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Hitachi Research Institute

President Column

Commentary by our President, Keiichi Shimada

#9: Digital and Sustainable

While I was a student, I often spent my vacations going on bicycle trips. I loaded my bicycle with baggage, and traveled for several weeks while camping outdoors. I visited various places across the country on these trips, but what I remember more than any famous landmarks are things like the sound of the waves at night when I was camping out on a beach, looking up at a star-filled sky at a mountain campsite I reached after riding through a forest path, or feeling a refreshing breeze after climbing a harsh mountain pass.

Now, decades later, I sometimes feel like going camping again when those memories come back. I get my whole family involved, pack my car with camping gear, and we put up a tent somewhere far from town to spend some time away. Why do you suppose this impulse arises? Do we want to place ourselves in a quiet world distant from the hustle and bustle of the city, or to go outside to be in contact with nature while experiencing fresh air and tranquility, or to enjoy events like making a fire or sleeping in a sleeping bag?

However, even when camping we will realize that in reality it is difficult to remain in a situation so unlike our daily life and stay away from the commotion of the city for a long time. Since there is now a boom in outdoor activities, there are many high-grade campgrounds where it is bright within the grounds even at night, and power supplies are available. There are even some campgrounds that have toilets equipped with warm-water washing seats, or provide bath facilities within the camping areas. Convenience stores and supermarkets located nearby make it easy to buy food, and you can use your smartphone to stay up-to-date with news and sports scores. If you make online reservations a few months in advance, you can be assured that you will be able to use clean, popular camping areas.

When I would go on trips by bicycle, even though it wasn’t the case for the entire time, I rarely met anyone while traveling on forest paths. During the time I spent at campsites, I didn't feel any signs of the busy atmosphere of the city. In my own image of campgrounds from long ago, they were so dark at night it seemed like something could jump out at any second, and they had very simple, bare-bones facilities. Most of the users were hikers, or cyclists like myself, and I remember that even when we talked to each other, it was only about things like where we came from, which route we took to get there, and what the weather might be like tomorrow. Then, when I returned to Tokyo after a few weeks and caught up with newspapers and TV, I found myself surprised by all the news events that had happened during my trip.

Now, camping has become much easier and more comfortable, and is a leisure activity enjoyed by many people. Car camping is becoming more widespread, and at campgrounds, flashlights have been replaced with electric light fixtures, toilets have changed from vault toilets to facilities with warm-water washing seats, and spring water and well water have been replaced by heated water. There are also nearby convenience stores open 24 hours a day, and smartphones are commonplace. Over the past few decades, the amount of energy consumed per person when camping has probably risen considerably.

Many countries and regions are currently making declarations for “net zero.” They are proceeding with initiatives for decarbonization of social infrastructure and industrial supply chains, to achieve a balance between the formation of a sustainable society and the growth of the economy. To do so, it will first of all be necessary to expand the use of renewable energy and reduce the consumption of fossil resources. Conversion of thermal energy, which accounts for roughly 60% of the energy consumed by society, to electricity will be promoted, while electric power systems are strengthened and energy usage efficiency is improved.

On the other hand, however, population growth and progress toward ease and comfort will continue to increase the amount of energy consumed by people. In this regard, measures on the demand side as well as the supply side will be important for the formation of a sustainable society. It is said that currently, the amount of renewable resources (areas of forests, agricultural land, pastures, fishing grounds, etc.) required to support the annual economic activities of humans is 1.7 times that of the entire earth. At the very least, efforts must be made to reduce the level of energy and resource consumption per person.

For example, up until now almost all recyclable resources have been disposed of after their primary use, but could they instead be reused or recycled? Measures for sharing are anticipated to help prevent the increase of buying unnecessary things, and the importance of adding small inconveniences to your daily life, like replacing plastic bags given at registers with your own shopping bags, will grow. To achieve this, it will be important to visualize and match the supply and demand for resources to each other, and to present social and economic benefits that can be gained by users if they make lifestyle changes. I would like to see some special measures to change inconveniences from things that must be endured to things that can be anticipated, such as connections between regional point systems and services, and invitations to enjoyable events.

When I was traveling by bicycle, I was often asked why I put myself through such a struggle to go up mountain passes, or why I slept outdoors instead of staying overnight at an inn. I answered that it was because I knew that after riding up a hard uphill slope or going through the inconvenience of sleeping outdoors, the rewards of a refreshing breeze blowing through the pass or the sight of a sky full of stars were waiting for me. In order to tolerate some small inconveniences, it is important for us to realize and understand that there will be a wealth of rich rewards beyond them.