Destination: High-tech Hiroshima

31 Mar 2019 by Craig Bright
Digitized Hiroshima Castle - Credit: teamLab (teamLab is represented by Pace Gallery)

I feel nothing as the huge girder swinging ominously in front of me smashes into my chest, knocking me off my precarious position atop a high-rise construction site. My body spins as I plummet towards the ground before the concrete greets me with an unforgiving jolt and my world turns a grim shade of red.

Mere seconds earlier, I had been edging along a steel beam, arms outstretched to keep my balance. Now, I am little more than a crumpled mass of regret at the base of a half-built tower, wondering aloud – as I remove the virtual reality headset – what I could have done to avoid my grisly fate.

“There’s no way to avoid it,” says Steven Boura, a designer at technology firm BeRise that developed the unwinnable scenario I had just predictably failed. “This is only to prepare your mind, and instil in you the notion that, if you don’t do what you’re supposed to do, bad things are going to happen.”

The scenario is one of many interactive safety instruction exercises developed by the company, which is based in Hiroshima on Japan’s Honshu Island. The idea is that a virtual reality experience is more likely to stick with you than a traditional safety briefing. When it’s not pushing you off a great height without a safety harness, BeRise is having you electrocute yourself while trying to fix an electrical box, or accidentally mowing down fellow factory workers while driving a forklift – accompanied by an inappropriately rewarding “squish” sound effect. “We’re trying to make it a little bit more fun, just something that will keep it in your mind and not be forgotten,” says Boura.

The macabre nature of its work aside, BeRise is one of many promising nascent technology firms that have cropped up in Hiroshima prefecture in recent years. Like many regions in Japan, Hiroshima is facing a number of social challenges, from an ageing society and limited workforce to natural disasters. The government is looking to its small but growing technology sector to help address them, but the task is not without its uphill struggles.

BeRise virtual reality safety exercise: Credit @2019 BeRISE

Attracting talent

“Hiroshima’s not honestly known for innovation,” says Atsuhito Uemaru, managing director of innovation promotion at the Hiroshima Prefectural Government’s Commerce, Industry and Labour Bureau. “Hiroshima is known, of course, for the atomic bomb, and maybe some people know about the tourist spots.”

This is compounded by the fact that, while Hiroshima has plenty of jobs available – the city is home to the headquarters of automobile manufacturer Mazda as well as two major centres for Osaka-based electronics firm Sharp – more companies are moving out of Hiroshima than are moving in, according to Uemaru.

“If you look at other regions in Japan, Hiroshima is suffering the same problems,” he says. “Even though we do have good schools, students leave Hiroshima. Our top priority is: ‘How can we provide not just jobs but good, interesting, innovative jobs?’ That’s the crucial issue we are facing now.”

In the hope of changing this trend, the Hiroshima Prefectural Government recently injected ¥10 billion (US$90 million) into a new “Sandbox” initiative, aimed at providing companies with a space for blue-sky thinking when it comes to tech innovation.

“Our phrase has been ‘Don’t be afraid of failure’,” says Uemaru. Much of this has been led by Hiroshima’s current governor, Hidehiko Yuzaki who, before being elected, worked as a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley before setting up his own internet service provider in Japan.

To qualify for funding, Sandbox scheme applicants must form consortiums of at least four different companies. Only one has to be based in Hiroshima, as the Prefectural Government wants to attract companies from other regions of Japan.

Rather than focusing on broad sectors where competition with established players is fierce, Hiroshima is hoping to excel in niche markets where there are fewer rivals. The region is home to about 300 so-called “Only One Number One” companies – firms that are either the top or sole players in their fields.

In its first round, the government received applications from 90 teams from sectors ranging from manufacturing to agriculture. Nine were awarded a roughly equal share of the government’s multibillion-yen investment. While it’s still early days, there are signs the initiative could help address challenges faced by sectors other than Hiroshima’s burgeoning technology scene.

