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Research & Development

Kyōsō-no-Mori: A new form of co-creation

Designing a Zero Carbon City of the Future: The value of an opportunity for exchanging views, brought about by AI use

The city of Obihiro in Hokkaido has been working with Hitachi, Ltd., to create "future scenarios to achieve a decarbonized society by 2050." In this co-creation project, multiple decarbonization scenarios were devised using AI simulation technology developed by Hitachi, as a basis for discussions about the direction in which Obihiro should proceed. We talked with four key players in this project, Hiroya Shimizu of the Environmental City Promotion Division of Obihiro, which played a leading role in conducting the trial, Sao Takase of Obihiro University of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine participating from the standpoint of a local student, and Hitachi Research and Development Group Chief Researcher Yukiko Morimoto and Design Lead Kazuhiro Ikegaya, who provided technical guidance. We asked them about what was learned from the project, its accomplishments, and future directions.

(December 1, 2023)

Thinking about the next move for making Obihiro a zero carbon city

Hiroya Shimizu, Obihiro Environmental City Promotion Division: Obihiro in June 2022 committed to reducing its carbon emissions aimed at becoming a “2050 Zero Carbon City.”* We are engaging the city’s residents and businesses in a united effort toward reducing its carbon dioxide emissions to essentially zero (carbon neutrality). Working toward zero carbon is one of the responsibilities of the Environmental City Promotion Division. I am involved in drawing up plans for how we will go about achieving zero carbon. After formulating these plans in fiscal 2023, we will begin carrying out specific initiatives in fiscal 2024. In line with these efforts, we conducted simulations for “Creating future scenarios on the way to achieving a decarbonized society by 2050,” in a new form of co-creation between Obihiro and Hitachi.

Design Lead Kazuhiro Ikegaya, Hitachi Research and Development Group:Hitachi is focusing the entire Group on environmental issues and initiatives for decarbonization. One such initiative is the “decarbonization scenario simulator,” which uses AI to analyze various scenarios toward achieving decarbonization. The technology on which it is based is the policy recommendation AI simulator developed by the Hitachi Kyoto University Laboratory, able to analyze approximately 20,000 scenarios for realizing a desirable society. Applying this technology to decarbonization efforts, we devised a causality model with 300 or so social factors, and are using it to analyze around 20,000 future scenarios on the way to 2050. From these, we classified them into six representative decarbonization scenarios.

Chief Researcher Yukiko Morimoto, Hitachi Research and Development Group:When simulations are run on the decarbonization scenario simulator, certain branch points become clear, such as, “this is the only future outcome if we proceed on the present course,” or “we cannot arrive at this scenario without making this kind of decision.” The original policy recommendation AI simulator showed the results only as numerical data. To make things easier to understand, with the decarbonization scenario simulator we express the scenarios and their branch points graphically. Another key is that we built this functionality into a web application that anyone can use.

Sao Takase of the Obihiro University of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine:As a senior at the Obihiro University of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine, I am conducting research on rice wine (sake) in the Division of Food Science. While the university attracts students from all over Japan, I myself am from Obihiro. Outside of my studies, I belong to the Obihiro YOSAKOI circle, which takes part in the Yosakoi Soran Festival in Sapporo. Even though our team consists mainly of non-students and is led by someone in agriculture, there are also many university students participating. One of our activities is volunteering for cleanup campaigns, as our contribution to Obihiro; and this was the occasion for my becoming interested in decarbonization of Obihiro.

Making use of AI starting from “What more can we do beyond what we have been doing so far?”

Shimizu:In seeking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Obihiro carried out initiatives as an eco-friendly model city. After launching various initiatives, such as making use of the abundant biomass in the region and encouraging the spread of solar power generation, on the occasion of the nationwide zero carbon program, Obihiro committed to becoming a zero carbon city. In other words, it became necessary to go beyond what we had already been doing. Among the greenhouse gas emissions in Obihiro, those from the residential sector and transport sector tend to make up a large portion. We had a gnawing sense that it would not be possible to meet even higher targets simply by continuing to expand on existing efforts, such as use of biomass and solar energy, while wondering what more we could do.

Ikegaya:A prototype of the decarbonization scenario simulator was exhibited at COP26 [the 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change], held in Glasgow (UK) in November 2021, winning praise from the worldwide participants. Thereafter, as we were considering where to put the simulator to actual use, we heard via the Hokkaido government and the Hitachi Hokkaido University Laboratory about a suggestion to try it out in Hokkaido. This led to our asking Obihiro and Ishikari Cities about asking the cities of Obihiro and Ishikari as to whether they would like to work with and applying the simulation to a real-world environment. And that’s where we met Mr. Shimizu.

