In Japan and elsewhere, the first "smart communities" are being developed. The challenges they face in order to become a common reality for ordinary citizens seem equally impressive as the futuristic visions they inspire.
Smart communities take a multiplicity of forms. Some are government-led. Others are promoted by business. The common thread -- what makes these communities "smart" -- is that they produce new kinds of data and put it to use for the creation of more efficient, resilient and environment-friendly lifestyles.
Panasonic's Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town, launched with fanfare last November, is one of the most prominent of these initiatives in Japan.
According to Masako Wada, senior coordinator of the Fujisawa SST management team, there are currently 190 households in this experimental community, with about 30 businesses concentrated within it. The plans call for the community to more than double in size in the coming years.
In the Fujisawa SST version of a smart community, the main focus is to promote clean energy and to be prepared for a major natural disaster. Solar panels are mounted on the buildings and along certain gates, electric cars are available for rental, the use of community bicycles is encouraged, and home batteries are expected to contain sufficient energy to power basic services for three days in the event that the electricity grid goes down.
The homes and neighborhoods are certainly clean and attractive, but there is a sense of artificiality about the Fujisawa SST -- reminiscent of a Potemkin village -- as well as an apparent lack of clarity about how this big business experiment might apply in a practical sense to the urban development of the rest of Japan.
An obvious challenge for the spread of smart communities will be cost. Solar panels and energy management systems may be useful and economical once they are in place, but installation can be pricey. In the Fujisawa SST, the neighborhood is filled with security cameras and contains various additional services that lead to relatively higher management fees than would normally be the case.
Related to this issue, some important smart community technologies still need to be further developed.
There has been promising news on this front, especially the unveiling of the Tesla Powerwall in April (ironically, using Panasonic battery technology). One of the keys to viable smart communities, aside from the production of more data about people's consumption patterns, will be how to store excess energy and use it at the most effective times. The Powerwall home battery and its future rivals may provide that answer.
Living in a fishbowl?
Privacy is also an issue that smart communities will have to grapple with. The Fujisawa SST has only home energy management systems, or HEMS. But in the vision of smart communities presented, for example, by Toshiba, there will also be community energy management systems, or CEMS.
According to Toshiba, future smart homes will know when residents are occupying a certain room and will automatically adjust lighting and temperature accordingly. While this will be beneficial in terms of convenience and energy conservation, it also raises questions about other ways such data might be used once the automated systems are in place.
CEMS would link many homes together in order to utilize renewable energy in the most efficient manner. Safeguards will need to be developed to ensure that those overseeing community energy management would not have access to data about individuals' movements within their residences.
"Is big business going to be looking at how much power I'm using? Or are hackers going to be able to tell when I'm home or not?" Andrew DeWit, a professor in the School of Policy Studies at Rikkyo University and a keen advocate for the development of smart communities, recognizes the importance of addressing these security concerns to allow the technology to gain widespread acceptance.
DeWit emphasizes the importance of establishing trusted institutions to oversee the masses of data that will be produced by smart communities. Local governments and credible public agencies will play key roles in allowing future smart communities to operate smoothly. The social and political aspects of managing these communities may, in many cases, exceed the importance of the fundamental technological possibilities.
Smart communities are sprouting rapidly. DeWit noted that, already, "there are actually about 200 smart community projects underway in Japan, in various kinds of guises." No nation will be able to completely stand aside from this movement.
Michael Penn is president of the Shingetsu News Agency.