Kansai Science City

Back to Contents of Issue: September 2001

The ATR labs' hometown was envisioned to be a bustling, energetic, international research technopolis. In reality, it's sleepy and secluded.

by Alex Stewart

KANSAI SCIENCE CITY STRADDLES the rolling hills and farmland where the prefectures of Kyoto, Osaka, and Nara intersect, in the back of beyond. The shorthand for these three metropolitan areas spells in Japanese "Keihanna" (Kei=Kyoto, Han=Osaka, Na=Nara). The conception was a bold one, and not bad, if everything and everyone had worked together more smoothly. It promised to create a new kind of international-minded community, and be a showcase for how research and community could co-exist in the future.

The journey from the local Takanohana station to the ATR and Keihanna Plaza research area takes 15 minutes. In contrast to Silicon Valley, there is no roar of traffic as the shuttle bus joins the road out of town. Indeed, the word "sleepy" would best describe the atmosphere. It's a typically Japanese rural setting, with fields and bamboo groves, interspersed with gas stations, a hyper market, and blocks of residential housing that are starting to create the new community. There is little traffic, and no wide roads to carry it.

Kansai Science City was conceived at the turn of the 80s and implemented from the second half of the decade. Back then, there was heady talk about how Japan would boost R&D and become an advanced network society. A favorite of politicians and bureaucrats was the concept of the Technopolis, a futuristic sort of science park, with all the features that would appeal to Singapore rather than Silicon Valley. To build a Technopolis was every local politician's dream, because it required large pots of money. Also, Kansai, in its long-running rivalry with Tokyo, had to have some compensating infrastructure to prevent the gap between them from widening further. Thus, once Tokyo announced it was building a Technopolis-style research park at Tsukuba, it became imperative for Kansai to have its own home-spun version, which it named Kansai Science City (Kansai Bunka Gakuen Toshi). It's ironic, therefore, that what the planning fathers have created with Kansai Science City is a regional status trophy, rather than an international center. The major exception to this is ATR, which undoubtedly is a successful model of a leading international research center.

The blueprint of Kansai Science City envisages an area of some 15,000 hectares, supporting initially 200,000 people. Coordinating the development of the blueprint for the whole area rests with the Kansai Research Institute, a body comprised chiefly of the prefectural governments and the Kansai Employers' Federation, known as Kankeiren. Unfortunately, it's an ownership structure that produces a dead hand familiar to planned economies. In its Japanese variety, it produces a sense where things look quite well on the surface, but underneath, the health of the organism is poorly nourished.

The planners have recorded some successes in attracting several leading research laboratories. For example, almost 20 major companies have opened corporate research labs. Among the major private laboratories, Matsushita's is the largest, where at least some of its work dovetails with research at ATR. Others include KDDI, Kyocera, NEC, Shimadzu, Sumitomo Metal, and Canon. NTT West's laboratories are directly across a service road from ATR, occupying almost as much space. Researchers at the two institutions share canteen facilities, reflecting the close relationship, which was formalized in the past by NTT's share ownership in ATR. Most of the companies in the Science City are Kansai worthies, and the suspicion is that they have moved here out of regional loyalty.

The Science City is comprised of four core government-funded facilities: Keihanna Plaza, which is intended as a private community research hub, located directly opposite the ATR laboratories site; the Nara Institute of Science and Technology, which is less than 10 minutes by car from the Keihanna Plaza; the International Institute for Advanced Studies, which describes its research field as "transcending disciplines and national boundaries"; and the Research Institute for Innovative Technology for the Earth (RITE), which conducts research on global environmental issues.

Four government-funded facilities do not, however, a Tsukuba Science City make -- that's the Kansai's nemesis in the Kanto (Tokyo) area. Tsukuba covers 28,000 hectares and houses most of the research institutes belonging to government ministries in Tokyo. This makes it very academic, while Kansai Science City is oriented more to lifestyle and futuristic research. A researcher who has worked in both says that Kansai does not suffer from what he terms "the Tsukuba syndrome," a feeling of being mentally trapped in an artificial environment.

