Can Japan rise to the challenge of designing our destiny?

On Thursday last week, I had the privilege to attend a dinner hosted by Fortune to promote the Brainstorm Design 2020 event in Singapore – an event that seeks to bring together global business leaders with thought leaders from a spectrum of design fields.

Brainstorm Design 2020 in Singapore

The evening kicked off with a presentation by Dr. Kengo Kuma, who shared some thoughts about his inspiration for projects including the V&A museum in Dundee (which projects over the River Tee like the rugged, sedimentary, cliffs of Scotland’s Atlantic coast), the latest incarnation of the Kabuki-za theater (which retains its traditional form with subtle enhancements), the Asakusa culture and tourism center (structured like a vertical stack of traditional houses with sloping roofs like the nearby Nakamise bazaar), and the New National Stadium (with seemingly uncurated, elevated gardens, and wooden slats – inspired by the pagoda of Nara’s Horyuji temple – that allow for natural ventilation). Unsurprisingly, I was one of many star-struck audience members who felt compelled to snap a photograph …

Dr. Kengo Kuma in conversation with Clay Chandler (Fortune)

Following Dr. Kuma’s star turn, I found myself thinking about Japan’s creative genius in domains as diverse as art, architecture, fashion, film, industrial design, and video games. Both directly and through the inspiration that it has given, Japanese design puts a substantial dent in the universe.

Later in the evening, though, I was shaken out of this complacent contemplation by the observations that another architect shared with the room – He had a somewhat left-field view of the role of designers. For one thing, he drew a distinction between the “problem solving” that architects claim to do and the “opportunities” that he finds for his clients within the constraints of each project. (To me *opportunities* and *problems” are close to synonymous – I expect a lot of CX professionals see it that way). But what really set me thinking was the comment that he made about why Japan is the place that he continues to live and practice his profession in:

“Because Japan is ahead of every other country, in terms of the challenges it is facing – the aging population and so forth. Japan has no model to copy. It is the cutting edge for tackling all of these issues.”

(Since I didn’t take notes, I am paraphrasing. I wont attribute the quote in case I’m misrepresenting the speaker).

While I am a huge fan of Japan and I am aware that the country has an early rendezvous with a demographic crisis that many other countries are heading toward, I don’t see evidence of Japan’s leadership on this and other looming challenges:

  • Aging population & empowerment of women: While Japan’s senior population is growing and its working-aged population is shrinking, it seems that the country is still stuck with an outdated work culture that keeps half of society out of senior positions. Among the elite audience at the Fortune dinner, there were few women – reflecting the male dominance of senior leadership positions at Japanese companies today. Female participation in junior roles is high, but a glass ceiling is trapping a pool of needed talent. Which Japanese employers are taking steps to address this by redesigning the employee experience?
  • Climate change: The effects of global climate change are projected to be severe for Japan; a country already subject to damaging weather events like the recent Typhoon Hagibis. But international bodies have pointed to a lack of leadership from Japan in the battle to reduce carbon emissions. What is Japan doing to lead the way for sustainable development?
  • Regional security: I confess that I’m out of touch on this topic. I returned to Japan just a couple of months ago and I have some catching up to do before I mouth off. I’m struck, however, by the fact that Japan’s relations with Korea aren’t cordial, at a time when both countries need strong, values-based, alliances in a risky part of the world. Perhaps this challenge is outside of the scope of a design brief – I guess individual relations between designers and business people in both countries can be as strong as ever, even if the governments can’t get along.
  • Digital transformation of business and society: On my return to Japan, I was struck by the huge volumes of physical paper and repetitive data entry that I had to deal with (for example, to get my bank account up and running again, to submit information to estate agents, to get a gym membership, and to set up basic services). Now that I’ve jumped through all the hoops to bank online, I think the digital banking offering from MUFG is OK. I also think that some of the government’s ideas for digital citizen services are pretty interesting. But this isn’t world beating stuff. I have a feeling that Japanese participants at the Fortune conference in Singapore will see a far more digitally advanced society.

The Millennium Project (a global think tank, formerly associated with the UN) lists 15 Global Challenges – including Democratization, Convergence of IT, Health, and Education. Is Japan leading the world in dealing with some of these challenges? Drop me a comment or an email if you have some good examples.

The Millennium Project – 15 Global Challenges

I know that it can be challenging to get a large Japanese contingent at an international conference. The language barrier alone is a major obstacle. I applaud Fortune for making the push to get Japanese business and design leaders to attend Brainstorm 2020 – The theme of the forum is Designing Our Destiny, with a focus on the challenges of climate change, material waste, health care access; humane technology; ethical privacy practices; and long-term design-led innovation. It should be an opportunity for Japanese firms to learn from global leaders in business and design as well as to share what’s great from Japan.

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