Making Weather Control a Reliable Part of “City Infrastructure”: A Tag Team of Technology and Social Systems - Yohei Sawada x Rui Izumiyama.
The Moonshot Research and Development Program is a large-scale national research program that promotes challenging research and development based on more daring ideas than conventional technologies have offered up until now, and aims to create disruptive innovation. In Moonshot Goal 8, the program aims for a “realization of a society safe from the threat of extreme winds and rains by controlling and modifying the weather by 2050." In this article, we had Yohei Sawada, a project manager (PM) involved in one of the selected research projects, sit down with Rui Izumiyama, who specializes in urban planning and design, to discuss how weather control could one day become a reliable part of a city’s infrastructure. They talked about how novel technology of weather control can be accepted in civil society, the necessary dialogue to have with citizens, and the future of urban planning and community development.
What is 'weather control'?
—First, Sawada-san, as project manager, could you tell us about the research conducted under your project theme "Control Theory of Weather-Society Coupling Systems for Supporting Social Decision-Making"? Tell us about some of the research content, problem settings, and the potential impact on society?
Sawada: The Earth's atmosphere is fundamentally chaotic, in which small changes can lead to much larger effects on future weather. In this project, we are studying ways to utilize this chaos to achieve significant changes in weather patterns with small external forces (energy). We aim to develop a theory of weather control to reduce damages and minimize negative impacts on society by, for instance, changing the intensity and path of typhoons.
In addition to simulations, we aim to make reliable weather control a new type of social infrastructure, like river embankments and dams. To achieve this, we must ensure the accuracy of our predictions while considering the impact of weather control technology on human society. We need to figure out how to implement it in society and establish systems and decision-making methods to promote the adoption of weather control based on a backcasting approach, by forecasting and simulating a society where it has been implemented.
—Regarding the research of Sawada-san as PM, what are your thoughts, Izumiyama-san, on disaster prevention measures such as typhoons, from the perspective of urban design?"
Izumiyama: As someone studying urban planning and design, I can say that climate change has become a major issue in recent years. In Location Normalization Plan, in which we consider various urban functions such as residential functions and public transportation, many cases assume that the cities of the future will have more vacant houses and lower population density in a society with declining population. With this in mind, we are seeing more and more promotion of urban development for compact cities, where residential areas are limited to places with high population density by regulating land use. If we’re able to implement compact cities, where urban functions can be consolidated, it should also contribute to disaster prevention and mitigation.
In regards to recent earthquakes and tsunami disasters, the awareness of disaster prevention in regions that have experienced earthquakes is high. Even in areas where the Nankai Trough earthquake is predicted, the awareness among the elderly is high. But I feel that’s not the case among the younger generation. Governments have formed cities based on conventional planning methods while taking into account urban disaster prevention measures. However, in an era where climate change and large-scale storm and flood disasters are prevalent, we must plan cities while anticipating unpredictable phenomena. Simulation and reverse calculation will be an essential tool for coming up with policies in order to make an ideal society.
What is the necessary process for consensus building with citizens?
—In this project, there is also a group studying how to achieve consensus across society by conducting workshops that envision a future where weather control is possible.
Sawada: Among the 9 researchers in this project, there is a researcher in the ELSI field (*1). Even researchers can’t predict how new technologies will be accepted by society. Even if they find the research interesting, it doesn’t mean that citizens or society will necessarily accept it, as is. It is important to understand the gap between our research and the thoughts of citizens, and to anticipate all possibilities even before the technology is developed.
In our workshops, we provide a space for dialogue, asking "what do you think about the possible use of weather control?” We have already held two workshops and there have been several discoveries and surprises, such as the perspective of everyday people who live in close proximity with disaster. It has become a very interesting opportunity for dialogue.
—What specific opinions were expressed?
Sawada: One unexpected perspective that emerged was that some people view typhoons and disasters as a kind of "non-daily" occurrence, and that there can be positive aspects as long as life and property are not threatened. For example, some young people said, "When a typhoon comes, we get a day off from school." While our research and development does not aim to completely eliminate typhoons, we heard an interesting opinion from someone who imagined a society without typhoons, that it would be "boring if there were no typhoons at all.” On the other hand, older people with experience in fishing and agriculture view it as a risk that threatens their work and livelihood. Researchers focusing on disaster prevention tend to only consider the occurrence of disasters, and may overlook aspects surrounding daily life. It is necessary to deepen our understanding of how disasters occasionally occur in daily life.
