Tokyo tapped as a leader in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

The World Economic Forum has opened the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) in Tokyo to lead advances in precision medicine, autonomous mobility, and data policy.

The Centre will bring together leading Japanese businesses, start-ups, academia and international organisations to focus on new technology merging digital, physical and biological systems. It is managed by the World Economic Forum in collaboration with Japan’s Ministry for Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) and the Asia Pacific Initiative (API). Founding centre partners include key Japanese players Hitachi, Horiba, Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings, Salesforce, Sompo Holdings and Suntory Holdings.

The Tokyo facility, which opened in July 2018, is the first sister institution of the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in San Francisco. Project teams will work to leverage the benefits of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, big data, the “internet of things” and blockchain, co-designing policy frameworks and standards that will be piloted by government and business in Japan and around the world.

Japan has been chosen to play a unique role in this transformation for several reasons, including its strong economy, close ties between its public and private spheres, strong innovation ethos and successful startup community.

The challenges posed by Japan’s aging population also mean it’s ahead of the demographic change that will affect many developed countries. The country is fast becoming known for its prowess in precision medicine – an emerging approach for disease treatment and prevention that focuses on identifying approaches that are effective based on patients’ genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.

Precision medicine requires data in both quantity and quality, and Japan is expected to develop this ahead of other countries in a bid to address its aging society and increasing incidence of noncommunicable diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. Projects to date include the National Cancer Center’s use of big data from cancer studies to find new biomarkers for clinical applications and the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization’s (NEDO) efforts to develop biomarkers for stroke and kidney failure.

Japan is already seen as a leader in automotive technology, hence the expected advances in autonomous driving technology.

Unlike some other major countries, Japan has not implemented restrictive data laws and has accumulated a great deal of high-quality data, meaning it also has great potential to drive innovation in data-use policies to improve the lives of its citizens.

Murat Sönmez, head of C4IR, notes: “Japan could be the first nation to instrument the whole society with the Internet of Things, collect data at the edge that are as ethical as they are intelligent, or the first country to create national supercomputing data centers where different data sets could be combined and permitted to really move forward with innovation. When that happens, Japan can be a role model for the rest of the world. That’s why we’re interested in Japan.”

Makiko Eda, chief representative officer of the WEF’s Japan office, thinks Japan’s history of embracing technology to improve society can help it steer the 4IR in the right direction.

“Because of the demographic shift that we’re experiencing, and the aptitude of Japanese skill sets, knowledge and heritage, it’s a magic combination to come up with potential solutions for societal problems with technology in a way that benefits broader populations, rather than a few.”