Settle down in Fujisawa? What a smart choice

Model town in Japan is big on green features, home conveniences and community spirit

Cosmetics maker Kousuke Michibata did not know if it was a smart move to uproot his family from central Tokyo a year ago to neighbouring Kanagawa prefecture, effectively doubling his travel time to work to an hour.

He did so mainly for his family to be closer to his wife's parents but the estate his family moved into has been a bonus, being a place which made for "very easy living".

The Michibatas' new estate is no run-of-the-mill place but a smart town named by the Japanese authorities as a model project for cutting carbon emissions.

Called Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town (SST), this 60 billion yen (S$740 million) project is touted by its lead developer Panasonic to be the first "smart town" built from scratch in Japan, unlike initiatives in prefectures like Saitama where technological innovations are added to an existing town.

Singapore President Tony Tan Keng Yam got a glimpse of how tech giant Panasonic envisions daily living from the year 2020 when he visited its Panasonic Centre showcase in Tokyo last month on a state visit.

  • 'Smart Living' in Singapore

  • Residents in Yuhua are the first in Singapore to experience "Smart Living" in a Housing Board estate, with elements such as an elderly monitoring system to give caregivers peace of mind.

    The trial started in April for 9,000 residents in nearly 3,200 flats, with the features to be progressively rolled out until 2018.

    Under the programme, sensors are installed in homes where seniors live alone to track their movements. The elderly also have a mobile panic button that will alert caregivers and family members if irregular patterns are detected.

    Families can also set utilities consumption targets, and they will be alerted if the electricity or water usage is too high.

    This comes as Singapore embarks on a quest, launched in November 2014, to become a Smart Nation where technology is fully integrated into everyday life through the use of sensors and smart devices.

    The HDB's Northshore Residences I and II in Punggol, to be ready in 2020, will be the first new project with smart infrastructure.

    There are several smart home trials led by the private sector, including the 622-unit Luxurie condominium in Sengkang by M1 and Keppel Land, and CNQC's Visionaire executive condominium project in Sembawang.

    Several districts have also been earmarked for trials, including one-north where driverless vehicles roam the roads.

    Last month saw the setting up of the SGInnovate agency with areas of focus such as robotics, digital health, smart energy and digital manufacturing. In October, the Government Technology Agency, or GovTech, was launched to lead the technology push in the public sector. Among projects in the pipeline are a self-driving wheelchair and a smart walking stick with built-in sensors.

    Walter Sim

Some of the technologies at the showcase are already in use at the Fujisawa smart town, where all homes come with their own solar panels, and optional hydrogen fuel cells. Residents can even sell excess power to utilities.

Some 400m of the town's perimeter is lined with solar panels.

Residents need not fear if there is a natural disaster or power outage - the town can cope with their needs for three days with its off-grid energy reserves.

Mr Michibata, 30, has been impressed by the town's use of renewable resources like solar energy, and 50 closed-circuit television cameras in the estate that create a "gateless security system", giving him more reassurance over the safety of his two boys.

And in his home, he likes that there is a disaster warning and weather information system that sends him up-to-date alerts, and controls that allow, through a few touches of a keypad, the toggling of light and temperature settings, or the opening and closing of blinds.

More than 1,000 residents live in the town where each semi-detached house costs US$500,000 (about S$722,000).

In the town, all homes come with their own solar panels and optional hydrogen fuel cells. Residents can even sell excess power to utilities. Some 400m of the town's perimeter is lined with solar panels. Residents need not fear if there is a natural disaster or power outage - the town says it can cope with their needs for three days with its off-grid energy reserves.

The town can accommodate at least 3,000 residents when completed in 2020. By then, there will be 600 semi-detached houses and 400 condominium units. More than 350 houses are occupied.

The project is being built by a consortium of 18 public- and private- sector companies led by Panasonic, including real-estate firms such as Panasonic's housing-arm PanaHome and Mitsui Fudosan.

It is built on land that formerly housed a Panasonic television and refrigerator factory decommissioned in 2007.

Mr Tomohiko Miyahara, a general manager of Panasonic's business solution division, told The Straits Times: "At the time, the concept of 'eco-city' was common around the world but not 'smart city'."

"We decided to expand on the concept to create a 'smart city' that can encompass aspects such as mobility, security, wellness and community," said Mr Miyahara.

He is also president of Fujisawa SST management company, which is like a town council in Singapore.

Panasonic is already starting work on a second SST project, in Tsunashima near Yokohama on a former cellphone-factory site.

Tying up with nine other firms, it is due to open in 2018 and will include a student dormitory for Keio University and an Apple research facility.

At the Fujisawa SST, goals are set to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions and residents are alerted to potential wastage in their power and water use.

To reduce its carbon footprint, the town also offers electric vehicles for rental. Its street lights have sensors that are activated by the approach of vehicles and pedestrians.

Building a sense of community is just as important for the town, which prides itself on providing amenities such as a community centre, playgrounds, gardens and a retail hub called Shonan T-Site.

There is also a Wellness Square offering eldercare and childcare.

A Next Delivery Square touts a centralised service where packages are gathered and delivered to each home. Residents can set delivery dates and times via their smart TV.

Mr Miyahara's deputy, Ms Masako Wada, said: "We wanted to focus on the residents' life and be service-oriented. Residents also can contribute ideas."

They have organised a Halloween event and English conversation sessions.

The T-Site - one of four such retail concepts across Japan including in Tokyo's Daikanyama district - comprises three blocks that house cafes, a bookshop, shops and a learning lab offering classes

Housewife Itoko Shimizu, 37, who was in a community area chatting with friends as their children played, values the community spirit above all.

"Unlike in bustling Tokyo, it is easier to make friends here while there are also many events that foster the community spirit," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 20, 2016, with the headline 'Settle down in Fujisawa? What a smart choice'. Subscribe