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Efforts to Achieve the SDGs Are Revitalizing Communities in Japan and Beyond

This year’s International Forum on SDGs for Regional Revitalization examined the acceleration of sustainable development initiatives in and outside Japan, through corporate and government cooperation, and the positive ripple effects on communities around the world. 

The International Forum on SDGs for Regional Revitalization 2021, held online on January 14, aimed to accelerate initiatives for attaining the Sustainable Development Goals and enlarging the extent of initiatives for revitalizing the Japanese and international economy. Co-hosted by the Cabinet Office of Japan and the SDGs for Regional Revitalization Public-Private Partnership Platform (RRPPP), the Forum attracted more than 1,000 attendees in and outside Japan.

In addition to speakers from Japan, the Forum also heard from the mayor of Bonn, Germany; the mayor of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; the Swedish ambassador to Japan; and the governor of the province of West Java, Republic of Indonesia, who together provided the Forum with international perspectives (watch footage of the Forum here).

We require regional revitalization through initiatives for attaining the SDGs, centered on cooperation.

At the beginning of the Forum, Tetsushi Sakamoto — the minister in charge of regional revitalization at the Cabinet Office — said: "Synergy between the economy, society and the environment will be even more important toward further promoting regional revitalization." He added: "I expect this Forum to be an opportunity to further accelerate local-level SDG initiatives — and to promote SDGs through domestic and international cooperation, thereby promoting regional revitalization in Japan."

Kenji Kitahashi, chairman of the RRPPP (and also mayor of Kitakyushu City, Japan), emphasized the increasing importance of sustainable urban development. He also expressed his desire to see further development of initiatives for resolving issues related to the SDGs through public-private partnerships.

A new direction for regional revitalization

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The keynote address began with a lecture by Shuzo Murakami — chairperson of the Institute for Building Environment and Energy Conservation, the Local Government SDGs Promotion Evaluation and Study Group (Cabinet Office), and the SDGs for Regional Revitalization Finance Study Group (Cabinet Office). He emphasized the importance of "creating regions that can earn income" through cooperation between local councils, private companies and local financial institutions — suggesting frameworks such as "autonomous, virtuous circles" from the viewpoint of "how to achieve the revitalization of local economies" in response to the government's "second term of the comprehensive strategy for cities, people and work development.”

He also pointed out that there are similarities in direction between responses to COVID-19 and SDG initiatives at the local-government level, highlighting the importance of alleviating trade-offs and maximizing synergies through cooperation among efforts related to COVID-19 and the SDGs.

“We need more-comprehensive strategies to attain the SDGs.”

"2020 was an exceedingly difficult year for cities around the world. However, we cannot slow down our efforts to attain the SDGs,” said Bonn Mayor Katja Dörner, in her inspirational speech. “It is now clear that our strategies need to be more comprehensive.”

As for the promotion of SDG initiatives, she went on to say: "Many of our SDGs require city-/region-level participation and initiatives to achieve. International cooperation and interaction — and learning from each other’s practices among cities, in particular — play important roles."

Then, a spokesperson from Bonn explained specific initiatives, such as "VLRs" ("voluntary local reviews," which reports on local governments’ voluntary reviews on the progress of their SDG initiatives that allows for comparison with each other), publicized in October 2020 — which monitored each sustainability strategy and incorporated them into policy-making processes. These creative devices include a visualization of progress that provides signals for evaluation, much like a traffic light.

SDG trends amid COVID-19

The final keynote speaker was Norichika Kanie, a professor from the Graduate School at Keio University, who expressed his concern over the pandemic being a significant barrier to the achievement of the SDGs. The United Nations’ latest Sustainable Development Goals Report points out that, due to the adverse effect of the pandemic, poverty — which was decreasing — has now returned to levels higher than before the crisis, and that the education gap is widening between people with and without access to digital information. Kanie suggested that utilizing the SDGs in the COVID recovery process will not only be useful, but will provide an opportunity for reformation.

Deepening the SDGs for regional revitalization: Cases from advanced cities

In the afternoon, sessions were held with business and local government spokespersons. During the first session, Murakami moderated a panel featuring Hiroshi Kameyama (mayor of Ishinomaki City, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan), Mahadi Che Ngah (mayor of Kuala Lumpur), Pereric Höegberg (Swedish ambassador to Japan), and Junichi Fujino (senior researcher at the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies [IGES]).

Ishinomaki was named an "SDGs Future City 2020" and selected for a local government-based SDG model business. As Kameyama explained, the city has launched a number of projects aimed at revitalizing the local economy while being considerate to the environment — such as recycling the core units of old hybrid vehicles to create electric cars for use in transporting local elderly in need.

These initiatives were born from the ashes of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. Kameyama asserted that the city will strive to rebuild community in the affected areas by repeating the project cycle within the locality. This is an initiative that embodies the slogan of "Let us create an area where people willingly help each other for restoration from the unprecedented earthquake and for further development."

