July 31, 2005


"Making Tomorrow Valuable - Kobunaki Ecovillage Project" (G-Project Co., Ltd.)

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.35 (July 2005)

Staff writer Kazunori Kobayashi

A new style of community-building has started in Omihachiman City (Shiga Prefecture), located on the southern shores of Lake Biwa, Japan's largest lake.

"A community where people enjoy their lives and grow as human beings. A community where nature is respected and restored. A community where businesses are actively conducted and people stimulate each other. And a community that inspires companies seeking a sustainable future and countries in the world seeking new value and lifestyles."

Working with the combined efforts of many committed people, the Kobunaki Ecovillage Project is aiming to create such a community on 15 hectares of land.

The Project's Novelty

One of the new features of this project is its system of progress. "Land development" generally means a series of processes in which a developer makes plans to create housing as a "product," has it built by a construction company, and then sells it. This is the conventional process and it can be a one-way flow, from manufacturer to buyer.

Another way was that consumers would independently create an "eco village," without depending on developers-something similar to the hippy movement that starting creating communities in Western countries in the 1960s. But that approach found it difficult to attract popularity in society, because it was not easy for the creators of eco villages to fit in with the local residents, the technologies were not versatile, and many failed to sustain their activities financially.

Going beyond these two approaches, the Kobunaki Ecovillage Project is mainly managed by a civic non-profit organization (NPO) with a mission of creating eco villages. In the project, the NPO aims to make a new community together with local industries, the local municipalities, and a variety of stakeholders in the area.

The organization playing a key role to establish a philosophy of the project is "Ecovillage Net Working" founded in 2000. It is open to anyone, from laypersons to experts, and has held workshops again and again with experts on various issues, including lifestyle, energy, food, water and the concept of the "ecovillage."

To work on the Kobunaki project as a business, from acquiring land to constructing housing, an incorporated organization named G-Project Co. (Chikyu-no Me in Japanese) was established in March 2003. The company is managed by 12 members, mainly in their twenties, and in practicing its business management, it has the support of the Kobunaki Ecovillage Promotion Association that was established in 2003. The association consists of Shiga Prefecture (whose government puts an emphasis on humans, nature and creativity), Omihachiman City (which aims to protect its environment and culture), local organizations, a specified nonprofit corporation, and other corporations.

"Nature and Humans are Shining--Creative Shiga Prefecture" (Japanese only)

These three bodies have worked together to make the community image more concrete. In the 15 hectares of the ecovillage area, they plan to have a large greenspace, 200 to 300 housing units including eco-houses, a research institute, an environmental business consortium, and a community center, etc. They imagine the village as not only a residential area but a place that encourages voluntary projects to cope with challenges and tasks for the community and society and continuously deliver outcomes of those projects.

At present, the community is designing and planning houses and lifestyles, and going through licensing procedures with governments. In the autumn of 2006, people will start to move into the housing units built in the first phase. The ecovillage will be completed in the fifth to seventh phase, around 2010.

Challenges: Lifestyle Creation

Kobunaki Ecovillage is trying to be "a community that co-evolves like an ecosystem." The key phrase here came from a recognition that sustainability cannot be achieved just by environmentally friendly buildings and products. For example, greenhouse gas emissions are increasing in Japan, in spite of the improved energy efficiency of home appliances and houses themselves. Residents in this community are encouraged to spend their time and learn by trial and error to create genuinely ecological lifestyles. Moreover, there must be new technologies and markets to support such lifestyles.

Under these circumstances, Kobunaki Ecovillage Project has set a target of "lifestyle creation with 80 percent less carbon dioxide emissions than the current levels."

To achieve this target, the project works on building houses with locally-produced timber. Using local materials can reduce energy use for transportation, and it also can support the local forestry industry to conserve local forests for CO2 sequestration. Initially, Kobunaki ecovillage declared its plans to build 50 houses a year with locally-produced timber.

