Flooding is an increasing occurrence in many parts of the world, causing untold damage. Mitsui Consultants’ unique System utilizing RRI can forecast major floods and help save millions of lives as a result. We spoke with president Takasuke Nakano to learn more about the company’s state-of-the-art disaster prevention technologies.
Japan’s first construction boom was prior to the 1964 Olympics. Now there is an increased need for maintenance and repair work, and less need for newer construction projects. As a comprehensive engineering consultancy firm, what is your current analysis on the state of the Japanese construction market?
Let me begin by giving you a survey of the current situation in the industry, with regards to public infrastructure. One aspect is that the market is definitely faced with aging infrastructure and facilities, and how to deal with that issue. The second aspect is the strengthening of buildings towards mitigating earthquake damage, and the third aspect is preventing disasters apart from earthquakes, such as the flooding of rivers.
Creating infrastructure to be resilient in the face of these three aspects is the primary aim of projects nowadays, and there is a big demand for projects in this field. There are a number of new projects such as the building of bridges, but in general, we believe that the market will continue at its current pace. I do not foresee it growing further and at some point, it might actually go through a decline, but at the moment, I believe that it will stay where it is today.
I want to share with you some historical trends within the public infrastructure market. There was quite a lot of money involved in the market during the bubble economic period of high growth in the Japanese economy. After the bubble - as an economic recovery strategy - there were a number of public programs and a lot of funding went into these programs and public infrastructure.
Actually 14.9 trillion yen was invested by the government as a type of economic recovery method. Since then, however, we had this decline that continued for 11 years. Actually, it continued to decline right up to the Tohoku earthquake in 2011, when it was less than half.
We started to see many types of disasters, including landslides and flooding, so the government set aside a special allocation of funds in order to funnel it into strengthening disaster prevention programs and strengthening the infrastructure. These past few years, the entire market has been moving with funds of seven-to-eight trillion yen.
There is no assurance that what has happened in the past will not happen again, so I believe that with regards to the future of the market, it is going to be quite difficult for the public infrastructure sector to even maintain its current level of funding. There are a number of reasons for that.
First of all, there is Japan’s large fiscal debt. Then there is also the population decline that the government needs to deal with. Another aspect that is definitely challenging for Japan, as well as the war in Ukraine, is that the country is economically in a weak position with regards to energy, as it does not have large energy resources. Therefore, government funds are having to be spread widely and money is being pulled away from the public infrastructure market. You are also going to start to see defense funding rise. For all those reasons, I am not necessarily hopeful for funding being funneled into the public infrastructure side.
Another thing is that Japanese people are still on very low average incomes and in order to strengthen its economic power, Japan will be launching new growth strategies. In this context, the reduced attractiveness of spending on public infrastructure and strategies for earthquake mitigation or disaster prevention is not necessarily going to provide a huge boost to the economy. It may not be something that the government might put much emphasis on.
Currently, my understanding is that with regards to Japan's approach to this market, it is more about risk reduction rather than strengthening the economy. For that reason, funds will be allocated not to this sector, but to new economic growth strategies.
We certainly need to think about the fact that this sector is going to face a decline, but one thing that provides us with opportunities in this sector is that Japan is a disaster prone country. Maybe one of the most disaster prone in the world. With so many earthquakes and different natural disasters always happening, we saw that even the kind of recovery efforts made after the Tohoku earthquake took more than 10 years because there was a lack of engineers in the field.
One of the reasons for that is because people saw what the government was putting emphasis on in terms of funding. They saw the decline within the sector and saw that there were not going to be great economic opportunities for them, so as a result, many people who had originally thought about becoming civil engineers decided to take different career paths.
I believe that the most rational or wise decision that the country can take is to accurately identify the demand in the sector and appropriately allocate funds in order to ensure that there are enough human resources to match the need. I believe it is important to make sure that there is a steady supply of civil engineers, even a little bit of a surplus perhaps, so that in the event of a huge natural disaster, they can be used and then the country will be able to deal with such disasters appropriately.
Can you tell us more about the new technologies and methods that you are using, and how your measures reinforce bridges against natural disasters?
Unfortunately, I am not able to go into more detail about this specific technology because we take care of such a wide range of engineering projects within our company and our engineers have to be very specialized in each of their different fields. When you are an engineer, you have knowledge about the specific background that you are from, but not the others because it is so specific. Personally, my background is in ports, so I do not have the information for you regarding bridges and anti-seismic technology.
When you look at anti-seismic technology and earthquake mitigation technologies, it actually covers a broad range. It is not like there is some specific technology just for that. Rather, it is about measuring the different aspects and then ensuring that there is a certain volume of steel pipes within the buildings and things like that. There is not some ‘black box’ type technology that is being utilized.
Of course, there are specific technologies involved in creating earthquake proof buildings, such as shock absorbent technology utilized within buildings, but as civil engineering consultants in this field specifically, there is not some sort of specific technology applicable to all scenarios. It is about providing our services in terms of the specific conditions of each of the projects.
