Reforms for Activity Augmentation in the Post-Covid World


Masahiro Koibuchi
Center for Policy and the Economy


  • The needs fueling people’s activities have become more diverse due to changes in lifestyles and workstyles
  • Satisfying these needs will require improvements to the quality and optimization of people’s activities—activity augmentation holds the key to achieving this
  • Activity augmentation will be unlocked by laying a technological foundation that integrates the digital world with the real-world

1. Changing lifestyles and diversifying activity needs

People enrich their daily lives through a variety of activities: working in the office, shopping after work, dining with friends... A sense of fulfillment in one’s activites can serve as an important factor in enhancing well-being.

The covid-19 pandemic has changed the way people live and work; this in turn has changed how and where time is spent throughout the day. We have estimated an approximate 1.3 hours per person per week of newly found free time due to pandemic-based changes in working styles*. A potentially huge new market for businesses will surface as this free time is allocated to new activities that enrich people's lives.

People are using their time in areas around where they live, not just where they work; this is congruent to greater diversity in workstyles fueled by remote work. Examples include eating out around home, visiting the dentist between work hours for regular checkups, and using remote-office facilities at major stations close to home. Expectations will rise regarding services and public facilities as they see increased attention and use by residents.

The defining features of this situation, one where the range of people’s activities is expanding, can be analyzed by examing the aspects of a place of residence from two perpectives: current satisfaction and future expectations for each aspect. According to data from the Mitsubishi Research Institute Consumer Market Forecast System, mif,* residents have the same expectations for the same aspects regardless of how far they live from the major metropolican center (Figure 1).
[Figure 1] Satisfaction with and expectations for aspects of current place of residence by commuting time
[Figure 1] Satisfaction with and expectations for aspects of current place of residence by commuting time
Source: Prepared from the results of a questionnaire survey (N = 2,000 for residents in the Tokyo and Kansai areas, implemented in February 2021) conducted by Mitsubishi Research Institute's Consumer Market Forecast System, mif
However, current satisfaction decreases as distance from the major metropolitan center increases. The suburbs are often purported to have a better living environment than in the metropolitan center, but this data suggests the opposite: low satisfaction among suburban residents. Policymakers must consider ways to enhance the appeal of their own urban areas. One viable method is to improve the value that residents enjoy when conducting diverse activities in town.

We propose activity augmentation as the key factor to improving this value. Activity augmentation is the process of helping people select the optimal activity for their situation, raising the quality of each activity undertaken. This is important for three reasons: it enables a wide-range of activities based on an individual’s unique situation and values; thus raising the quality of time spent; and subsequently improving quality of life.

However, each individual yearns for a different lifestyle and way of life, and the errands of a busy day-to-day often obscure these ambitions. Such potential activities must be rediscovered at times.

Planners have turned to the development of hardware multiple times in the past in an attempt to improve the aspects of place and increase activity among residents. It has become clear that when the population declines, the activities of residents diversify. Hardware alone falls short in flexibly responding to resident needs and creating sustainable urban areas.

Moving forward, urban areas in Japan need a mechanism that promotes the effective use of existing urban facilities and spaces by connecting them to the right residents at the right time. Activity augmentation services are just that.

*Figures are for workers in the Tokyo metropolitan area and the Kansai area and include essential workers who have few options for working styles

The area of a person’s daily life and that has a population anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 or more

2. Boosting diversity and quality of activities through activity augmentation

People enrich their lives by proactively selecting their own unique activities. These activities often involve movement, and the seamlessness of mobility, its comfortability and convenience, is often an important factor in carrying out these activities.

The frontrunner for seamless mobility at the moment is MaaS. Short for mobility as a service, MaaS aims to provide all modes of transportation comprising a trip seamlessly as a service. However, common perceptions of MaaS overlook the seamless aspect and mistaken it to simply serve the greater efficiency of transportation. Regardless, from the perspective of expanding activities, the essential role of services in the futu
re will shift to promoting the optimization of activities.

Figure 2 depicts an example in which a user receives various recommendations before and during their ride that encourage new activities in their free time upon arrival. Optimization requires the customization of content according to the individual preferences of the user. A mechanism like this would lead to more efficient use of free time for users and create new demand for service providers. To make this a reality, public and private providers of local services must craft an activity augmentation platform to which users can add information such as their desired activities and daily schedule, and businesses can add information such as local events.
[Figure 2] Activity augmentation example: activating potential demand
[Figure 2] Activity augmentation example: activating potential demand
Source: Mitsubishi Research Institute, Inc.

3. Three functions required in activity augmentation services

(1) Eliminating information asymmetry

Information asymmetries must be eliminated in order to improve the quality of activities. This function should uncover new demand based on potential user needs and put together activity options to propose to users. This function will help to effectively connect users with services.

Figure 2 depicts one such example: the system uses preference and schedule information to propose an activity for the user’s idle time that similar users have taken to in the past. The user enjoys a boost in the quality of their daily activities thanks to elimination of information asymmetry.

(2) Connecting time and space

Space and time must be used more effectively in order to increase opportunities for activities. This function connects open timeframes in the schedules of both urban facilities and their users. Facilities will see higher levels of efficiency, and users will enjoy greater value for their time.

For example, the same space could be used for a 60-minute meeting then for exercise right after. Some might take part in both, and the exercise instructor might not even attend in person, instead joining in online from a different location. This example demonstrates how connecting spaces and time, even services, can increase the value of spaces and enable more activities with a limited amount of time.

(3) Optimizing mobility to enhance the value of activities

The value of activities can be enhanced by integrating the movement of people, goods, and services. This function enables a person who wants to undertake a new activity to do so without changing locations—in other words, the good or service travels to the customer.

An example of this function could be the aforementioned exercise session where the instructor joins in remotely; the instructor's skills are brought to the room through digital technology, and thus the service that is the exercise experience has traveled to the location of the participants.

4. Building a foundation based on digital-real integration

For activity augmentation services to take hold, a foundation must be created that combines the activities of individuals with the services that urban areas can provide to offer information tailored to individual preferences. Activity augmentation will serve to: effectively bridge the time, space, and functions of people and urban areas; enhance the value of individuals’ time and urban functions; and fuel the continued evolution of both people and places.

However, developing a method for enhancing the value of urban functions is far from a simple task. In particular, individual optimization, which aims at adapting to individual values and living environments, presents a particular challenge. These ambitious fields will require a shift from the standard social experiment to a method of verification.

The construction of an urban digital platform, based on the idea of digital-real fusion, is a frontrunner for an environment to facilitate individual optimization. One such example can be found in the digital twins of cities—3D models in the digital space of the urban infrastructure of a real cities.

Models like this provide a basis for understanding and visualizing the ever-changing spaces and functions of cities and their mobility; they also enable predictive simulations that help people take more effective actions. A data linkage platform can effectively link the spaces, functions, and mobility of a place with the behavioral needs of people. Such as platform is a necessary element to enable the integrated use of infrastructure and services.

Digital twins are already under construction by a handful of governments, major general contractors, and urban developers as part of urban planning and development policy. However, in order for an urban digital platform to function and expand its activities, collaboration is essential among those providing local services, both public and private, such as local governments, public transport operators, and developers. These stakeholders have essential information such as that gained through providing urban and mobility services. Mobility service providers in particular are reassing their services and how to help optimize not only movement but activity as well. Those providing local services must seek to expand their business scope from the viewpoint of expanding individuals’ activities beyond their conventionally offered services.

Once built this new infrastructure should be used and spread by people. This can be fostered through agile operations quick to try out advanced services in a trial setting and by using the infrastructure in administrative services, which feature a large number of users.