Tokyo - Rob Puentes photo

Here in Tokyo this week it would be easy (and expected) to write about how the United States lags when it comes to infrastructure. From rapid and reliable transit, to renewable energy production, to modern gleaming airports, the evidence is literally all around. Most Americans probably suspect this is true but until you see it firsthand it is hard to appreciate how wide the gap is between our two countries.

But just as amazing is how highly integrated Japanese infrastructure is. Executives from Hitachi, Ltd. discussed with Bruce Katz and me that company’s “Smart City” efforts to deploy advanced infrastructure as part of a total urban system that is not only more efficient but also helps meet a variety of social and policy goals.

This means smart grid and energy management systems for both the home and the community to promote low carbon, high quality, and economical power while dealing with challenges such as electric vehicle adoption. It means smart transportation to seamlessly integrate people and information among modes. And it means smart phone and payment technology so your handheld device can pay your transit fare, buy your coffee when you leave the station, and get you through security as you enter the building where you work.

So our initial takeaway from this trip is that in the United States neither public sector agencies, nor our political leadership, operate in such an integrated fashion. We are compartmentalized instead of holistic.

Instead of wringing our hands about the fact that the United States has no bullet trains, or that our energy grid is not as reliable as it could be, we should take a page from corporations like Hitachi, IBM, Cisco, Siemens, and SAP. Companies like this are leading efforts around smart and intelligent cities precisely because they can take a total systems approach, and there are many, many efficiencies to be had. So for the United States, the global megatrend to watch when it comes to the “Next Metropolis” is all about integration: the kind of infrastructure you don't see.