Shimizu:Indeed. When Hitachi approached us about a “decarbonization scenario simulator initiative using AI,” the timing was just right. I wasn’t sure what was meant by the plan to “propose a roadmap to future achievement of decarbonization, through discussions at multiple workshops and making use of scenarios analyzed by AI,” and the fact is that initially, I had my doubts about the credibility, even if the scenarios were to be created by AI. It was also true, however, that we were having trouble deciding the next move to be made toward realizing zero carbon, so I felt it would be nice if it turned out to be of use as reference or for coming up with ideas. At the time, before ChatGPT had come into the spotlight, I didn’t really know if AI was all it was touted to be; but we decided to participate in the project thinking that if we tried it and gained something useful from it, that by itself would be a good thing.

Takase:I first learned about the initiative using AI to draw up a roadmap to the future Obihiro when I was taking part in a meeting with people from Obihiro City Hall about the volunteer cleanup activity, as a member of the YOSAKOI circle PR team. Asked if I would take part, to be honest, I didn’t understand much about it, but it sounded interesting, so I decided to participate.

Shimizu:So far, the co-creation project has conducted four workshops.A total of a dozen or so people took part in the workshops, including representatives of multiple Obihiro City divisions, and Ms. Takase and other students from the Obihiro University of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine. My initial expectation was that when members taking part in the workshop gave their views, AI would simply devise scenarios of some kind for us.

Morimoto:At the first workshop session, we came up with indicators to discuss as issues for Obihiro. After listing more than 300 indicators, the participants thought about the relationships among them. At the second session, we discussed the detailed causal relationships among each of the indicators, and created causality models for use in simulations. We also came up with a list of issues specific to municipalities. Then we ran simulations of the resulting causality models using AI, deriving 23 scenarios on the way to the year 2050. At the third workshop, at last we got to look at the AI results.

First workshop session (the teams shared with each other the causality models each had created)

Ikegaya:The first and second workshops in particular were for the “query” designing phase. Perhaps we should have made it clearer from the start that the AI results would not be forthcoming right away.

Takase:I started out with no knowledge about zero-carbon cities or AI, but as a representative of our city residents, I did my best to convey my honest feelings about city planning. People around me taught me various things, and as the workshops progressed, I gradually came to understand the importance of zero carbon for Japan, and also the essential role of AI in a society with a declining population.

Shimizu:In the simulation applied to our city, AI actually plays a supporting role in the workshops. In that sense, rather than AI “simply devising scenarios of some kind” as I originally had imagined, the role of AI turned out to be one of assisting human beings in creating scenarios for a better future. The workshops suddenly became a lot more interesting when I discovered they were a chance to learn about the thinking of (city hall) members outside our division [laughs]. Although things started out with vaguely asking for ideas about decarbonization efforts, as the workshops proceeded, I began to feel that I myself might just be capable of drawing up a specific roadmap.

A workshop session (left: Hiroya Shimizu)

AI was used in deriving scenarios from causal relationships of indicators based on discussions

Takase:The indicator I proposed that remained in the end was “road infrastructure.” I travel by car to and from the university, and ours is a city I have lived in since childhood, so my suggestion that the roads in Obihiro might not be in the best shape arose from my life experience.

Ms. Takase speaking at a workshop (top right)

Ikegaya:Discussing in the same group as Ms. Takase, we all felt that for future projections about the environment and decarbonization, “road infrastructure” offered a new viewpoint. AI does not give viewpoints. Roads are vital infrastructure for transport, for personal movement by automobile, for public transit, and also for future self-driving cars. Ms. Takase brought to the discussions the viewpoint that provision and improvement of road infrastructure is related to decarbonization.

Morimoto:Many of the workshop participants were city employees and other working members of society. Lots of people drive cars, but there is a tendency to overlook the viewpoint of pedestrians. One of the valuable observations made in the discussions was how bumpy road surfaces can be difficult for older people to walk on. The workshop continued to take up the topic of roads, discussing a wide range of aspects from ensuring convenience when attracting tourists to facilitating travel by older people living away from urban areas. Among the points made on this topic was that providing roads would not lead to CO2 reduction so long as most people still drove vehicles running on gasoline.

