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Panasonic-Denver Partnership Highlights Cultural Considerations in Smart City Projects

Ryan Citron — February 22, 2016

Bangkok SkylineIn January 2016, Japan-based Panasonic and the city of Denver, Colorado announced a partnership to transform the mountain municipality into a smart city, with a focus on improvements to transportation, energy efficiency, water conservation, and public safety, among other services. The focus project of the public-private partnership is the creation of a greenfield community southwest of the Denver International Airport called Peña Station NEXT.

Using Panasonic’s CityNOW approach, the new community in Denver is being modeled on the successful development of the Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town in Japan. Fujisawa is 31 miles west of Tokyo and as has a comprehensive smart city implementation across multiple applications, including smart street lights and  rooftop solar panels that power homes during the day while fuel cells and batteries are utilized at night. The community is also in walking distance to public transportation, and electric cars and bicycles are widely available for rent.

This is a significant example of how companies like Panasonic are trying to take best practices from smart city projects in Japan to North America and other markets. Other Japanese giants have also been working with North American and European cities on a range of pilots and demonstrator programs, but the Panasonic-Denver collaboration is one of the most significant commercial projects to date.

Cultural Challenges

However, the translation of experiences in Japan to the United States raises some interesting challenges. According to the Denver Post, Denver’s smart city initiatives will have several different applications compared to what took place in Fujisawa, primarily in order to account for cultural and social differences between the two countries. Camera monitors with facial recognition spike much higher privacy concerns in the United States compared to Japan; as a result, the Denver project is expected to be much less intrusive. Instead of shared cars and bicycles, the Peña Station NEXT community is likely to use shuttles with parking garages and parking lots to accommodate some personal vehicle usage. In addition, far-reaching liability concerns in the United States mean that automated street lights are also unlikely, with dimming ability being a more realistic approach. While many of the same essential technologies that were tested in Fujisawa (i.e., cameras, smart street lights) are being applied in Denver, precisely how they are going to be used is being augmented for cultural considerations.

Through the partnership with Panasonic, Denver looks to improve its greenhouse gas emissions per capita, as the city’s sprawling infrastructure all too often encourages driving as the primary means of transportation. According to a 2011 World Bank report, Denver ranks far below other more densely populated cities with 23.7 tons of CO2 emissions per person. It’s a high figure, especially when compared to other locations like New York City (8.7), San Francisco (10.1), and Boston (13.3). The American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that Denver County has some of the highest rates in the country of commuters driving to work from surrounding counties.

While there are several common themes that go into making a city smart (such as digital technology, sustainability, mobility, and financing), how these factors are implemented changes drastically by jurisdiction. Initiatives that helped Japanese cities become smarter are likely to have relevance in other countries such as the United States, but some differences in implementation are needed for project success.

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