Coronavirus pushes Japan closer to high-tech ‘super cities’

TOKYO — Japan took another step toward building technology-enabled “super cities,” with legislation set to pass that will help advance local plans by lowering regulatory hurdles.

Such smart cities, under Japan’s Super City Initiative, use artificial intelligence and big data in conjunction with cutting-edge technology in areas including transportation, medicine and education to make life easier for residents.

The legislation will reduce regulatory barriers to adopting technologies such as autonomous driving, telemedicine and remote education. This follows reforms prompted by a coronavirus pandemic that have forced many normally analog fields to go digital.

The broad regulatory changes involved in building smart cities often require dealing with multiple government agencies, which can complicate discussions and even cause them to break down. The new legislation will introduce a top-down approach.

If a municipality wins approval for smart city plans from its residents and applies to the central government, the prime minister can direct agencies to make exceptions to the relevant regulations as needed. The city will be required to disclose the details of its systems to make it easier to share data.

The government will begin taking applications from municipalities as early as next month, with approvals starting in the summer. The city and prefecture of Osaka will consider using the measure for flying cars and drones around the site of the 2025 World Expo.

Even as lawmakers have made dealing with the coronavirus their top priority since February, the bill — which was scrapped during last year’s regular parliamentary session — was passed by the lower house last month and is expected to be enacted this month.

This owes to recent pandemic-related developments that helped pave the way. The health ministry lifted a ban last month on doctors seeing first-time patients online, while a broad shutdown of schools has fueled demand for remote education. It has become increasingly important for the government to bring such issues under one administrative roof.

Incorporating these points into the smart city policy allows the government to fold deregulation into its preexisting plans.

Regulatory reform during the outbreak should be “implemented gradually beginning with what we can start on now,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in a meeting last month of the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy.

There are concerns that given lawmakers’ focus on tackling the coronavirus, passing the smart-city legislation could hurt the prospects of other business-related bills this session. Parliament had passed only 22 of the 56 bills put before it as of Tuesday, and the session is due to end June 17.

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