Shimizu:It was interesting to experience the issues becoming clarified through the discussions, including from viewpoints other than my own. Initiatives for achieving zero carbon cross over many different fields. What I came to feel, though, is that since I was participating in the workshops as part of my work in the Environmental City Promotion Division, I was looking only at the environmental field. This is another reason why Ms. Takase’s bringing up the viewpoint of roads left such an impression.

Morimoto:In the third session, we presented scenarios analyzed by AI. With the decarbonization scenario simulator, we decided to consolidate the scenarios into six large groups with 2050 as their arrival point, and to color-code them. Where scenario lines tended to be bunched together, we assigned colors and grouped the scenarios, making it possible to trace the branch points of each scenario back in time.

Shimizu:In reality, the scenarios made by AI had bundles of countless lines, so that my first impression was, “What is this all about?” As we discussed the kind of society each of the scenarios indicated, we sought to unravel the lines. The third session was a difficult one [laughs].

Morimoto:What we asked the participants was to become “data scientists,” and they responded by putting their best efforts into interpreting the scenarios. After the Hitachi AI showed six scenarios, the participants, while gathering around the screen to view the simulation results, carried on the actual discussions about the meaning of each scenario with the help of pen and paper, finally narrowing down to two scenarios.

Choosing a roadmap that depicts the vision of a future city

Shimizu:Color-coding was used for each of the respective indicators of the six scenarios to show whether the situation by 2050 would become better or become worse. The color-coding showed the features of each scenario, for example, “While the environment would improve, the economy would worsen.” A one-word title was then assigned to each based on this interpretation. The results of the trade-offs for each of the indicators of each scenario were quite clearly shown. This led further to our realizing the need not just to think about how to go about achieving zero carbon in Obihiro, but to be aware also of results that would improve the entire Tokachi District of which Obihiro is part. Each scenario was valuable, making it tough to assign priorities to them.

Morimoto:In the fourth workshop session, we worked on reflecting the two scenarios in the final roadmap. There is a branch point in each of the two scenarios, and AI shows the indicators that determine the branches at these points. As the workshop members got a sense of how continuing with the policy measures for each indicator leads to one or another of the future outcomes, we had them think about the direction in which their own towns and cities were headed.

Takase:One of the scenarios I saw as drawing on the intrinsic goodness of Obihiro. The other seemed a more challenging scenario, such as the way it called for energizing the community by attracting more foreign nationals. Since I love Obihiro, rather than making a new city, I preferred the first scenario that seeks to expand on what is already good about the city. Naturally the second, more challenging scenario had its backers, so we argued from our respective viewpoints. In the final voting, the first scenario was chosen.

Shimizu:After everyone thought about these matters from their own standpoint and expressed their views, a final proposal was decided. A preponderance of the participants felt that Obihiro should remain true to itself. This aspect appears to be influenced in part by the values of the people who participated. For achieving zero carbon, technical innovation and other advanced initiatives are also on the increase. From the exchange of views in the workshops, however, while such innovativeness is important, the views can be summed up as the belief that the original character of Obihiro is something to be valued. Sensing the need to increase initiatives that build on the true nature of the region, we are being careful to respect that viewpoint as we go forward with our zero carbon plans.

Reporting session following the workshops

Takase:What made me feel glad to have taken part in the decarbonization scenario simulator workshops is that the goodness of Obihiro and the many attractions of the Tokachi District have been rediscovered. I feel like I’ve come to love my hometown more than ever. That has made me realize all the more the importance of changing the awareness of people one by one toward zero carbon, and encouraged me to begin even small efforts, like going easy on the gas when I’m driving.

Shimizu:Zero carbon, the aim for decarbonization, is being pursued nationwide, in Hokkaido, and in Obihiro. Yet there must be numerous municipalities that, just as I was in the beginning, are unsure about where they should begin their efforts. What needs to be done right now is of course important, but beyond that, since it relates to the future society, I would like to convey to people in other municipalities the importance of exchanging views about the kind of society to be aimed for, and reaching a consensus. I also felt that using the decarbonization scenario simulator to analyze future scenarios and draw up a proposed roadmap was highly effective in another way, that of providing an occasion for diverse people in the region to exchange views. One could even say that another major value of using the decarbonization scenario simulator is that it provides an opportunity for people of various kinds, including those with different opinions and those thinking about common initiatives, to come together and consider future scenarios.