Digital workforce

Hiroshima, like much of Japan, is facing the problem of an ageing, and therefore dwindling, workforce. According to Uemaru, the city has a real people shortage. There are “essentially two jobs for every one job seeker”, he says.

Meanwhile, the number of people over the age of 65 who are employed went up 3.5 per cent between 2012 and 2017, figures from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications’ Labour Force Survey show. Lemons and oysters are two famous Hiroshima foodstuffs, and farmers and fishery workers who produce these are particularly hard hit by this demographic issue.

Sixty-eight-year-old Kazuyuki Sueoka has been working at his family’s Shinkaen Farm outside of Hiroshima City for the past 16 years, having done his time as a “salaryman” – a term for the besuited and overworked Japanese urban white-collar worker – before becoming the sixth generation to run his family’s 1.5-hectare lemon farm. He notes that the country’s ageing population is a major issue for growers in the region, with fewer young people interested in taking over this kind of business.

While Sueoka does have the seventh generation of the farm’s owners already lined up – his daughter’s husband will take over the farm after him – he doesn’t employ any of his own workers to assist him on the farm. The only help he receives is from two people employed by the Tobishima Citrus Club, a consortium of five businesses and associations that was among the nine successful applicants of the government’s Sandbox programme.

The consortium’s goal has been to digitise much of the lemon-growing process through the use of Internet of Things (IoT) technology, a concept that involves various devices remotely communicating with each other and sharing data. In July 2018, the group began placing low-powered wide-area (LPWA) sensors in the earth to track growing conditions at farms on the island of Osaki Shimojima to the southwest of Hiroshima City. The hope is that gathered data can eventually be shared among other lemon farmers, including newcomers, in order to help stabilise yields, which have fluctuated significantly over the past few years.

Along with the IoT, the consortium also plans to use drone and satellite technology to better understand the local and regional environment. It is even thinking of introducing automated robots to help with manual labour, which typically includes farmers having to carry up to 20kg of lemons across hilly terrain.

The Tobushima Citrus Club grows an average of about 200 tonnes of lemons per year, but this is expected to jump to 260 tonnes within the next five years, and to 400 tonnes over the next ten years, thanks to the implementation of these new technological initiatives.

Travel west off the coast of Hiroshima City to the island of Etajima and you will find another project making use of IoT technology, iOstrea, which aims to digitise oyster farming through the use of sensory data.

“Etajima has been in trouble since about 1990. The process for farming baby oysters became very unstable after this point due to the effects of climate change,” says Professor Akihiro Nakao, a Hiroshima native and chairperson of the department of applied computer science at the University of Tokyo, a member of the consortium behind the iOstrea project and another Sandbox grant recipient.

The consortium placed solar-powered sensors, which track data like location and water temperature, onto rafts. This data-gathering process is cheap – an important criterion in order to make it feasible for farmers to adopt in future.

Along with the University of Tokyo, the iOstrea consortium includes electronics manufacturer Sharp – which provides the smartphones used as part of the data-collection process – as well as Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT) that is responsible for transmitting the data. Thirty-one groups of fishermen are also participating in the project.

As with the Tobishima Citrus Club, iOstrea also plans to use aerial drones to scour the water for baby oysters, which grow in clusters visible from the air. Real-time GPS tracking is also being used to record the movements of fishing boats to improve efficiency.

“The number of fishermen is decreasing, and they are also getting older,” says Nakao. “We want to make the process [of oyster farming] very efficient through the use of information communications technology and artificial intelligence.”

Yutaka Watanabe, CEO of Luce Search

Natural disasters

Last July saw some of western Japan’s worst rainfall in decades. Floods and landslides resulted in more than 200 deaths, according to Japan’s National Police Agency, with many more injured. The scars on the landscape are still visible in Hiroshima: large sheets of blue tarpaulin covering streaks of upturned earth are a common sight across the prefecture’s hilly terrain.