Sawada: At the same time, humans have a cognitive bias towards events that occur with very low probability. It is difficult to intuitively estimate the probability of being affected by, or the impact of rare events such as storm and flood disasters. We must also think about creating a robust social system that is not influenced by cognitive or emotional biases. On the other hand, we must not forget that everyone is free. Systems and social institutions have the function of constraining human behavior and guiding it in a certain direction. Therefore, we should not impose a kind of paternalism by saying "you should do this because you have this bias." Dialogue among citizens plays a very important role in the project, in order to explore methodologies for balancing technology, social institutions, and real life.
—Due to the impact of climate change and global warming, it is expected that the scale of disasters will increase in the future, and we need to think more about countermeasures against those extreme weather disasters. On the other hand, there are situations where people's disaster awareness and measures are not sufficient. Not only in disaster prevention but also in town planning and urban planning, it is a challenge to increase citizens' awareness and encourage their participation. Izumiyama-san, do you feel any difficulty in the consensus building process among citizens based on your experience?
Izumiyama: In disaster prevention, public roads and spaces are generally used as evacuation routes, but in reality, there are cases where using private roads as evacuation routes can be faster for residents. This idea is based on the fact that the local community is maintained and people can interact with their neighbors on a daily basis. However, even if the government unilaterally creates evacuation plans in areas where the local community is not nurtured, there are limits to what can be done. Dialogue between the government and citizens, among citizens themselves, as well as the presence or absence of community, these will all have a large impact on evacuation and disaster prevention.
There are differences in problem awareness and perspectives between the government and citizens. There are gaps there too, where the government thinks something is necessary, but citizens may not perceive the need for it. That's why citizen participation and taking responsibility is important in cities. We can’t rely solely on the government with an attitude like, "they will do everything for us." It is impossible for the government to take care of everything.
It is important to establish a framework for collaboration and cooperation through civic engagement. In order to achieve this, we have social experiments. Evacuation drills are one example. Even if the plan is carefully prepared, when the time actually comes, people freeze. By actually doing the drill, you can find discrepancies between the plan and reality. It is important to combine planning with action, as a set, and engage in activities that increase stakeholders' awareness through this process so that people can easily take action during crisis situations.
Requirements for installing disaster prevention measures in cities.
Sawada: In regards to behavioral change in communities, there is the issue of how to get, or rather who can get people to act. Even if warnings are given by the Japan Meteorological Agency or the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, people don’t really listen, but they might if it’s the “friendly neighbor” who does. We have a group in our project that studies how warnings issued by the Japan Meteorological Agency propagate within people's networks. As a researcher with a background in natural science, I tend to think that information is conveyed through a top-down approach, but in reality, it is not that simple. How can we design such human networks within cities?
Izumiyama: There are things that can and can’t be done. What can be done, is to prepare the space properly. The government can create places where people gather and interact through public facility development and can include disaster prevention functions there. However, even with those spaces, it is impossible to force connections between people. People gather in fun places. On the other hand, disaster prevention has significant meaning. It is important to connect it with emotions such as joy and happiness, while also raising awareness of disaster prevention. Local festivals and events are actually often utilized for disaster prevention purposes.
Sawada: Indeed, it is meaningless if we focus too much on disaster prevention and reduction and end up reducing the fun and richness of society. One of the major objectives of our project is to enhance the overall quality of life. We cannot completely stop the economy in order to emphasize climate change and disaster prevention. Flood control embankments, for example, are not only intended to prevent floods, but also to ensure the safe growth of the city surrounded by the embankments, which in itself, justifies and legitimizes the construction of them. We need to think about designing infrastructure for society as a whole.
Additionally, inequality in cities is also a major challenge. The impoverished and social minorities tend to live in places with high disaster risks. In aiming for weather control to become so-called social infrastructure, it is necessary to address these issues as well.
—In order to become a city infrastructure in the future, weather control is likely to have a significant impact on the current administrative approach and urban planning methods, is it not?
Izumiyama: Say, for instance, making hazard maps readily and easily visible will affect real estate prices, and areas with stable and safe land will increase in value, while areas with high risk will decrease. Supporting the weak areas will become the role of public offices. The government will need to think about what kind of disaster prevention facilities and evacuation equipment is needed to improve areas with high risk. It is necessary for the government to be actively involved in areas with high risk.
On the other hand, masterplans for urban planning is generally designed to progress over a span of 10 to 20 years. The problem is that plans made 10 years ago can continue to be executed as is. In the future, when new simulations like weather control appear, the government will need to significantly review and update the plan itself, ensuring its adaptability before proceeding with the project. To ensure flexibility in the plan, it will be necessary to proceed with the assumption that regular updates will be carried out from the planning and vision stage, as well as such things as tactical urbanism (*2), a design philosophy that guarantees flexibility by repeating dialogues between the government and citizens from the planning stage.
