To build smart cities, Japan is harnessing new technologies to stay ahead, said speakers at TechNode Global’s ORIGIN 2020 Conference, held Nov. 18. Environmentalism and sustainability have become cornerstones of Japan’s global image and soft power in recent years, said Keita Mitsuhashi, co-founder and CCO of Queue, Inc.

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Refill your H2O

Mariko McTier, co-founder of water refill app MyMizu, said that Japan has a reputation for having high recycling rates, at around 85% for plastic recycling. But in reality, about 50-70% of that waste is burnt in a process called “thermal recovery,” McTier added. Thermal recovery refers to burning trash in an incinerator and extracting the energy. 

To increase public awareness of plastic waste, MyMizu looks to build a community—community, McTier said, has a strong element of peer pressure. If your friends are carrying a bottle, it becomes an opportunity for you to emulate that behavior. To build a community, MyMizu taps social media to run events, and works with companies to run challenges that save PET bottles. The company has opted for a gamification approach to make things fun and engaging over the fear approach that environmentalists sometimes take. 

Changing mindsets may be one of the hardest things for a company to embark on when there is no demand in the market. Consumers are not asking for it, nor do companies want to implement circular economy models, said McTier. What MyMizu is doing with activities and partnerships is attempting to present sustainable living as an attractive option to create demand. 

Let’s share space

Think Airbnb but for parking lots, said Kobayashi Hiroyuki, corporate vice-president at Akippa. Akippa is a peer-to-peer sharing platform for car parking on a 15-minute or daily basis. Drivers can find parking at a reasonable price, and parking space owners can easily rent out idle spaces for revenue. This makes effective use of vacant spaces in Japan’s big cities and well-built suburbs, where car parking spaces are dwindling. 

Today, Akippa has around 2 million customers and 40,000 parking locations in Japan. As of 2019, Akippa entered into an alliance with Sompo Holdings to create a new insurance program for the parking space sharing business. This is to ease the concerns of Japanese customers who are new to sharing economy services. 

An interesting phenomenon is that parking spaces for commuting purposes have increased four-folds, compared to before the pandemic. Hiroyuki explained that people choose to travel by cars instead of public transport to minimise contact with other people. 

The future of sustainable Japan

Both McTier and Hiroyuki noted that the sharing economy business and circular economy are very new concepts to the Japanese. There is a sense that the market is not at the inflection point for sustainability nor sharing economy. Hiroyuki added that a sense of reliability is an issue for sharing services between individuals. What both companies pledge to do is to increase more use cases so that governments and companies find it easier to partner with them to build a sustainable Japan.