David Blecken
Oct 26, 2017

Tokyo 2020 innovation chief hopes technology can augment Brand Japan

Olympic sponsors have a key role to play in restoring Japan’s position at the forefront of global technological progress.

Eiji Uda
Eiji Uda

The Tokyo Olympics are still more than two-and-a-half years away, but they have already caused plenty of controversy. The prospect of hosting the event fills some with pride and optimism, while others see spiraling costs and waste that Japan cannot afford.

In that respect, Tokyo 2020 is no different to any Olympic Games in living memory. But Eiji Uda, chief technology innovation officer for the Organising Committee, is determined that the Tokyo games will be different in practice. In particular, he wants them to outshine anything that has gone before in their application of technology.

Uda sees the event as a way for Japan to regain its status as a technology leader. While Japan’s national brand is strong, technology barely features in it. When it does, it tends to recall the 1980s or focus on novelty robots that as yet have little impact on daily life. The country still has cutting-edge expertise, but has done a bad job of applying and exporting it. Uda believes the Olympics will provide the platform to change that, and in so doing add a new dimension to Brand Japan.

Three tech tasks

Outside expectations are already high, with sports marketers also predicting the most technologically advanced Olympics in history, so Japan has to ensure it does not disappoint. Uda, who worked at IBM, SoftBank and Salesforce before Toyota president Akio Toyoda invited him to join the Olympic Committee, breaks his task into three categories:

  • Optimising the presentation of sporting events. This involves using technology to evaluate performance and provide an array of data points on elements like speed to the audience.
  • Improving spectator experience by providing an unprecedented range of viewpoints and putting the viewer in the thick of the action. The Committee is currently working with Canon to develop this.
  • Ensuring the event's legacy. This is the most important element to Uda.

One of Uda’s ambitions is to stage a zero-carbon Olympics. He sees Japan as being in a position to develop hydrogen energy technology that can power the games and be exported to other countries. Another is the creation of a central repository for Japan-related information—a “Japan Portal”—to make the country easier for visitors to navigate and understand, while showcasing its best attributes.

Such a project would require collaboration with the likes of Google. Uda is clear that working with sponsors will also be key to many of the projects he has in mind. He sees a big part of sponsor ROI coming from the technology they are able to showcase around the games. Companies such as Panasonic are already unveiling products designed with the event in mind. Some are gimmicky, such as a robot waiter called Hospi. Others, such as a 3D imaging system in development by NTT, are central to the experience of the games. And Toyota is developing fuel cell buses and plans to use the event to introduce an automated driving system, with long-term implications for society.

Observers expect there to be more attention on the Paralympics than in past events, and companies such as Lixil have indicated a desire to contribute to improving society for disabled people. In a release issued in August, the Committee said Tokyo 2020 “hopes to further raise public awareness of the need for improved accessibility, in both tangible and intangible ways, and of the need to eliminate psychological barriers” around disability. 

Impacts and intangibles

Uda is dismissive of accusations that the Olympics will prove wasteful, but fears that Japanese sentiment will slump once the event has been and gone. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government forecasts “economic impact” of 32 trillion yen (US$281 billion) and the creation of 1.3 million jobs in Tokyo and a further 1.9 million nationwide. In Tokyo, it estimates tourism, technology and the promotion of SMEs contributing 9.2 trillion yen’s worth ($80 billion) of additional consumer demand between 2013 and 2030.

Uda also sees “huge intangible merit” from “advertising” Japan to the world. Japan does have the potential to set a benchmark for other nations in terms of innovation. But whatever innovation sponsors or the Committee introduce, it will be important to have a long-term strategy, including marketing, in place at home if they are to have any lasting benefit.

“My impression is that so far organisations are concentrated on the games and results,” says Uda. “That’s weak. They need to think how they can utilise this event for social contribution. Society has to be happy after the Olympics. This is my challenge.”

Campaign Japan

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