Sawada: In flood control, the idea of "river basin disaster resilience and sustainability for all" is gaining popularity, as it ensures the safety of cities thanks to the workings of Nature, even if water does overflow from rivers, as opposed to the traditional approach of dams and levees that aim to prevent a single drop of water from leaking. As researchers, we are now closely involved with urban planning itself, rather than just thinking about dams. As the relationship between infrastructure design and cities becomes closer, weather control technology is expected to dynamically change the way cities operate more and more. And this is not a problem to be solved at the level of a single municipality, but rather requires consensus building on a wider scale.
Technology and social systems working together as a tag team in aims of a society where weather control is possible.
—A roadmap for this project has been developed up until 2050. Can you please tell me about the upcoming plans and the challenging initiatives you are working on for 2050?
Sawada: We aim to make weather control a new piece of social infrastructure by 2050, ensuring safety through theoretical development and bringing good economic impact to society. Our demonstrations, which we’ll rollout in steps, will be predicated on all of this. It is a long-term project and we hope to implement it in 2050 through repeated demonstration and social system development.
There are two ways to deal with social systems. One is to change the social system in response to technology, and the other is to explore technology that is suitable to the current social system. For example, if a technology is developed to divert the course of a typhoon, will it be accepted by society? If something predicted to pass through City A can be changed to head for City B, it may indeed reduce the economic and social damage to City A, but there is a possibility that residents and regions in City B may suffer from typhoon damage. It’s not necessarily the case that we’ll be able to please everyone in both City A and City B. How would we reach an agreement on changing the course of the typhoon in that situation?
In dam construction, there is a possibility that while the safety of region C increases due to the construction of a dam, it may actually increase the risk in region D. Some people may also be forced to evacuate their land due to the construction. Social infrastructure always carries the potential to produce some form of inequality. Of course, it is essential for the government to provide adequate compensation and efforts to eliminate inequality. While these things themselves are not unique, who gets to decide whether society accepts it, and how?
Pursuing the technology is meaningless if society cannot accept it, whether it be weather control technology or something else. Perhaps there is a method to pursue means of weakening the force of a typhoon instead of changing its course. In other words, technology and social systems go hand in hand. It begs the question, “what kind of technology can be accepted, and under what kind of social system?” Conversely, proposals that suggest certain social systems based on the possibilities of current technology are constantly being discussed and researched. It’s a challenge we want to take on exactly because of its difficulty.
Izumiyama: By 2050, population decline is expected to accelerate even further. That's why cities are expected to do so in a smart way. For example, we may need to consider gradually shifting high-risk flood areas to non-residential areas, although we may not be able to do it immediately. It may take ten to twenty years.
On the other hand, urban planning and envisioning are limited to 20 years into the future. At this moment, various visions are being formulated across the country for 2030 or 2040. Opportunities and forums for discussion between administration and citizens have also increased. In the future, there is a great possibility that future predictions will be at the center of discussions and dialogue between municipalities and the people. We hope that society will allow for technology and social systems to progress hand in hand, presenting options for enhancing the lives of citizens and making them more fulfilling.
Sawada: Researchers in engineering tend to first think primarily about technology. But at the same time society is also changing. And this doesn’t only apply to Japan. Throughout the world there are significant changes underway. In the long term, it is anticipated that cities worldwide will decrease in size, not just Japan. In that sense, the idea of doing it in a "smart way" really resonates with me. When it comes to a changing society, the key is how to combine evolving technologies. That is what it all boils down to.
Izumiyama: Additionally, we cannot forget that corporations are also important entities in cities, not just citizens. With the current focus on corporate SDGs and ESG investments, it is expected that this trend will become even stronger by 2050. In the future, the question will likely be how administrations and cities can implement social change by involving corporations even more.
Sawada: Our research is in the field of weather control, but once the technology seeds take root, there is no doubt that private companies will play an active role in social implementation. By utilizing established technology, we may see productivity increase and new businesses emerge.
On the other hand, it is meaningless to simply pursue profit. Companies, need to collaborate with countries, research institutions, municipalities, and citizens to implement social efforts, just like they would when developing business continuity plans (BCPs) for the continuation of businesses. We need to consider how weather control can become a new part of urban infrastructure while engaging in various adjustments regarding stakeholder relationships as well as dialogues. We want to examine the optimal approach for society as a whole, from all perspectives.
Interview / Text: Shintaro Eguchi
Photo: Hiroshi Nakamura