Smart living: at the heart of Panasonic’s drive to transform old factories into high-tech, low-carbon communities

In a northern suburb of Osaka, a brand new community development aims to be the first in Japan to draw all of its electricity from renewable sources. The “smart city”, officially inaugurated in April, may not look radically different from the neighborhoods around it, but it has been equipped with a number of cutting-edge technologies designed to boost connectivity, reduce emissions and improve the well-being of its inhabitants. residents, ranging from green spaces, solar panels and electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure, to large energy storage systems that can provide up to three days of backup power in the event of a natural disaster – which, at the Japan is quite often the case.

The development, which comprises more than 350 homes, includes a wellness centre, a home for residents with dementia, a facility that provides home nursing services to the community and a nursery school. As such, it is touted by Panasonic as a beacon of “multi-generational living”.

Long the site of three factories owned by Japanese tech giant Panasonic, the Suita smart city is the latest development in a trio of smart city projects initiated and managed by the company and its partners. All three projects have seen the sites of Panasonic’s manufacturing plants transformed into state-of-the-art, low-carbon “smart” developments designed to have limited climate impacts while improving the well-being of their residents.

Panasonic’s first city, Fujisawa, is about 50 kilometers south of Tokyo and has been fully operational since 2014. It is home to 600 homes, with each residential house featuring rooftop solar panels and a plethora of smart technologies. Panasonic’s second smart city, Tsunashima, meanwhile opened in 2018 and provides a major tech hub, as the location for an Apple research and development center, as well as homes, a shopping mall, a student dorm and a hydrogen refueling station. Energy is carefully managed throughout the development to ensure optimum use of the various energy sources on site, with an “energy centre” responsible for the distribution of electricity and heat to businesses and to residents. A centralized IT platform visualizes, monitors, and optimizes the city’s energy and water usage, enabling energy conservation and ensuring rail water is captured and reused.

Takeshi Arakawa, director of Panasonic’s smart city promotion department, said CompanyGreen that the primary purpose of smart cities was to tackle social and community issues head-on. Fujisawa, for example, was designed with a view to reducing traffic congestion. Suita, on the other hand, aims to reduce loneliness and social isolation among the region’s increasingly elderly population. For example, AI-powered cameras, digital health programs and sensor-equipped housing have been installed specifically to help elderly residents go about their daily lives, while the resort’s wellness services have been upgraded. designed with the needs of older residents in mind.

But, like its two predecessors, Suita has also been designed to have limited climatic impacts and to be as autonomous as possible. Solar panels, energy storage batteries, electric vehicle charging stations and car-sharing infrastructure installed in the neighborhood are designed to reduce the region’s energy consumption, reducing costs for businesses and local residents.

A home hydrogen fuel cell system that uses fossil gas to generate electricity and heat for the ‘feel-good complex’ is helping to further erode electricity demand, transferring waste heat to households of a person in times of low demand. Meanwhile, all electricity supplied to the community comes from clean energy sources through a contract with the Kansai Electric Power Company. The clean energy supply marks a significant step forward from Fujisawa, which had set a bold target for its time to meet more than 30% of its electricity needs with renewable energy.

Arakawa explained that it makes sense for Panasonic to invest in smart cities, given its broad portfolio of technology solutions. “We can leverage Panasonic’s capabilities, products and services to create the smart city concept that ultimately helps solve social, environmental and community issues,” he said. “It’s a good business model, because we can offer our services while contributing to society. All the other companies behind the programs share the exact same idea.”

Panasonic solutions that bring smart cities to life include housing solutions, IT and network-related solutions, home electronics or energy-related solutions, he said. “We package them together, depending on the needs of each of the areas,” he explained. “We don’t just offer these solutions one by one, but we offer them together.”

However, Arakawa stressed that Panasonic’s role in all three projects is not just as the owner and provider of services and technology, but also as a convener of the various stakeholders involved in each project. “We play a role of project manager and leader,” he said. “We know the regions well because we have operated factories there for a long time. We have a very strong relationship and communication with the locals and communities, and we also have a very strong relationship with local administrators and governments. that’s why we play a very important role.”

In each development, the city management company provides energy, security, mobility, health care and community services to residents, which include 24/7 CCTV coverage, monitoring intelligent LED public lighting sensors and access to electric vehicles and bicycles.

Collaboration is key to creating a successful city or smart city, he said, noting that the projects are based on achieving a “tripartite balance” where the needs of government, communities and businesses are all taken into account. into account in tandem. “Coordination is key to the success of this type of concept,” he said. The Suita Smart City, for example, is a collaboration between more than a dozen companies and the local municipality,

It is extremely important to actively incorporate feedback from people who live in developments in smart city management, Arakawa added. “We have to focus on the intentions or the hopes or the ideas of the residents and how we can take those [contributions] in the management of the program,” he said. “So in the case of Fujisawa, the management company allows residents to have direct communication with all these businesses, and the businesses provide services and products, so that the businesses gain a better understanding of their needs and their cravings.”

Arakawa predicted that smart cities will pop up more and more in the future, both in Japan and overseas. “We have a lot of social issues and challenges to deal with, from urbanization and aging societies to environmental issues,” he said. “The city or smart city approach is a very effective way to solve these problems. Therefore, not only here in Japan, but also in the world, we expect this type of concept to be increasingly implemented.

Either way, smart cities are something of a testing ground for Panasonic to gauge how its products can be bundled together as integrated solutions, Arakawa revealed. “I hope that in the future we can roll out these packages to other regions, and not just for smart cities, but [as standalone] packages and integrated solutions.”

Indeed, as fuel prices soar in Europe and parts of Asia, smart, integrated energy efficiency solutions are expected to be increasingly sought after by savvy businesses and households looking to protect against crippling energy bills. And as climate regulations on property developers become stricter, the market for holistic “smart” solutions that can make buildings more self-sufficient could soar. Panasonic may be on to something.

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