Another thing about civil engineering consulting work is that it is all public projects funded by the government, so we are not allowed to select certain private companies’ technologies over others. Even though a company may have a specialized type of technology or way of developing and construction, we may not be able to utilize that technology due to government stipulations, as it all needs to be government approved.
In a sense, we need to continue to adapt and create the best and most optimized products in compliance with government standards. However, the government is firmly in favor of incorporating DX and AI, and all of these kind of cutting edge technologies.
Whilst what we do is within compliance of government policies and standards, we can begin to apply such technologies for speeding up the actual processes involved. In that way, we do have a little bit of leeway to be creative and to really optimize certain processes, and that is where our individuality comes through.
As for technologies that we can provide in order to prevent and reduce disasters, we are focused on the conservation of coasts, river channels, and groundwater tables in order to mitigate the effects of events such as tsunamis, floods, and landslides. One specific technology developed by our company is called RRI (Rainfall-Runoff-Inundation), a flood prediction system using a flood analysis model developed by ICHARM (The International Center for Water Hazard and Risk Management). We have developed a real-time flood prediction system for floods all over Japan using a supercomputer.
Image of the National Scale RRI System
The core technology of that system has already been developed and now it is just about managing the cost of the supercomputer and the data processing speed. We also operate “Amemizu Map”, a rainfall information streaming site that allows you to grasp the real-time rainfall amount and expected rainfall throughout Japan. Nowadays, you can easily access this kind of information online such as on Yahoo News, but we were the first to distribute these information as a public service.
However, when it comes to accurately forecasting the effects of rainfall and predicting floods, that is something that is still not widely known, and our RRI flood prediction system will be able to be used anywhere in the world.
We are developing this core technology for flood prediction throughout Japan, and we would like to expand it overseas in the future. It is not yet there, but we are starting to test it on specific geographical areas and create simulations around them, for example, a flood in Jakarta, Indonesia in 2015. Floods occur almost every year in Jakarta, and the impacts are enormous, and our job is to be able to provide the kind of forecasting and analysis that will prevent such floods and their impacts.
Simulation of the 2015 Flood in Jakarta
Our goal with this technology, therefore, is to accelerate the calculation speed and make it possible for people throughout the world to be able to utilize it, and in doing so, save as many lives as possible from flooding. I am not sure exactly how long it will take to finally release this technology, but if it would be available 10 years from now, that would be great.
Right now, we have rented the fastest supercomputer available within Japan to do the calculations. The situation is that because you need to use a supercomputer in order to do much of the calculation and the processing, the costs involved are very high. Even then, the supercomputer is still too slow, so we are doing research to figure out a way to make it faster. By changing the programming involved in the calculation, we were able to quicken its processing speed, but it is still too slow for us.
Of course, if we were to utilize it in specific areas only, and limit it to a certain geographical area, we would already have the technology to roll out today, but what we are trying to do is make it constantly available anywhere in the world. The entire world is the subject of these calculations and so the processing speed is still slow. It will take time, but we do have the technology to be able to do it if we were to limit the geographical area being modelled and monitored by the system, as it is a real time forecasting system.
Actually, we have been able to limit the geographical area to just Hyogo prefecture and rolled out this ‘real time inundation forecasting system’ - which is the name of the system – for that specific area. That is already happening.
We have seen how your company has been able to develop unique technologies and provide unique services for your customers. What would you say are your main competitive advantages as a firm?
In terms of our strengths, first of all, our inundation forecasting system for rivers which we have just introduced. We have a longer history than others in this field and that is definitely a strength of ours compared to our competitors. Secondly, we also have certain technology that has been highly appraised by the government with regards to the development and design of bridges.
Thirdly, because we are an engineering consultant, we cannot have any specific specialized technology unique to us because we are working in compliance with government policies and standards. All consultants have access to similar technologies, it is not like one is allowed to take on something more special than the other, but within that system, we have slowly started to make headway when it comes to incorporating DX and AI and these kind of technologies within the process of construction and development of certain projects.
For example, when it comes to small or limited areas such as urban construction sites, we have been able to utilize 3D technology in order to accurately assess things like the gap between buildings or what might become a potential obstacle or obstruction, and then create and utilize this technology to make the construction in these areas more safe, secure and speedy. We used to use 2D blueprints up until 10 years ago, but now we use mainly 3D ones.
We base our calculations on satellite data that we create an archive of, and through being able to utilize this technology, we are able to perform construction in areas that are very narrow or that you cannot easily in, see such as underwater or underground, and all of that can be done simultaneously.
Slowly our staff have become more proficient in utilizing this technology to produce 3D images with iPads and things like that. They are able to speed up the time of producing such laser images.
Which specific markets are you targeting with ODA (Overseas Development Assistance) projects, and are you also open to other forms of partnerships in overseas markets?
From my perspective, we have really been able to develop technology that is strong when it comes to dealing with disasters. Japan is prone to all kinds of disasters, so we have the kind of technology that can really deal with volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis and typhoons. What we are looking at is how we can utilize this technology to support and contribute to countries that face similar disasters and are as disaster prone as Japan. There are many in the Asian region such as the Philippines or Indonesia.
