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Achieving the Right “Calorie Balance” in Cities: Health, Community, and Energy

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Kashiwanoha Park (Photograph courtesy Joonggil Lee/Flickr)

Japan is now facing three major issues: the aging population, the decline of region’s economy, and the energy stability after the Tohoku earthquake. I worked on tackling these issues as part of a “smart city” project in Kashiwanoha, 15 miles (25 kilometers) northeast of Tokyo. (See related comments made by Mr. Nagata and others at this related post about a live discussion on these issues hosted last month in Tokyo by National Geographic and Shell.)

A newly developed urban area by Mitsui Fudosan, through partnership between the public sector, private sector, and academia, the Kashiwanoha project is using new concepts and technologies to create a city that achieves three key attributes, in line with Japan’s issues: a place of health and longevity, of industry growth, and of environmental harmony.

I had a chance to help the Kashiwanoha project to realize the “city of health and longevity” vision, and to do so in a way that resonates with the economic and environmental goals. With funding from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications and the Japan Cabinet Office, we fulfilled that request by using three smart technologies: wearable devices, an electronic local currency system using a payment card (a “Kashiwanoha campus card”), and home energy management systems.

First, we introduced wearable devices to 150 people so that they could monitor their activity amount and the rhythm of daily life. When we started the project in 2012, there were not many types of wearable devices as there are now today. So, we used a prototype made by one of the leading Japanese manufacturers.

The second component, a currency card system, was meant to provide an incentive for people to keep up their exercise. We knew from previous research that moderate and continuous exercise lengthens a person’s independence into old age, which also reduces social welfare spending by the government. Working with the city’s public health team, we used the acquired data to set an activity target for each person. When the person achieved his/her goals, they earned points that could be used for shopping in the region, boosting the local economy—and as an energy-saving boost, people also could use it to pay for electric-vehicle-sharing services and cycle-sharing.

Over a trial period of close to one year, residents of Kashiwanoha saw a 36.7 percent increase of daily exercise during the project, and the percentage of people who had “better fatigue recovery,” “better sleep,” and “more refreshing feeling in daily life” increased remarkably. The cost in incentive payments was negligible compared to the reduction in social welfare spending. Now that the trial is over, the health monitoring system continues as a commercial service that continues to be used.

We used this same incentive and monitoring system to encourage people to volunteer with local non-profit organizations and also to save energy. In more than 1,000 households, one system was installed that could monitor usage of electricity, gas, and water usage. Again targets were set for energy spending, and credits awarded when goals were met. The system also gave little “tips” for energy savings every day, and menus for automatically controlling the usage. The home energy and payment systems are still in place today.

I think that issues including energy should be considered holistically in the context of a society’s complexity and all of its interconnected issues, as we did in Kashiwanoha. I am now promoting the comprehensive concept and framework for this that can be applied in other cities. In this way we are seeking the right “calorie balance” for a city, measuring energy expenditures of all kinds across society: healthy activity, community engagement, and energy use at home.