Never mind Industry 4.0 – Japan is planning for Society 5.0

Image credit: Prasit Rodphan /

Every day, it seems, we hear more about ‘Industry 4.0‘. Japan, however, is already moving on. In June, the Prime Minister’s Office released Japan’s Growth Strategy 2017, which lays out a strategic blueprint for Japan’s Society 5.0, including specific plans for the deep integration of cutting-edge technologies to solve economic and social problems.

It is no longer just about the digitalization of manufacturing, but digitalization across all levels as Japan seeks to future-proof its economy in the face of a labor shortage and aging workforce. How Japan implements Society 5.0 could carry lessons for other nations soon to face similar demographic and economic dynamics.

“We are now witnessing the opening of the fifth chapter. We are now able to find solutions to problems that could not be solved before,” said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as he gave a preview of Japan’s new Society 5.0 vision at the CeBIT expo in Germany Hannover in March. “This is the age, in which all things are connected, all technologies fuse, and this is the advent of Society 5.0.”

Society 5.0 explained

Essentially, Japan is planning to create a “super-smart society” capable of providing customized solutions through the adoption of new technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, big data, and drones – as well as through policy and regulatory reform.

“The essence of Society 5.0 is that it will become possible to elicit quickly the most suitable solution that meets the needs of each individual. We will become able to solve challenges that have defied resolution until now,” said Abe at the International Conference on The Future of Asia in June.

Society 5.0 aims to empower all actors in the society, placing a special emphasis on enabling each individual to actively participate and live safely, comfortably and securely. Taking the first stride to realize a new vision for its society and economy, Japan’s contribution to policy-making, research and development could one day be applied to solve the world’s biggest challenges.

Drone technology to tackle labor shortage

How does the government plan to maintain the same level of productivity growth and ensure the prosperity of Japan? Part of its vision is to utilize new technologies such as drones and auto-operated ships to innovate the logistics and transportation industries.

One example is through drone delivery service, which the government plans to roll out as soon as next year. “Our goal is to be able to deliver packages in the mountain areas by drone next year,” says the Growth Strategy document. “We also aim to engage in safe delivery of packages in the urban areas on a full-fledged basis in the 2020s.”

Such changes would come at an important time: The delivery sector grapples with a shortage of workers even as more and more people are shopping online and the delivery volume hit a record high of 3.9 billion packages last year.

Rethinking healthcare for the aging society

It is not just the health aspect of dealing with more chronic diseases linked to old age that the government is concerned about, but the holistic aspect – rethinking a “new system of health, medical care, and nursing care”.

Robotics, long used in industrial settings, are now being tested in healthcare to serve the country’s aging population. Researchers are exploring the use of robots and sensors at nursing care to reduce the burden of caretakers as well as lower the cost of medical treatment and care.

Unlocking the treasure trove of big data

Japan’s Society 5.0 is not just about the technology, but the policies and regulations that shape its development.

Big data is behind many emerging technologies such as machine learning. The government is encouraging businesses to share big data and promoting cooperation to drive innovation.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) released guidelines for big data use in May, which are reflected in the government’s growth strategy.

Currently, manufacturers tend to own the rights to the massive amounts of data collected from automobiles, factories, etc. In most cases, companies themselves have limited capability to develop new technologies using the information extracted from key data owned by other entities, thereby leaving big data’s great potential untapped.

This may be about to change under Society 5.0 as public and private sectors work together to establish a system in which Big Data can be traded securely and effectively. This would allow more companies to be more willing to share the information and allow other companies to use the data to develop better products. For example, tire manufacturers will be able to improve their products if they have the data of the time and location of which the car have slipped on the road.

An unprecedented demographic shift

Many of the changes in Japan’s Society 5.0 are driven by the need to address the nation’s shrinking workforce, which poses a serious economic threat that could cause massive strain on public spending and industry productivity.

As highlighted in Japan’s official Population Census released in 2016, the country has over 33.4 million people or 27.3% of the population aged 65 or above. And the elderly population is expected to exceed 40% by 2050, the OECD warned.

But this is not a problem concerning only Japan. Japan is merely catching the first wave.

Globally, the number of people aged 60 or above is expected to double by 2050 and more than triple by 2100 according to the 2017 revision of World Population Prospects [PDF] released by the United Nations.

This suggests that many countries would do well to monitor how Japan’s Society 5.0 plays out, and how Japan is using new technologies to reinvent the society so their economy is undaunted by the rapidly aging population and shrinking workforce.

Written by Nicole Jao (@nicole_i_jao) | The original version of this article first appeared in ITU News

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