An Interview with Sōichirō Takashima

"...we were the first city in Japan that started providing free Wi-Fi in the subway and at all of our tourist destinations in Fukuoka. We have also been able to launch various efforts based on numbers and data, including the application of big data. These are the technologies that will allow us to create a sustainable society that can handle the aging population efficiently. "


In 2010, at the age of 36, Sōichirō Takashima became the youngest mayor in Fukuoka City’s history. Prior to becoming mayor, he was well known in the Fukuoka area for his work as a TV personality and talk show host. He was reelected in November 2014 by a record number of votes.  

During his term, the city was designated by the national government as a National Strategic Special Zone to encourage startup companies and job creation. Mayor Takashima has been a driving force behind efforts to turn Fukuoka into an innovative technology hub, as well as a vibrant, livable city for people of all ages.


What motivations or other influences have led you to promote innovative policies for a sustainable, livable society? 

ST Here’s one specific example. When I went overseas 6 years ago to Hong Kong, I was able to use Wi-Fi for free at the airport. I believed that these technological advances would become the global standard. Hence, we were the first city in Japan that started providing free Wi-Fi in the subway and at all of our tourist destinations in Fukuoka. We have also been able to launch various efforts based on numbers and data, including the application of big data. These are the technologies that will allow us to create a sustainable society that can handle the aging population efficiently. And if we can combine that with cooperation and relationship-building in the community, we can efficiently maximize the level of happiness in our city. Fukuoka citizens desire innovation. This led them to choose me as their mayor. And our current initiatives are considered more or less a leap forward, rather than an extension of the past.

We’ve heard about an initiative called the “Living Lab.” Can you elaborate on this?

ST The initiative entails creating a new product through the collaboration of the citizens, businesses, NGOs and the government. Fukuoka is not a mega city like Tokyo or Shanghai. A city like ours with 1.5 million citizens can be overseen by the government more effectively. Fukuoka has many advantageous characteristics, including a fast rate of start-ups, active community involvement, and governmental willingness and ability to adapt as a city. We asked ourselves, what is the most effective and efficient way to create and maintain our city? Through this new, raw model, the aim is to create a better society while having fun collaborating with different players to solve problems and take on new challenges. 

Fukuoka is aiming to become a city of social experimentation. I think we are garnering attention because our initiatives are what other regions need right now. We’re prompted by the new demographics — fewer tax payers and more welfare beneficiaries due to an aging society — which we have never experienced before. The main question is, how can a city leap forward while applying these solutions at a rapid rate? It may very well be that not only the rest of Japan, but the entire planet is waiting for that answer. 

We hear that more and more young people and families are flocking to Fukuoka right now. How is this impacting not only the younger generation, but also the city's older citizens? 

ST Fukuoka cherishes what is called a kyoso (co-creation). Until now kyosos have been grass root initiatives led by the seniors, but now, its members also consist of university students as well as regional workers, solving new challenges together. They demonstrate the spirit of collaboration.

For example, there are a high number of start-ups in Fukuoka. They find a particular problem in the community, and strive to solve it using a new business model. We’ve been seeing such movements here. Example businesses include a matchmaking service that pairs consumers with a clean-up crew who might visit once a week to clean your house. 

Fukuoka is also using Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Big Data analysis to identify certain characteristics in the city to figure out the most efficient solution to a particular problem. With the proliferation of an aging society, we will start seeing higher numbers of dementia patients. Families experience significant challenges when a family member has dementia, such as the patient’s tendency to wander. The city has implemented what is called the roller band, which can receive IoT signals. If you simply implant a GPS tracking chip to something the patients can wear on their bodies, you will be able to use this technology to locate them wherever they are in the city. These are some of the ideas that we have been playing around with. 

What is an example of a challenge you have faced thus far in implementing your policies, and how did you overcome it?

ST Normally, the mayor of Fukuoka City has authority over the city’s regulations. But when dealing with national laws or prefectural ordinances, we are not able to do anything except to obey them. However, Fukuoka City has developed a way to combat this in the past several years, by implementing the “special national strategy zone.” By attaining the status of this special zone, Fukuoka City can now deregulate such law or ordinance that restricts the development of new business models or products and propose alternative regulations.

What types of innovations or solutions are necessary for Japan and Fukuoka to meet the needs of an aging society?

ST I can talk endlessly about the aging society, so let me narrow it down for you. Take the issue of increasing welfare beneficiaries. When a government tries to create a sustainable model in response to a growing aging population by cutting back on the benefits, the aging cohorts will of course respond negatively. At the same time, if we maintain the same amount of senior benefits, including pensions, this will put a tremendous burden on the younger generation. And this is not even sustainable. So the question is whether to increase the burden on seniors or the youngsters. Either way, you will be met with opposition. In other words, there is no way to make it work by using conventional methods that have existed. The solution entails innovation. I personally see the importance of such innovation. And the second solution is proactively using technology, such as IoT, ICT, and Big Data, as well as using evidence-based methods. 

The third solution is the unity in the community, including kyoso and collaboration. This concept of watching your neighbor’s back isn’t about simply watching your neighbors, but also helping them in time of need. By having the citizens help and support each other, we can set up numerous “safety nets” that will allow us to create a sustainable society, even as the number of tax payers decrease, and the number of beneficiaries increase. 

 To implement these solutions in the era of which people are expected to live to 100 years old, Fukuoka City has launched a program called “Fukuoka 100,” a collection of 100 projects that will be undertaken by the collaboration of the citizens, businesses, academia and Fukuoka City. It is a leading-edge, comprehensive and innovative program that has not been seen elsewhere in the world. By having 100 ideas to implement, our goal is to take strong steps forward to becoming a new city model for the world. 

We understand that Fukuoka’s unique characteristics, such as having a network of community collaborators, have contributed to its success. Do you think these same initiatives or approaches will work elsewhere in the world? 

ST Each region in the world has its own characteristics. Therefore, it is not that you can apply the Fukuoka model to each and every location. However, you can select some from our 100 projects to implement in your city, and by combining them with initiatives that already exist, I’m sure that it will serve as a valuable resource for cities trying to figure something out on their own. I believe that certain initiatives and qualities of Fukuoka can be exported elsewhere.

Would you categorize yourself as a risk taker? Or is this just part of the job description? 

ST The best way for a mayor to avoid risk is to not do anything. It’s safer to simply visit and show your face at a public forum or at a local festival, but that poses a risk to the city itself. The best value you can give to the city is the speed with which you can get things done. The biggest risk to our community is to not do anything.


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