The local timber supply was not sufficient to cover the demand in Kobunaki, however, so this plan faced a problem. Now, through discussions with timber-related industries in Shiga Prefecture, the project members are planning to establish a timber supply network, starting from house construction in Kobunaki to expand the network into a carefully planned supply system to produce, provide and utilize timber. Thus, one merit of this ecovillage is in becoming a green market itself in order to move society toward more sustainable ways.

Environmental data from these activities and life in the ecovillage will be stored and analyzed at a research institute to design a sustainable society, the Earth Community Institute (ECI). The ECI proposes new environmental technologies and lifestyles. Residents implement these proposals and the institute reviews the results. Exchanges between residents and both Japanese and overseas researchers bring new wisdom. These processes will educate people and bring new insights about future lifestyles. The project aims at situation-setting for participating stakeholders to grow together in a more sustainable way.

The Meaning of Business for the Kobunaki Ecovillage

Having an NPO-like function that provides not only financial benefits but also social value, the ecovillage is making an effort to create social value through medium- and long-term development of human resources and offering its know-how. However, an indicator that evaluates the new value has not been established yet in our society. People generally want relatively short-term and easy-to-understand indicators, such as project income. Many people who first hear about the Kobunaki Project are surprised to hear that it is a viable business.

G-Project Co. thinks that if a company can provide something society really needs, it should be able to succeed as a business. Tatsuo Akimura, one of the promoters of the project, says, "A valuable thing in today's market is not always valuable tomorrow. We should not just aim to satisfy immediate market needs. I believe that a true business is suggesting something that we would like to have, and being a frontier by proposing a new value for tomorrow's society."

For example, organic cultivation has already started at the planned site of the project. Some staff are taking the lead in growing vegetables. Beside holding workshops on organic farming, they try it with participants such as neighboring farmers and young people from Osaka and Kyoto who are interested in farming. Though the cultivation area is so far 5,000 square meters, in the future, G-Project plans to supply vegetables within the community, develop a culture of local production for local consumption, and promote a more sustainable agriculture in collaboration with farmers and related organizations in the entire city of Omihachiman.

Every household in the ecovillage is being designed with a garden for the kitchen, as a part of the community's "food infrastructure." Ms. Chie Saito, a staff member of G-Project says, "We will be happy if we can offer an opportunity to think about individual dietary life at home through working the soil and becoming consumers who seek foods that are safe both for people and for nature." Since Japan's food self-sufficiency ratio on a calorie basis is only about 40 percent, increasing the ratio will inevitably become an important issue. At that time, G-Project's accumulated know-how to deal with food supply will be a great intellectual asset not only for the company, but also for the whole community.

Another unique effort at the ecovillage is a project that recycles used roof tiles generated from the restoration of Higashi Hongwanji Temple in Kyoto. This historic temple of Jodo Shinshu Higashi Hongwanji-ha (one of the sects of Buddhism) has recently renewed a large number of roof tiles as part of a

major restoration project--the biggest in 100 years. (Japanese only)

However, the massive amount of used tiles is legally classified as solid waste. A piece of roof tile is 55 centimeters long and 45 centimeters wide, weighing as heavy as 12 kilograms. The temple has had a problem because of the enormous cost of tile disposal. Meanwhile, staffs of G-Project have thought that we can learn a lot from Buddhism and Japanese traditional philosophy to realize a sustainable society.

The G-Project is looking for ideas to revive traditional spiritual practices, with which people used to be familiar but are now drifting away from, by using these 20,000 used roof tiles in the ecovillage. Some ideas, such as making a community symbol with them and recycling them as blocks that mark boundaries of gardens or premises, have been suggested from meetings with architects and Buddhist monks. It has a significant meaning to people's spirits to utilize construction materials from the respected temple that has supported the community spiritually for hundreds of years.

Thus, the company is making efforts to take concrete steps for creating "value for tomorrow." Saito says, "We do not intend to be merely a charity project, nor merely a commercial business; our objective is to establish a solid organization capable of responding to both social issues and business demands with two frameworks. Through this approach, we would like to take the initiative in promoting sustainable communities nationwide." Creating new value in the form of lifestyles for tomorrow--this is the business that the Kobunaki Ecovillage Project aims to be in.