Tokyo: A Model for Reinvention

Will our cities look like Tokyo in the future? Like something from Blade-runner but without the hover-cars, endless rain and Rachel… Is that a bad thing? Not sure, but Tokyo definitely feels like a city of the future in the same way that London and New York feel like cities of the present and hollowed out Bonn feels like a city of the past. Over 13 million people live in Tokyo and they seem to me anyhow to rub along in harmony. As temperatures in the city rise, tempers never fray and politeness rules even as Tokyo’s citizens suffer the most incredible, riot inducing, over-crowding or worse, threatened with a nuclear meltdown. (I can’t imagine the fine citizens of London having to forsake their daily Americanos for a couple of days before a riot).

The country is firmly on the mend. Japanese prime-minister Mr Abe, elected with a mandate to repair and revitalize Japan is working that mandate, driving breakneck change after a scarily long economic malaise that’s lasted decades. The growth strategy of his government features policies packaged into three medicine tipped “arrows” intended to slay deflation, ignite demand and build a longer-term desire to boost business confidence.  While there are significant cultural obstacles to be over-come in the longer term, the first two arrows have definitely hit their mark and awakened an economic beast (Godzilla?) after a long slumber. And with a demographic time-bomb actually exploding while we in the West ponder our own welfare issues (Europe: 7% of world population, 25% of GDP and 50% of welfare spending…sheesh) it’s worth taking note what Mr Abe and his Japan is up to. What’s fascinating for me is how a city like Tokyo has repaired and transformed itself for the future. So many cities are getting this transformation right and so many are getting it wrong. What I find instructive is how a policy decision can “pump” 1000 volts into a city much like the pads of a defibrillator deliver to a patient in cardiac arrest. For Tokyo the impacts of the 1964 Olympics created an innovation jolt that still resonates today.

I am sure it’s no coincidence that Indian premier Narendra Modi is visiting Japan the same week that I will be presenting at Cognizant’s Community event in Tokyo (ahem…British humour). The storyline for my presentation goes something like this: Companies, cities and countries need the governance in place that enables change—to recognize the signposts to a cross-road, and confidently stride ahead into the future for their employees or their citizens. I am going to paint a picture of two cities in time—Detroit and Tokyo. Both pitched to host the 1964 Olympics and of course, Tokyo won. Back when the decision went Tokyo’s way both cities were on level pegging. Now Detroit stands in ruins (though valiantly trying to stage a comeback) with a sorry tale of financial mismanagement and leadership that was sorely lacking. I want to link Tokyo’s winning bid in 1964 and its winning bid to host the 2020 Olympics with Mr Abe’s third arrow: to restore the long-term business culture of Japan.

The Olympics in 1964 saw Tokyo spend the equivalent of its national budget on a major building program to transform the city’s infrastructure. The famous bullet trains which Mr Modi wants to bring to India were completed in time for the Olympics. Other 1964 innovations saw the use of satellites to beam the games live to the rest of the world (seems incredible in our day and age to imagine the reels of “live sport” were hawked half-way around the world before they could be shown on terrestrial TV); the building of St Mary’s cathedral in Tokyo (1964), a soaring example of stainless steel modernism that still competes with the best that Sydney or Bilbao can offer. Mr Modi wants to attract Japanese investment to revitalize the Indian economy, create millions of jobs and but also to boost security collaboration as China continues to flex its military muscles in front of Japan and India. Mr Modi is seeking investment for civil nuclear technology and the famous Japanese bullet trains and 100 new smart cities across India. What do Japan get out of the deal? Well, access to those precious minerals that power our smart-phones, tablets and hybrid cars… So, watch the future of the Western world unfold in the East.

PS. A buddy of mine lives in Japan and told me how the Japanese constantly demolishes and upgrades the fabric of its buildings—it’s why it reminds me of blade runner. The city feels ultra-modern and why you don’t see any monstrous 70’s development that blight a city like Dundee, Liverpool or Leipzig. Personally I like seeing some of those disasters as a stark reminder that tastes do change and what’s beautiful today might not be tomorrow.