payment is made using Line Pay, and the appointment gets confirmed with an actual time, making collection more convenient. This simplified process takes minutes compared to days, and it’s the same system used to report infrastucture issues like potholes in the road, damage or problems in public spaces, or something like a streetlight out of action.

Finally, Line Fukuoka addresses what it called the number one problem faced by Japanese residents — getting and providing crucial, life-saving information in the result of a natural disaster. I saw a demonstration of what could happen in the event of an earthquake. A dedicated app page is immediately activated by the government, and provides instant advice on what to do and where to go. It shows evacuation shelter details, including whether they are actually open or not.

The service is interactive. It asks you to tell it where you are — in the house, in the car, or on the train, for example. Then it gets more granular, so you can say if you’re at the office, or in a shop. It then immediately sends through suggestions on what to do related to your direct environment, including warnings about what you may experience, and relevant safety measures. Much of this is the kind of sensible advice that in times of stress goes completely out of your head. The app can pinpoint your location, or you can set it yourself, and then share with your friends and family who are connected to the app, alerting them to your wellbeing.

How to work smarter

Line Fukuoka’s umbrella rental service

Line Fukuoka’s approach to the smart city is beginning to make a difference. Reporting of infrastructure issues has increased by 11% compared to this time last year, and 800 reports have been filed since the project started three months ago; but because it’s not Line’s job to go out and fix the pothole making a road difficult to pass, has the local government been following through? Although there are no statistics yet, and this was obviously a concern for the team based on their reaction when I asked about it, once again the response was relevant to the local population, underlining how global smart cities will benefit residents.

A convenient, accurate way of reporting issues means the government is made aware of those that never went reported before.

“The goal of our smart city is expediting the business of living in the city,” Suzuki told me.

Local problems are reported by using both a photo and exact GPS coordinates, and a chat bot does the communication, rather than a time-consuming phone call and trying to relay complicated location details.

“Lessening the friction means more problems are likely to get fixed,” Suzuki continued. Additionally, because Japan’s population is shrinking and ageing, it’s an interesting way of engaging people who aren’t of working age. Provided they can use Line, those who can’t fix the potholes can get still involved in a useful way and become the government’s eyes. Fukuoka as a whole is working more smartly because of the connected, convenient services being provided by Line.

5G, and future plans

Smart cities of the future will be powered by 5G, or a further iteration of the technology; but Fukuoka runs on 4G, and even 3G. This enables the services to be used by everyone, now. Suzuki explained that 5G isn’t that important to the project, saying the driver is what the citizens need, rather than looking far into the future. However, when something comes up that requires or takes advantage of 5G, it will be welcomed. One such possibility is the use of drones to bring fresh catches from the fishing boats along Fukuoka’s remote coastline islands directly to people and eventually merchants on the shore.

Line Fukuoka is also collaborating with Taipei in Taiwan, where a similar scheme is underway. It is also taking a different approach to the smart city, saying that sustainability is the ultimate goal, and that making the city smarter is the toolkit for this. Some of its initiatives are more reminiscent of what we usually expect in a smart city. It’s testing a small autonomous bus, for example. It runs in small areas late at night, so it doesn’t disturb the usual traffic flow, but still provides a valuable service.

Taipei is also experimenting with smart intersection control on its road. By using 360-degree cameras it monitors traffic flow with artificial intelligence, whereas before an actual person was present at these busy spots. The cameras understand vehicle type and weather conditions, and then adjust traffic controls to help maintain flow. This is part of a larger, global smart city initiative, and data is shared with dozens of other cities around the world.

Line Fukuoka’s smart city works now, and the team has grand plans for the future.

“The intention is for Fukuoka to be a template for smart cities in Asia,” Suzuki said,

It may not be especially glamorous, but Fukuoka’s first steps into creating a smart city are working now, and benefiting the residents and the city. These are the building blocks that will enable it to grasp the next-generation smart city tech when it actually arrives.

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