Designing Social Innovation Workshop Tokyo: Reflections posted
11th July 2016
AMU, Tokyo, Japan
This event has ended. Below are some reflections and insights from the discussion.
This workshop gathered about 15 leading practitioners from various NPOs, design agencies and social entrepreneurship companies in Japan. It was co-facilitated by Re:Public and Yoko Akama (RMIT University), generously sponsored by Miratsuku NPO and Consent Service Design company.
There were several purposes to this workshop. Firstly, it aimed to create a community of interest around social innovation in Japan, and through this gathering, generate common themes of significance for this community that could potentially become one of the agendas for discussion at DESIAP 2016 in Bangkok, Thailand. Another intention was to identify if there was anything unique and different about the social innovation landscape in Japan by comparing it to some of the social innovation examples and maps that have been widely disseminated.
Novel stories of localized social innovation commonly feature on Japanese media. These report how regional communities are addressing issues of ageing, unemployment, decreasing population, or social isolation. Local, autonomous and self-governing structures (jichitai) play a powerful role in partnership with neighbourhood associations in supporting and catalyzing change, especially in rejuvenating the community (machi-zukuri). This structural coherence comes into sharp focus particularly when communities prepare, respond and recover from frequent disasters. Examples of social innovation are commonly seen here, yet, there is a tendency for jichitai and neighbourhood associations to be constituted by an ageing demographic. They bring valuable life-long experience, local knowledge and social relationships but are struggling to hand this wisdom and practice on to a disinterested younger generation who may not see the need or desire to participate. The growing interest in social innovation (a term imported from the west), especially by young professionals who gathered for this workshop, seems to be an indication of this awareness and their commitment to re-connect and play an active role within their own communities.
Whilst there was general curiosity and interest from the participants in creating a community of interest that span beyond their own fields, regions and contexts, various challenges were also highlighted. Some practitioners candidly revealed the difficulty in translating and communicating their experiences in ways that can be useful to others. Several reasons were listed, such as their lack of ability to analyse their own case studies to abstract generalisable knowledge and communicate this in English. Platforms to publish and share their interdisciplinary work is also limited in Japan and many were reticent in disseminating in academic forums – some have shared their disheartening experiences of being rejected by peer-reviewed journals and conferences. The term and understanding of ‘social innovation’ is relatively nascent in Japan, so the practitioners appeared to be figuring out what it is for themselves, their own relationship and approaches to it. There was a sense of overwhelming pressure and exhaustion in being asked to do more – many are too time poor and thinly stretched with their day-to-day work, lacking the time, funding, resources, skill and knowledge to do anything else. It is interesting to observe that such experiences are common to many other social innovation practitioners all over the world.
Cultural barriers, typical to Japan and the Japanese, were also observed. For example, some noticed that there is a tendency for people to dislike making their experiences universal, and did not see the value of putting in this effort. This could be due their largely homogenous cultures that find diversity and differences harder to deal with. Concerns relevant to their immediate environment and community were considered appropriate, but problems of ‘others’ were of little interest. It was suggested that many do not realise what they don’t know or even know how to compare what they know. This seems to be an unfortunate result of an insular, internally-oriented culture. Since they are unable to communicate in English, or know what to communicate, there is an absence of two-way dialogue within Japan and ways to connect with people overseas. Compared to examples elsewhere where shared objectives and outcomes often drive many to collaborate and empower each other, it was surprising to hear that individually-driven approach is more prevalent, creating turf wars and unhealthy competition among seemingly like-minded people. Rather than hierarchy and top-down culture that often characterises Japanese society, this turf-war syndrome is a crippling and incompatible behavior for social innovation and an endemic barrier in order for it to grow and scale. In fact, the discussion indicated that there were little systemic mechanisms for people’s empowerment.
Many questions were also raised during the discussion. These ranged from; what is ‘quality’ in social innovation or ‘good’ social value? What is the unit of measurement for such such analysis? What could segmentation of social innovation look like, and how could that support further groupings and discussions? How are government, academia, businesses and communities involved, and what would support and incentivise their involvement?
Several ideas and suggestions surfaced in order to overcome such barriers and cultural mindsets:
create a supportive foundation for people to relate and resonate
learn from other practitioner’s knowledge experiences
generate indicators of quality and achievements, appropriate to the local context
seek to address weakness and areas that lack clarity
find how problems are rooted and compare that with others, as there could be applicable lessons
connect more with government and academia to increase opportunities
gather like-minded people who are keen to connect with an international community and generate visions and scenarios that can inspire others to join
open up broad vistas of change to counter-act the insular tendencies
It will be interesting to see what happens next, to develop capacities and opportunities to support such practitioners in addressing their barriers and challenges through collaboration.