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Disaster management: how Japan is turning to technology

Disaster management: how Japan is turning to technology

This year - the 10th anniversary of Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami – has not only brought back vivid memories of working in our Tokyo office that day, and what happened in the months that followed.

It’s also shone a light on how hard Japan is hit by natural disasters – and the country’s acute need for technologies to help manage them.

Events of 2011

The 2011 earthquake and ensuing tsunami flattened thousands of homes and buildings, destroyed critical infrastructure and led to the worst nuclear meltdown since Chernobyl.

All in all, approximately 18,500 people lost their lives and the country suffered over US $235 billion in damages. Many residential areas of Fukushima remain uninhabitable to this day and look likely to continue to be so for years to come.

In Japan - and globally - this type of threat has only increased with the onset of pandemics and the increased frequency and ferocity of weather-related disasters brought on by climate change.

Over the last decade, Japan has weathered about 20% of the world’s “strong” earthquakes – those with a magnitude of 6 or greater - as well as a great many tropical storms.

So, it’s no surprise Japan is a nation in search of solutions for holding these forces at bay, or at least mitigating their effects - and ultimately saving lives.

Technology to the rescue?!

This past December, the Japanese government adopted a five-year, 15-trillion yen ($144.4 billion) plan to accelerate its anti-disaster preparations.

Technological solutions for increasing infrastructure resilience, mitigating the consequences of disasters and facilitating society’s ability to respond to them swiftly are a big focus.

And, since Japan doesn’t have an abundance of startups developing software and cloud-based artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT) and AR solutions, it continues to look abroad for technologies it can integrate and implement. And these can broadly be divided into three types: prevention & preparation; assessment & response; and rehabilitation, recovery & reconstruction.

1. Prevention & preparation

Applications being developed in this first category include analysis of satellite images to predict natural disasters, and the use of supercomputers for real-time prediction of flooding and other damage in areas expected to be hit.

In the realm of building design, AI software for simulating disasters - which then influences the shape, thickness and materials chosen by engineering and architectural firms - is being pursued. This includes AI, IoT and cloud technologies to detect structural damage after an earthquake – with the goals of saving lives, time and money. And industrial design and facilities management solutions continue to be a major area of interest for Japanese manufacturers.

Japanese insurance companies, meanwhile, are focused on assessing and reducing disaster risk. One Concern, a Palo Alto-based resilience-as-a-service company which combines disaster science with machine learning, recently partnered with Japanese insurance group SOMPO. Their first joint deployment, in Kumamoto City, focuses on harnessing AI-enabled seismic and flood technology for assessing risk and resilience.

AR/VR technologies are also being used for disaster response training. Examples include the CERD-AR app developed by the Center of Education & Research for Disaster Management at Osaka City University, and an AR weather simulator app. These simulate various natural disasters and emergency scenarios to prepare people for evacuation and reaction.

These kinds of AI-based virtual disaster prevention systems will likely find a keen and growing market in Japan.

2. Assessment & response

Japan is also using technology to understand what’s happening and react quickly in a real disaster scenario.

AI to enable relief workers to find and help victims during an emergency is an important area of focus.

And Japanese companies and universities are running programs to simulate earthquakes and their resulting tsunamis and predict the damage that will occur within 20 minutes of the incident.

But there’s a long way to go before comprehensive solutions are developed - which will inevitably entail the integration of sensors, IoT networks, smart vehicle systems including vehicle-to-everything (V2X) technologies, predictive weather systems and more.

These technologies will all be needed for quickly determining the safest and most efficient escape routes and helping to shelter affected populations.

3. Recovery & reconstruction

In addition, how technologies can be harnessed to help a country get back on its feet after a natural disaster is a question Japan has been working hard to answer over the last 10 years.

In the wake of the 2011 tsunami, whole coastal cities and towns had to be cleared away and rebuilt from the ground up. This ‘clean slate’ approach has meant IoT networks, smart grid, smart city and EV technologies could all be embedded in their reconstruction.

The result has been an increased demand for technologies related to renewable energy, EV integration, microgrids, virtual power plants, hydrogen fueling infrastructure and many other solutions such as those used by Toyota in its Miyagi prefecture-based plants and facilities.

Great interest

With all these applications in demand, it’s no wonder major Japanese corporations are taking great interest in sourcing relevant technologies from North America and Europe, and in collaborating with international startups in these fields.

Corporations with active programs in these spaces include Fujitsu, Tokio Marine, Takenaka, Taisei, Hitachi, SOMPO, NEC, Toyota, Toshiba and Sekisui House.

And western tech firms with solutions for remote infrastructure maintenance, monitoring and inspection, industrial asset management, drones, weather and climate AI, Edge AI for visual analyses, smart city, smart grid, microgrid, AR/VR, and V2X solutions all face unique opportunities in Japan.

Such companies may find an eagerness for their technologies that is far greater than they experience at home. After all, Japan has had a 10-year head start.

Oren  Bernstein
About the Author

Oren Bernstein

Oren helps western tech firms succeed in East Asia, specialising in the software and cloud sectors. Based in Boston, he spent seven years living and working in Japan. In Intralink’s Tokyo office, he drove client expansion initiatives in Japan’s security, financial, cloud software and clean energy fields. 

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