“It rained for four straight days,” says Shusaku Akioka, the mayor of Etajima City where iOstrea is conducting its IoT oyster farming trials. “On two of the days, we had really heavy rain – 500 millimetres, about 40 per cent of the annual average rainfall. We shut down some roads, the river was overflowing, and there were landslides. More than 1,000 places on the island were damaged and more than 40 people were injured.”

For lemon farmer Sueoka, landslides resulting from the heavy rain saw him lose between 10 and 20 per cent of his lemon trees. Many of these were mature trees on the cusp of harvesting, and his only available recourse has been to replant young trees, but these won’t provide produce for another five years. Other farms were affected even more seriously than his.

In the aftermath of last year’s heavy rains, another Hiroshima-based technology firm, drone manufacturer and survey company Luce Search, was instrumental in assessing the damage done by the extreme weather. Founded in 2011, the company specialises in building large drones that can carrying heavy survey equipment, such as cameras and lasers. Luce Search has deployed its drones following major disasters in Japan, notably the heavy rain disaster in Hiroshima in 2014, the 2016 Kumamoto earthquake and the 2017 Northern Kyushu floods.

Using built-in laser technology, the drones can survey the landscape while ignoring visual obstructions such as trees and other foliage, enabling the company to draw up three-dimensional maps of large areas of terrain that can easily be analysed for dangers. In just two days, the company surveyed an area of hillside covering three hectares to look for landslides, cracks and other potential weather-induced hazards. This was the largest area ever surveyed using drone-based laser technology in Japan. “This would take about three months to complete if done by people on the ground,” says Yutaka Watanabe, president and founder of Luce Search.

The area’s 400 metres of elevation would make it very difficult for people to traverse manually, he says. Four days after conducting the search, the company was able to provide information to the government allowing it to send out evacuation alerts.

The next step, according to the prefectural government’s Uemaru, is making sure these alerts are successful. “The issue we’re having now is that it’s so difficult to change people’s behaviour,” he says. “We had to ask them to evacuate and very few people did, so we’re inviting experts in behavioural economics to explore how we can encourage people to evacuate if a storm occurs.”

As for the lasting damage of 2018’s rainfall, Uemaru says that Hiroshima has remained resilient. “When we had the disaster, in economic terms the largest problem we had was with trains and highways being shut down for weeks, though there was some severe damage, especially in the supply chains,” he says. “But if you look at the figures, they’re basically back to normal.”

Digitized Hiroshima Castle - Credit: teamLab (teamLab is represented by Pace Gallery)

History reimagined

Amid the use of new innovations to tackle challenges in the city’s industrial and agricultural sectors, Hiroshima is also seeing inventive use of technology in a more cultural setting. Tokyo-based design firm teamLab has in the past developed numerous artistic exhibitions around Asia, and throughout February and March (and up until April 7) the company gave the city’s historic Hiroshima Castle a vibrant facelift as part of its “Digitised Hiroshima Castle” installation. The surrounding park was adorned with inflatable eggs ranging from a foot high to over two metres tall, each glowing with an array of ever-changing colours accompanied by soothing music. Meanwhile, up on the hill and overlooking the luminescent display below, the castle itself was bathed in light that transitioned from majestic blue and calming turquoise to eerie green and even slightly menacing red. The whole effect serves to turn a simple visit through the historic castle grounds into a tranquil, almost meditative experience.

Hiroshima is steeped in heritage both ancient and modern, with the skeletal remains of the Genbaku Dome (Atomic Bomb Dome), one of the few buildings left standing after the detonation of the atomic bomb in August 1945, among the most emblematic in the city. The potential for technology to breathe new life into these historic sites is not lost on BeRise’s Stephen Boura, who cites the use of augmented reality to make London’s Big Ben appear as though it were in the heart of a giant snow globe. “Being here in Hiroshima, our tourism is normally a little depressing because of the content, but it would be cool to do something of similar respect and take Genbaku Dome and wrap it back in its original form,” he says. “That could bring back a bit of a positive image while also having fun with the technology.”

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