Society 5.0 and Operations Research, a Thought Experiment

by Matthew Wittemeier

What do a Japanese initiative that aims to find solutions for modern socio-economic problems and Operations Research (OR) have in common? More than you might think. Society 5.0 aims to solve big problems such as ageing populations and climate change, and to achieve this, the program will need to collect and analyze huge amounts of data to fully leverage its benefits. OR powered optimization software has a firm track record of doing just this within the private sector. For decades, companies have been boosting their profitability by using methods from Operations Research. This is exemplified below by looking at one common example from the logistics industry. From here, the question becomes, can OR methods and solutions also benefit an interconnected, aging society – a Society 5.0?

The Vision of a Society 5.0

Society 5.0, or a "Super Smart Society", is part of a Japanese government program that aims to network all individuals within a given society together to achieve broader socio-economic benefits. “5.0” refers to its place after the previous four stages of social evolution:

  1. Hunters and gatherers
  2. Agrarian age
  3. Industrialization
  4. Information age.

In Industry 4.0, production is networked; in Society 5.0 people are. A population enabled by Society 5.0 is meant to address modern challenges including: aging population, environmental degradation, and climate change – no small feat by any measure.

By 2050, the national Japanese census estimates that 40 percent of citizens will be over 65 years old. The German Statistisches Bundesamt predicts that in the same year, the percentage of German citizens over 65 will be as high as 31 percent. The parallels between Japan and Germany, as well as other industrialized nations is clear.

Central to the implementation of the Society 5.0 is the implementation of technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), robots, sensors, and Artificial Intelligence (AI). Each of these technologies utilize and generate a vast amount of data. This data must be easily exchanged, must be collected and analyzed to provide relevant information and services for the people.

The Commercial Case for Optimization Software

Private sector companies the world over have long benefited from the use of OR-based optimization software solutions. These solutions help companies make better decisions that lead to improved success. Operations Research, also referred to the science of better, uses analytical methods (mathematical optimization, heuristic methods, etc.) to analyze and consider vast amounts of data to optimize the planning and real-time control of processes. It has proven applications in industries from aviation and banking through to logistics and manufacturing.

In the supply chain of building materials, optimization software has been used successfully for decades. Companies have easy access to large datasets, including: road network and traffic, availability of raw materials, location and availability of vehicles, the properties and capabilities of those vehicles, etc. All this data is useful on its own, but when combined and considered as a collective logic problem, the data transforms from useful into measurably valuable. Optimization software utilizes the massive, collective data set to plan and support operational, tactical, and strategic decisions. OR is well positioned to benefit Society 5.0, but how might the solutions transition from commercial applications to social ones, and what might this look like in practical applications?

OR and Society 5.0 - a Practical Example

Answering questions based on current data is a reactive approach to problem solving. Society 5.0 will have data at its fingertips, enabling faster reactive problem solving. To truly move, Society 5.0 must move to proactive decision-making. An OR solution is capable of looking at historical data and establishing prediction models of future needs. As the solution continues to run and those predictions become reality, the variance between prediction and reality becomes part of the learning model, further improving the system’s predictive capabilities. Applied to the issues Society 5.0 aims to address, enabling proactive decision-making is crucial.

An OR solution will answer the complex question: What is the age structure of the population? This data is generally captured in census data, on average, every 10 years. Society 5.0 will make it available in real-time. From there, the changing structure will be analyzed based on past trends, current conditions, and future predictions to continually look for changes that will improve short, mid, and long-term decision-making. This would include questions like: How many and what type of aged care facilities are needed where and when? What is the forecast for health care professionals in different regions, etc?  

Idea or Reality

Society 5.0 might sound like a pipedream. However, some of the principles that underpin Society 5.0 (using a collective data set to help the general population) are in use today – and societies around the world gladly accept this. In banking, fraud detection uses data to create profiles and when a transaction doesn’t match the profile, it flags it as potentially fraudulent, blocking the transaction. This technology is powered by OR-methods and has transformed the banking industry. The prevention of the transaction not only benefits the individual, but saves the bank the costs of resolving the issue, and by proxy, society in general.

For Society 5.0 to be successfully implemented, much remains to be done in deploying the technological infrastructure required to enable it; there isn’t a set timeframe for “go-live”, so to speak. Further, once “live”, the acceptance of society around issues like the protection of individual privacy and protection from the misuse of the data are new challenges that will need to be overcome. Given Japan’s traditional social structure, they are well placed to resolve these implementation issues. Looking at the history of the private sector, once governments and society start to see the initial benefits of Society 5.0, and the collective value it can offer, a broader implementation is both plausible and desirable.

What problems do you think a Society 5.0 might be able to solve?

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About the author

  • Matthew Wittemeier

    Matthew Wittemeier is Director Marketing and Sales at INFORM's Terminal & Distribution Center Logistics Division where he’s become a thought-provoking contributor to many industry publications and conferences. He’s also co-author of the award winning 2038: A Smart Port Story - a story about the future of technology and the social challenges it may bring.

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