Many countries can benefit from the kind of technology that we have developed here in Japan, having also faced similar kinds of situations that we do. I believe that our primary goal is to be able to contribute to these overseas countries and the safety and security of people through this technology, which we can provide through ODAs. The country that I am very much interested in continuing to focus on is Indonesia.
With regards to your other question about partnerships, when it comes to non-ODA type projects that could happen, perhaps in France or in the USA, those are up to consultants that are dealing with private projects and to be honest, we are not there yet. We are still dealing with public infrastructure and public projects, so we want to continue to develop our expertise, experience and track record within this field and maybe then also be able to contribute such technologies to other countries such as the USA and France.
With regard to the question of what kind of solutions we can provide for the various countries that are prone to volcanoes, the answer is that there is no one solution to deal with eruptions. Even Japan, which is so prone to disasters, does not have the answer to how to deal with that. We have only have been able to develop methods to respond to these things. We cannot predict them exactly enough.
Our response is based on being able to accurately decide what is in need of protecting and what can be done about it. What has been unanimously agreed upon is the fact that what needs to be protected at all costs is human lives, so Japan has developed its response strategies based on that priority.
Of course there is technology that we can provide to strengthen the infrastructure of different countries, such as strengthening bridges or riverbanks, so that they can become more resilient in the face of disasters. However, before that, there is an important step that needs to be understood and needs to be implemented in all countries, including here in Japan, which is to be able to accurately gather the kind of information to know what kind of risks the country is being presented with and what to do in the event of something like that happening. For example, being able to have that kind of forecasting information so that the country can properly provide public information like “this is going to happen”, “you need to run”, “you need to escape” and so on.
The promotion of that awareness is the stage that is even more important, and it comes before providing that technology. The amount of lives that you can actually save by just providing solid infrastructure is actually quite limited.
What is important is for the people who are living there to have the awareness our system brings and to have the background and training to know what to do in the case of a disaster, or how they can of their own accord, try to protect as many people as possible. For example, in recent flooding scenarios, even though it was forecasted that a flood was going to happen, people still did not take the proper evacuation measures, which is what lead to larger numbers of casualties.
We believe included within the remit of our work is to not only provide such real time forecasting systems which people can access and utilize, but also provide the kind of awareness to people so they can evacuate when there is a disaster.
It is quite interesting, but there was a university professor that came to give a lecture to our company and what was very interesting about the situation was that he said that the number one reason for casualties in a flood is the fact that there were embankments actually built there. If there was no embankment built there – on a flood plain - in the first place, then people would not be living there. The people who would be impacted by the flood would be that much fewer. The creation of the embankment itself led to the most amount of casualties as it creates a false sense of security.
When you see names of geographical maps of Japan, there are different Japanese characters that refer to these coastal regions or areas where originally people could not live because it was not habitable. The names of those towns illustrate how embankments were constructed as part of infrastructural projects to enable people to live there now.
We need to understand that we are always at the mercy of nature, and there are different conditions that are always changing. Now you see places that were livable at one point that are no longer habitable. Things are always changing.
Apart from Vietnam and Indonesia, where you already have a presence, what other geographical regions or countries are you looking to expand yourself into? What strategies will you employ to do so?
We are open to any region. It is not that we had strategically planned to go to Senegal, for example, but we would like to continue to do the kind of work that we can in the areas where we could provide the best solutions.
It's really important to understand that the ODA projects that Japan is rolling out are focusing on Asia and Africa. They represent the largest share of ODA projects that Japan undertakes and we believe we want to continue to grow within the Asian region, definitely.
Currently within Indonesia, we are working on projects to help develop and design ports, as well as fisheries and a mining port. I believe there is still lots of growth potential and opportunity for civil engineering projects all throughout Asia.
With the rising trend of de-carbonization, I believe that importing energy is also going to become an important factor. Upgrading facilities so that they can be able to be more adaptive to changing energy demands will become more commonplace. In Africa, we will see countries needing more support than even the Asian region when it comes to infrastructure.
In March, I went to Gambia. As someone dealing in civil engineering, I really felt that there is still so much work we can do in order to help raise the living standards of the people there and create different partnerships between Gambia and Japan. Our targets are specifically Southeast Asia and the African regions.
Imagine we come back to interview you again in three years for your company’s 60th anniversary. What would you like to tell us about your goals and dreams for the company in that timeframe? What would you like to have achieved by then?
From my perspective, the kind of things that we are putting effort into is our DX related digitization efforts, which involve the incorporation of our 3D CAD systems, and also the flood forecasting system using RRI that I mentioned earlier.
Being able to develop a more solid understanding of where we can take that technology and have it be more concrete in terms of its levels of implementation is very important. When the civil engineering sector hits that critical turning point where it declines, I want to make sure that our organization is enduring and resilient enough to be able to continue to survive.
For that purpose, we have been putting a lot of effort into reorganization and restructuring our corporate entity, so I believe that in three years’ time, that should be something that is quite solidly established.