The Kansai branch of the Diet Library is under construction on a rise of land across a small valley from the ATR and NTT buildings. It will be a miniature version of the main library in Tokyo, but situated on a green hill far from large concentrations of population, until or unless the Science City attracts a research-oriented population of tens of thousands who could make use of these handy facilities. It does offer one hope, which is that its remote location automatically makes it a candidate for a new kind of online library. One application that a research body affiliated with the Telecommunications Advancement Organization has been carrying out locally is the Virtual Library Project, in which users can search for a book by walking between virtual bookshelves, take a book off the shelf, read it, and put it back, all in virtual space. Another project, the Electronic Library, can retrieve books based on content, not just title, and read text with a synthesized voice -- just exactly what you would expect in the environs of the ATR laboratories.

Virtual space aside, there remains plenty of actual space available for other research labs to locate, but there seems to be no rush to do so. One of the biggest prospective incomers, Omron, has reserved land to build a research center. Omron's former president, Yoshio Tateishi, is head of the Kansai Research Institute and so is very involved in the area's activities. It was a role he automatically inherited, however, by virtue of serving as VP of the Kankeiren employers' federation. There is a passing suspicion that the great and mighty of Kansai could be coerced to invest in such projects out of a sense of loyalty to their regional roots. However, this may be changing. A new school of thought is emerging that describes research parks, which are literally located in country parks, as first-generation, because they were built in emulation of early successful models, such as the AT&T Bell Labs in New Jersey. The new style, third-generation research labs, the argument goes, should be located near a major train station, because interaction is the critical thing now in keeping pace with change. Omron evidently subscribes to this way of thinking -- it has located part of its research at the new HQ building, almost next-door to the Kyoto shinkansen station. Others in the company still say, though, that a Keihanna laboratory would be positive for fundamental research, due in part to the proximity of the ATR laboratories.

The strength of ATR in this respect is that it's an open and experimental research center with an unusual degree of creativity. The same degree of openness is absent from the area in the Keihanna Plaza with its restaurants, convention center, and hotel but no discernible life. In the hot summer evenings, a beer garden is established outside, but other than this, the center has the eerie quiet of a large seaside resort complex out of season, shiny but lifeless until the summer. One of the researchers on a government-related project inside the plaza noted the absence of internal communication as the biggest weakness. It needs at the very least a Starbucks. The other problem the same researcher noted is the absence of a rooted community, since researchers come and go on two- or three-year sabbaticals.

In terms of external communications, it's simply hard to reach the area, either by train or car. From anywhere in downtown Osaka or Kyoto the commute takes more than an hour. The problem is blamed in part on the fact that the three regional governments cannot agree on how to create an integrated transport infrastructure. This is an irony, considering that the area sets out to be open to the world, but fails to be open to its immediate environment.

Another problem is that the area does not have a broadband cable infrastructure. It is possible to gain some higher bandwidth by leasing dedicated lines, and more bandwidth is available with the advent of ADSL services. However, it is far from being a wired community.

The combination of a poor environment for social interaction, an absence of broadband fiber to network the community with the outside, and an under-funded transport infrastructure puts a significant drag on the ability of Kansai Science City to move forward at the pace the early architects of this otherwise well-intended concept intended. On top of this, in the years until the "Big Bangs" that have started to shake Japan's economic structure occurred, the planning fathers remained complacent about the problems, despite steadily mounting debts as rental and other income failed to cover budgeted costs of building development and operations.

In contrast, outside Japan great changes have been occurring in the style, funding, and management of research and public-private partnerships. Waking up to this requires a major rethinking of some of the underlying assumptions on which the city concept was founded. It needs a powerful champion, setting a direction Koizumi-style toward encouraging private initiative away from public intervention. However, having so many different government and private industry bodies represented in the management of the Kansai Science City will make this task formidable. If market solutions rather than Big Ideas and regional "prestigism" ruled, the area certainly would have the potential to come alive, despite the poor location. It could create a community through private enterprise, where, after hours, researchers could mingle at bars or restaurants, ideas could flow, and new ventures could arise. The culturally and technologically aware would start to migrate into the area, irrespective of whether they were sent by their company. Before long, dormitory towns in the Science Park area, which now look forlorn and East German in appearance, would start to flourish, beyond the bright lights of karaoke and pachinko establishments. First, however, a greater sense of a "venture community" needs to be established. This, though, is not a problem just for the Keihanna area -- it's a structural problem that affects the whole of Japan.

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