Mahadi said that measures against COVID-19 taken in Kuala Lumpur have often worked in favor of local development. He mentioned the adverse effect of global warming in urban areas — such as in torrential rains, floods, and high winds — which necessitate the city's initiatives for shifting toward becoming a carbon-neutral/smart city. Projects already underway include urban farm development, using biodiesel in public-transit buses, and building rainwater-collection systems.

"The human race has strong, inherent resolution; and I believe, without a shadow of a doubt, that we can find solutions to problems such as COVID-19 and global warming," Mahadi said.

Höegberg mentioned that the UN has ranked Sweden as a world leader in reaching the SDGs. He emphasized: "It is necessary to break away from vertical thinking, build partnerships in and outside our countries, and work under public-private initiatives — as well as to create a sense of responsibility in everyone for doing their bit to reach the SDGs." As an advanced case, he explained an initiative in Skelleftea, a city in northern Sweden that once had a thriving steel industry; clean energy startup Northvolt was invited to establish a battery factory, contributing to the revitalization of the city's economy. The initiative involves housing, school and culture.

Fujino gave a fresh explanation of an overview of the VLR project, led mainly by IGES — pointing out that progress not only toward the achievement of goals but also the "integration of the SDGs and related policies" and the "integration of all three aspects: the environment, society, and the economy," etc., should be considered important performance indexes. The importance of VLRs has been increasingly recognized worldwide since 2018 — when the VLR reports of Kitakyushu City, Toyama City and Shimokawa Town were released for the first time at a high-level UN political forum. Reports from about 20 cities around the world are now available on IGES’ “VLR Lab” page.

Regional revitalization through problem-solving toward the overseas achievement of the SDGs

In the next session, speakers from businesses that operate overseas and the related parties that support them shared their perspectives and experiences. The session had Masayuki Kitahiro — counsellor for the Office for Promotion of Regional Revitalization, Cabinet Office, as the coordinator — with Ichiro Sone (EVP, JETRO), Keiichiro Nakazawa (SVP, JICA), Jo Egawa (CEO, Biotech Japan Corporation), and Fumihisa Terayama (CEO, Neonite Corporation).

Biotech Japan — located in Agano City, Niigata Prefecture, Japan — produces low-protein and low-sugar foods. Egawa shared how the company has expanded its business to the Philippines while receiving support from JICA; and made contributions that are closely related to the SDGs, such as by helping to resolve problems domestically in the Philippines involving lifestyle-related diseases and by supplying high-value-added rice.

Neonite — headquartered in Matsue City, Shimane Prefecture — has been engaging in the processing of water and soil, as well as in the decontamination of radioactive materials, via a technology using zeolite, a natural resource found in Shimane Prefecture. The company also has business operations in other regions, including South America; and provides training for human resources — touching on the SDGs by making cities safer places to live. Talking about how his company decided to look at business opportunities abroad, Terayama said: "When I saw problems such as urban wastewater during an inspection tour to Central and South America, I felt that Japan could export its technology as a country that has experienced pollution-related diseases."

Sone mentioned initiatives — such as providing support online for business negotiations and assisting mid-tier/small and medium-sized companies in starting overseas operations — utilizing the “new major exporter countries’ consortium” of support organizations at a time when overseas businesses have been stagnating due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kitahiro concluded the session by saying: "You can help advance regional revitalization by utilizing local resources and company technology for the resolution of issues toward achieving the SDGs overseas. Doing business overseas provides opportunities for the reformation of your company, as well as for the revitalization of your local community."

Murakami summarized this year’s Forum with the following four points:

  • The governmentʼs measures for the SDGs toward promoting regional revitalization are progressing steadily, and the scope of the initiative is steadily expanding. About 40 percent of Japan’s municipalities are working on the SDGs, 93 cities have been selected under the designation of "SDGs FutureCity," and more than 4,000 organizations are participating in the RRPPP.

  • The integrated economic, social and environmental efforts of the SDGs have led to progress in regional revitalization in these three said fields. Autonomous virtuous cycles, financial frameworks, and public-private partnership structures are becoming concretely established so as to promote regional economic revitalization by creating "profitable regions" — as stipulated in the Comprehensive Revitalization Strategies for Cities, People, and Careers.

  • Both domestic & foreign companies and municipalities are collaborating internationally to share the results of their own SDGs initiatives with related organizations overseas, and this has been accelerating the rate of international contribution. These activities, in turn, are promoting the multifaceted development of each region.

  • In recognition of the shared goal of building a sustainable society, efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic and the SDGs are beginning to take shape in a coordinated manner. The goal of transitioning to a "new normal" is regarded as common to both situations; and through these efforts, a new municipality system that differs from the old is gradually taking shape.

This report was contributed by the Sustainable Brands Japan team.