In conversation with vice governor Manabu Miyasaka on City-Tech. Tokyo conference

Tokyo’s vice governor Manabu Miyasaka
Photo by Shun Sasaki / Bridge

It has become my New Year’s practice to organize the schedule of startup conferences around the world to take place in the first half of the new year. I have suspended the practice since 2020 because of the cancellation of many conferences due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But I resumed it this holiday season, which made me recognize a few things.

First, many conferences have been disappeared since the start of the pandemic (some of them are temporarily suspended but others were bankrupt or completely shut down) while new ones have been created. As livestreaming has become the norm, it’s no longer necessary to make a long-haul flight to take part in a conference if you are to only to hear keynotes. Conference organizers are now required to provide a new value proposition.

Another thing is that it no longer makes less sense for each country to compete for the title of the world’s top startup hub each other. It has been a long time since so-called almighty Silicon Valley playbook was debunked while one of the reasons is that hubs for each industry vertical have come to stand out: London for finance, Los Angeles for entertainment, Chicago for Food Tech, Boston for life sciences, Zug for web3, Tel Aviv for cybersecurity, and so on.

Entrepreneurs and investors alike are now thinking more critically about the benefits they can expect from attending conferences. After the cancellation of both WebSummit Tokyo and Barkation conferences, Tokyo has now no major international startup conferences. What kind of startup hub can the Japanese capital aspire to be?

It was around last fall when we began to hear the word “SusHiTech Tokyo” from the mouth of Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike. The acronym stands for “Sustatinable High City-Tech. Tokyo,” a generic term for a variety of ideas and technologies for overcoming urban challenges. The abbreviation was chosen to stand for sushi, which is needless to say associated with Japan, to make it easier for foreigners to remember the brand.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government will hold a startup conference called City-Tech.Tokyo at the International Forum on February 27-28 under the SusHi Tech concept. Since this is the first edition and they are so much focused on attracting foreign startups, the details of the conference have not yet well known to us. So, we could have a a chance to speak with Manabu Miyasaka, Vice Governor of Tokyo. He leads in organizing the conference.

Cities, the next battlefield for tech players

Miyasaka speaks at the Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona, November 2022.
Image credit: Bureau of Digital Services, Tokyo Metropolitan Government

Unlike industry-specific terms such as FinTech or HealthTech, City-Tech is broadly defined as a concept that encourages technology solutions to unique urban issues. The term was perhaps not well received overseas at first for the vagueness, but subsequently it became very well received after Koike began saying SusHiTech and then Miyasaka introduced it at the Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona.

More than 10,000 people from Japan and abroad are expected to attend City-Tech Tokyo. Keynote speakers will include Ben Horowitz, co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz (a16z), and Kengo Kuma, one of the world’s renowned architects and a special professor at Tokyo University. In addition, 100 cities from 30 countries will participate while two-thirds of the 300 booths will be exhibited by startups coming from overseas.

Miyasaka says,

Various cities are working on climate crisis, energy issues, new transportation systems, and so on. These are issues for each city but also ones common to all humanity in the world. We also need to do more open innovation activities among local governments. The solutions that work in Tokyo may work in other cities, and vice versa.

I believe that cities will be the next battlefield for tech players. Seventy percent of the world’s population lives in cities, so I think the world will start competing in exploring how technologies can change cities. Therefore, not only startups and companies, but also governments will participate there. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has been leading our open innovation activities, but there is no need to limit it to only Japanese startups as long as they can provide stable services.

In parallel with City.Tech Tokyo, the metropolitan government will hold the G-NETS (Global City Network for Sustainability) conference near their office building, which will bring together the heads of local governments from Japan and abroad. Each city may still have a different motivation and intention for their participation because this year’s City-Tech.Tokyo is the first edition but is expected to annually take place from now on.

What the conference aims at?

City-Tech.Tokyo website
Image credit: Tokyo Metropolitan Government

So, what is the goal of City-Tech Tokyo? In a typical startup conference, one of the ultimate goals is for entrepreneurs to find and attract investors, and for investors to find promising startups to invest in. In Web3 conferences, attendees may expect to increase connections with other startups. So what about City-Tech.Tokyo?

Miyasaka says,

On the risk side, the topic includes the climate crisis as mentioned before, but on the upside, I think it is the issue of new employment. There are many jobs that exist today but did not exist 30 years ago. For example, your media business could not have existed 30 years ago. The jobs that exist today were created by startups 30 or 50 years ago.

That’s true for the future too. It is startups that create the jobs for the future. If startups did not create the jobs of the future, we would be forced to just stay on the jobs we have now, which would result in lower wages. If startups can make their business successful, it can lead to creating affluent lifestyles from it and create more jobs. I think that is very important.

Startup Genome annually publishes a ranking of startup-friendly cities, and some of our readers may recall that Tokyo joined the top 10 ranking in 2021 while it dropped to the 12th place last year after being overtaken by Seoul. It is an index published by a private organization, but many officials in local governments are paying attention to the rank. Miyasaka is one such person.

He added,

Of course, we (Tokyo) would like to be ranked higher . But I don’t think there are any cities where only startups are active. Such a city should be vibrant in art, entertainment, and all kinds of things. I don’t think you can start up a business in a city that is culturally stagnant.

Tokyo vice governor MIyasaka speaking with Bridge’s Masaru Ikeda.
Photo by Shun Sasaki / Bridge

Paradoxically, in a society with mature infrastructure like Japan, it may be difficult to bring out a unicorn with a simple service like what we usually see in developing countries. However, since developing countries basically aim to advance themselves into developed economies over time, there could be opportunities for startups from developed countries can leverage the “Time Machine” business model even in emerging markets except for leapfrog phenomenon.

He said,

Ecosystems in developed countries tend to be found in rather affluent cities. I think Tokyo is on that side of them. What such a city needs is a challenger. You can challenge yourself in music, film industry, and whatever. But If you do it in business, it means a startup. Attracting challengers in all genres is an important part of a city.

Last year, the Kishida administration announced the strengthening of the startup policy, while the Tokyo Metropolitan Government also announced a strategy called Global Innovation with Startups. Since the launch of Bridge, we’ve seen neither the Japanese Government nor the Metropolitan Government have put startup support a top priority in their agenda in such a massive way. Miyasaka expressed his aspiration that the conference will give an opportunity to the world to witness such a historical turning point.