May 10, 2012
University of Aizu Creates Center to Support Industrial Recovery Using Advanced IT StudyThe University of Aizu, in Fukushima Prefecture, was fortunate to escape the worst of the Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent disaster at Tepco’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. With local recovery on track, the university has leveraged its unique capabilities as Japan’s only specialized computer education facility to set up a support center, tentatively named the University of Aizu Revitalization Center for Fukushima and Tohoku, to speed reconstruction efforts.
The University of Aizu was established in 1993 as Japan’s first specializing solely in computer education and research. The prefectural facility currently has around 1,300 students and 110 teachers, making it the country’s leading computer university. U-AIZU is also unusual in its international character, with its front-line professors coming from various countries and a ratio of foreign teachers close to 40 percent. English is thus the official language, with graduate school courses taught completely in English. U-AIZU has also implemented an active exchange program with major universities and currently has agreements with 53 facilities in 16 countries.
While the university suffered relatively moderate damage to its buildings during the Great East Japan Earthquake, 90 percent of its 70 international students evacuated Aizu and returned to their home countries. Fortunately, almost all of these students have since been able to return. A further five new students from Vietnam also arrived as planned in May 2011, when the university reopened, and a group of Taiwanese who were due in spring began their studies in the fall. This was encouraging news for local people. Immediately after the disaster, U-AIZU had set up the Disaster Recovery Information Office (Drio), which used Google Docs to provide foreign students with daily updates on how to obtain key supplies including food, water and gasoline.
Fukushima is Japan’s third largest prefecture and consists of three main areas: Hamadori, along the coast, Nakadori, in the center, and Aizu, to the west. The tsunami following the March 11 quake devastated Hamadori, while the nuclear disaster badly affected both Hamadori and Nakadori. Although Aizu was hit by a magnitude 5 tremor, direct damage was low. The power supply was also largely uninterrupted with the exception of a few blackouts. This allowed a large number of people from Hamadori to be evacuated to Aizu. The region is also roughly 100 km from the nuclear plant, on the Pacific Ocean side, and is shielded by the Abukuma Highlands and Ou Mountain Range. Due to this, it has suffered only limited effects from radiation.
With recovery plans for Fukushima Prefecture now finalized, the University of Aizu announced in January 2012 that it would establish the University of Aizu Revitalization Center for Fukushima and Tohoku (tentative name). The overall aim of the center is to promote the creation of new industry and employment through both local and international cooperation with major IT companies including NEC, Fujitsu, NTT East Japan and Accenture Japan.
There are currently 23 IT-related companies established via U-AIZU, the highest of any prefectural university, and these ventures are making a significant contribution to local employment. All of these companies are located within cycling distance of Aizu university and are expanding as regional businesses. This has helped to make the Aizu area a central base for the local IT industry. With this as its background, the immediate goals of the center are to contribute to recovery and reconstruction by leveraging its educational and R&D expertise, and to use them to promote the creation of new industry, a pillar of revitalization. The project to establish the center is being implemented in line with the prefectural government’s recovery plans for Fukushima Prefecture. Its main activities will include:
1. IT support for health studies of people in Fukushima Prefecture
U-AIZU will use its expertise in information and communication technologies (ICT) to cooperate on a project with Fukushima Medical University. In the project, the two parties will operate and manage a long-term health study to collect data on two million people in Fukushima.
2. Hands-on training of IT personnel and creation of job opportunities
In September 2011, the university established Aizu Software Linkage Farm (SLF), an IT worker development business designed to lead employment in the area. The program has accepted both those currently working as well as job seekers, and its scope has also been widened to target people in the devastated area with an extended range of skills. To meet the demand from the market, eight venture companies have now joined the project, teaching smartphone and other IT skills. Around 50 people have been attending classes as members of the inaugural course.
3. Industrial recovery using cutting-edge R&D
One of the R&D projects currently underway at U-AIZU involves using an advanced computer model to forecast local weather patterns. This project contributes to the recovery plans for Fukushima Prefecture’s core goals of ensuring prompt disclosure of disaster information, building a forward-looking and resilient community, and harnessing breakthroughs in renewable energy.
As well as providing early forecasting about natural disasters such as torrential rain, heavy snow or typhoons, the new model will be able to forecast data on temperatures, humidity and wind direction using a mesh (area) of just several hundred meters. This is significantly narrower than current forecasting methods. The university is also moving forward with its research on agriculture and environmental conservation in cooperation with organizations including the APEC Climate Center (APCC) in Korea and the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC).
4. Recovery through educational activities and promotion of student involvement
Immediately after the earthquake, U-AIZU began carrying out volunteer activities with student participation and also using its educational expertise to provide onsite lectures. The themes of the lectures differed from the university’s specialty in ICT and included health consultations with its junior college department through to information on nutrition science. U-AIZU worked to provide lectures that were appropriate for the process of post-disaster recovery and the needs of people in each devastated area.
5. Recovery utilizing the university’s international connections and resources
The Vision for the Revitalization of Fukushima Prefecture is focused on recovery that integrates the power of people who love and care for Fukushima. Since the earthquake, there has been a growing awareness of the importance of inviting young people and researchers from abroad to Japan. With its large number of foreign teachers, U-AIZU has been using its international character to promote educational research, industry and regional exchange.
Rebuilding existing industries and supporting new ones as they grow will be a key part of revitalizing the Tohoku area. While this presents a large number of challenges, the University of Aizu believes its unique cutting-edge IT and R&D will help to tip the scales in the direction of full-scale recovery.