Designing for the future

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This afternoon, I visited an exhibition in Tokyo called Design to change the future: Business with social innovation in 2030. Sounded promising, as did the location – next door to 21_21 Design Sight where I saw a great exhibition last year on local crafts from the Tohoku region (and if the long queue of people waiting there today is any indication, they have something great on again).

The Mirai Design exhibition tries to provide answers to the question: 社会課題を解決できるのは誰なのか? Or: Who will be able to solve the issues in our society?

A very relevant question, not just for Japan, and I was looking forward to see some creative and new initiatives or designs which might really be able to trigger change.

The exhibition was small and divided across five themes: energy, agriculture, education, community and resilience. Each topic had 3-5 examples of ‘solutions’ for a social or environmental issue.

However, walking through the exhibition and taking in these examples, I was underwhelmed. To say the least. All of the examples came from major Japanese – and a few foreign-based – companies, for example NEC, Mitsui, Fujitsu, etc. Of course, this isn’t bad. But I also wonder if real innovation will come from these large companies. Especially when I see many smaller scale initiatives starting up (in Europe or the US) which seem to challenge the status quo much more.

None of the examples were bad things, of course. And from their description, a clear sense came through of the companies’ conviction that they have a responsibility to contribute to society. This is one thing that also came up earlier this week, and was explained to me as a way of thinking originating in post-war Japan. At that time Japan’s economy was devastated and needed to be built up again: being ‘good’ companies and working as hard as possible at making money and thereby supporting the recovery of Japan’s economy was seen by many companies as their contribution to society as this would in turn enable Japan to grow more prosperous and provide for its population. This mentality is still visible in CSR-related activities as well, in which community engagement is a strong part of CSR policy. And it’s great that companies feel so connected to their local community.

Back to the exhibition, where the examples included the promotion of less industrial and more organic farming, volunteer work in the Tohoku region, organizing study tours abroad for volunteers, increasing the usage of organic cotton and game-ifying education.

In short, a nice exhibition of some nice projects. But all of these things are happening NOW (luckily). Don’t we need something more radical? I was hoping for a real look into the future: what could our world be like 17 years from now? That would be a great question for some creative and innovative thinkers & designers to work on and design for. I would love to see it.

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