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24 JUL 2018

How can cities with declining populations attract new talent?

What is the best way to attract new talent to cities with declining populations? We spoke to Research Fellow at Tokyo Foundation Shoko Yoshihara, and President of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University Haruaki Deguchi, who share their two points of view.

Shoko Yoshihara: "Innovation goes a long way to bring dynamism to depopulated areas"

Nowhere is this issue more pressing than in Japan, where the share of the elderly is rising at an unprecedented pace, and which has a population that is expected to shrink by one-third by 2060.

Although local governments are doing all they can to woo new residents, they are fighting for pieces of the same, dwindling pie. Some municipalities, though, are trying novel approaches with a modicum of success. Hitoyoshi is a small city in Kumamoto Prefecture on Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost main island. Along with a dwindling population of 33,000, it is also trying to support a declining local forestry industry.

Rather than demanding full-time residence, Hitoyoshi is building a casual "come-and-go" network of loosely connected fans and supporters. In 2016, the city organised a hackathon for programmers, designers, and digital creators to jointly develop software that would mitigate local forestry problems. The organisers also hoped to attract new talent to the city.

Much to their surprise, nearly 50 people from Tokyo, Osaka, and even the northern island of Hokkaido responded. While their main interest was to develop an app, participants also gained firsthand knowledge of the issues faced by Hitoyoshi’s forestry industry. They also became familiar with the city, its people, food, rich history, and natural beauty.

Although small in scale, the hackathon succeeded in linking Hitoyoshi with talented workers who had no previous knowledge of the city. It also drew in high-tech industries unrelated to forestry. Such "come-and-go" arrangements could go a long way toward bringing economic dynamism back to depopulated areas.

Haruaki Deguchi: "Cities won't attract people unless they offer something interesting"

People have always gathered in cities because they find stimulation there, as well as opportunities to help them realise their ambitions. Cities looking to rebuild their populations need to think about what they can offer that would appeal to residents, like holding an event not found anywhere else. The Cannes Film Festival, for example, draws people from around the world, helping to raise the city’s profile.

In many Japanese families, both parents work, and there is a shortage of daycare. A new mother may feel more comfortable returning to work if she can bring her child with her, so it is in an employer’s best interest to develop and promote an attractive work style. We are beginning to see companies in Japan offering this sort of arrangement. A city with multiple companies offering new and innovative work styles will interest prospective residents.

The city must also contend with the challenge of an ageing population. Most companies in Japan require their employees to retire at 60. If cities encourage firms to operate without a set retirement age, this will draw those older citizens who want — or need — to remain in work.

No matter the city, it will not attract people if it does not find a way to offer something interesting — whether that be an appealing work environment, signature events or other distinctive features. Take our university in Beppu, a small city of 120,000 people in Oita Prefecture. Half of our students and faculty are international, and classes are taught in both English and Japanese. Japan has no other universities like this, which has helped to elevate the city and sustain both the population and the local economy.

This is an extract from Modus Asia edition Q2 2018