Tsukuba: Pioneering innovation and shaping tomorrow

Writer Samira Joineau
dr tatsuo igarashi mayor tsukuba ict spring 2023 farvest luxembourg
© Henri Collette

In a world where science and technology have grown as the bedrock of progress, few cities have embraced this reality as fervently as Tsukuba. Known as a hub of innovation and trailblazing research, this city has succeeded to capture attention with its relentless pursuit of advancements that redefine the limits of the unknown. At the forefront of this dynamic city’s leadership stands Mayor Tatsuo Igarashi, a visionary who embodies the spirit of Tsukuba’s mission to “contribute to humankind through science and technology”.

In this exclusive interview, Mayor Igarashi takes us on a journey through Tsukuba’s remarkable initiatives, unveiling the city’s commitment to shaping a future unwavering commitment to shaping a future that fuses innovation with societal progress.

Tsukuba counts a significant number of residents engaged in research, with a focus on science and technology: how does Tsukuba leverage the expertise of its research community to drive innovation and economic growth?

As part of the Tsukuba Super Science City Initiative, one of the city’s most important initiatives, a structure has been created that brings together various human resources from universities, research institutes and companies. This structure offers the advantage of drawing on the expertise and knowledge from academic institutes such as the University of Tsukuba and leading companies in various fields. Leveraging this advantage, we are working on improvement and social implementation of cutting-edge technologies and services.

In addition, there are other organizations in Tsukuba City that serve as collaborative hubs for specific purposes such the Tsukuba Startup Ecosystem Consortium which promotes startup initiatives, and the Tsukuba Global Innovation Promotion Agency (TGI) which promotes local innovation. We aim to drive innovation and economic growth by working with these hub organizations at every stage of technology, from development to social implementation.

Speaking of innovation, the Tsukuba Startup Park plays a crucial role in fostering entrepreneurship and collaboration. Can you share some success stories or examples of startups that have thrived in this intubation hub? How does the park support the growth and development of these startups?

Since its establishment in October 2019, the Tsukuba Startup Park has supported the launch of 33 startup companies. In addition to providing co-working spaces and offices, the Startup Park offers startup consulting services by incubation managers, professional consulting services by tax accountants and lawyers, as well as organizing startup-related seminars, social events and business matching events. Through these services, the Startup Park has served as a hub accessible to all those who are setting up businesses, and has provided consistent support to startups from their inception to their growth.

One of the successful startups is WARPSPACE Inc, a startup company founded at the University of Tsukuba which develops space optical communications. The company hired an office in the Tsukuba Startup Park and has grown steadily, raising a billion yen in funding, setting up a branch office in the US and launching a small satellite into orbit. In 2021 the company was selected as a finalist for the 11th FIT-4-START, an acceleration program organized by the Luxembourg Ministry of the Economy. In the following year of 2022, the company was also invited by the Luxembourg government to host a booth at ICT SPRING, making full use of the country’s innovation support framework. After leaving the office at the Startup Park for a private office in the city, the up-and-coming company in the field of space optical communications has been adopted by the Small/Startup Business Innovation Research (SBIR) in 2023, a startup support scheme run by the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), an innovation promotion agency of the Japanese government.

Also, Tsukuba has been recognized as a national strategic zone for implementing cutting-edge technologies to address social issues. In this sense, the concept of “Leave No One Behind” is central to the city’s approach. How does the city ensure the inclusivity and active participation of all residents, including those with disabilities?

When it comes to the relationship between the city and its citizens, ‘Together we create’ is our guiding principle. In addition to providing information to our residents about the city’s initiatives, as mayor I visit each community myself and hold community meetings where I talk to many people including elderly citizens and junior high school and high school pupils. As part of the Tsukuba Super Science City Initiative, we have also held meetings with local people including the head of each community to exchange ideas on specific projects.

Furthermore, in collaboration with Tsukuba University of Technology, a national university for the visually and hearing impaired, we have exchanged ideas regarding holding online voting and improving the functions of Tsuku Sma, a mobile app that allows citizens to connect with their local government.

We will add more functions to Tsuku Sma in the future that will enable interactive communications between citizens and their local government, including a reporting function that allows people to report problems they find with public facilities and infrastructure such as roads and playground equipment, and a questionnaire function to collect ideas from citizens.

During your keynote at ICT Spring, you mentioned that Tsukaba plans to introduce online voting and mobility robots in the near future. What are the expected benefits and challenges associated with these projects?

I believe that these projects will help solve problems faced by people including the elderly and disabled, and encourage their social participation. For example, online voting will help people with mobility difficulties to vote. Mobility robots will also help them get around and help increase their employment opportunities. The challenge, however, is that in order to take advantage of these new technologies and services, the current legislation needs to be changed. Because Tsukuba has been designated as one of the National Strategic Special Zones by the national government, I expect that regulatory reform will take place to address this challenge.

Tsukuba’s focus on science and technology has garnered international attention. How does the city plan to leverage this global recognition to attract talent, investment, and partnerships for further growth?

As one of the top science cities in Japan, we will continue to leverage our partnerships with universities and national research and development institutes to improve and implement the cutting-edge technologies and services outlined in the Tsukuba Super Science City Initiative.

In addition, we will make efforts to attract human resources and partnerships by using the preferential treatment measures for foreign nationals starting businesses in a National Strategic Special Zone such as the startup visa scheme for foreign nationals including researchers. We will also make use of cooperation agreements with the Japan Business Federation and the Development Bank of Japan to attract investment.

Furthermore, we have strategically partnered with overseas startup support organizations so that we can also provide support for startups looking to expand overseas. For example, we have formed such partnerships with LUXINNOVATION in Luxembourg, the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC) in the US, and AWS Japan and Prologis, leading global companies in Japan.

As the mayor of Tsukuba, what is your vision for the city’s future? Which are the biggest challenges and opportunities in the coming years, particularly in the areas of digitization, technology, and sustainable development?

Since taking the office as mayor of Tsukuba, ‘Exploring Tomorrow’ has been my vision. Many countries in the world share common issues such as declining birth rates, aging populations, climate change, work style issues, and problems related to agriculture and food. I believe that our mission as a city is to provide clues to solving these problems by making full use of the knowledge and expertise accumulated in this city of research and science. One of our main focus is to make Tsukuba a city of the future, that is digitized and equipped with cutting-edge technologies and services by 2030. We will also focus on green areas including the environment and energy.

A last question to finish off: as Tsukuba is known for its innovative and forward-thinking approach, which (non-)fictional character it would be and why?

Tsukuba would be Roberto Baggio of the Italian national team at the FIFA World Cup USA in 1994. The World Cup final against Brazil came down to a penalty shootout in which Baggio stepped up as the final shooter for his team. The result was that he missed the penalty, ending the hopes for Italy. In the moment of heartbreak, he famously said: ‘Only those who have the courage to take a penalty miss them.’ This is the very attitude of Tsukuba City. On a stage as big as this one, not many players have the courage to take a penalty kick. But the battle cannot be won unless someone dares to do so. The same can be said for a new policy or technology.

Starting a project or introducing a technology that no one has ever done before inevitably entails risks and failure. Without those who dared to take a penalty (those who dared to start something new), the convenience we benefit today, afforded by technological advances, would not have been possible. In the spirit of ‘Exploring Tomorrow’, we will continue to work on and support initiatives that help solve social problems through technology.