Creating Regional Innovation in Japan: Part 1

When the news reached my email that I made the 7% out of 300 applicants as the only African participant to attend a Summer Innovation Camp with the University of Tokyo in Japan, I was eager for July 29th to clock. I joined other 29 international colleagues who made the 7% and undertake their studies in high ranking universities of the world such as University of California (UCB), Oxford, Cambridge to mention but a few. Nationalities at the programme rang from USA, UK, France, China, Switzerland, Slovenia, Finland, Hong Kong, Thailand, South Korea, Indonesia, Pakistan, Spain, Bangladesh, Germany and a few I might have missed. We were to be joined by 30 other Japanese participants from the University of Tokyo and a single lucky participant like me, from Chiba University in Japan. The main goal of the innovation workshop is to teach us how to create regional innovation. Regional innovation is innovation for solving challenges of local regions. From the foregoing, the need for regional innovations cannot be overemphasized.

The founder of the programme and Director of Centre for Knowledge Structuring at The University of Tokyo, Professor Hideyuki Horii, narrated to me how he veered from the technical practice of civil engineering to focus solely technology for social innovation. He, along with his team had started i.school in 2009 in order to teach students how to think creatively and to give them confidence to be innovative. This year, they teamed up with another innovation school, Royal College of Arts (RCA), from the UK to organize two different innovation workshops for us. The workshop from RCA was mind blowing, funny and crazy in terms of ideas created by participants.

with horiiProfessor Horii on my right and the Vice President of The University of Tokyo at the Farewell Party in Tokyo

Horii Sensei started his innovation workshop of i.school by asking the 60 participants to write down as many ideas as we can in 3 minutes. A Japanese student acknowledged writing up to 15, the highest. One third of that is what I did. He again asked the same question, however, restricting our thinking to ideas that only create new services in a shopping mall. I came up with 2. No one had more than 5. It was harder to think that way. And that was the main lesson. To think while making reference to an analogy. It is an ideation method that makes taylor-made proposals based on a certain service or scenario. With analogic thinking, a challenge is put by thinking about how to improve a certain service or product while making reference to another and better analogy. The i.school workshop lasted for two days.

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group work Group work by participants

On the second day, all participants have mused about new ideas to attract people to the 2020 Olympic Games. It was showtime as a member of the design committee of 2020 Olympics will be present to give his remarks on the proposed ideas. Japan has won the hosting rights of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. One of the most, if not the best city to live in the world. You cannot miss a valuable item like stockings and don’t have it returned or mailed to you as someone enjoyed after having forgotten her stockings in a hotel room. Cleanliness, orderliness, hospitality, security and you can go on mentioning. Cases of bag or phone snatching are not heard. Yes, you can leave your bag unattended at a train station and ‘Tokyo 911’ and City TV won’t show up. People do not know terrorism in this part of the world.

ppt1Professor Horii facilitating i.school workshop

Thinking method proposed by RCA was the opposite of that in i.school workshop. While they also centered the workshop around a theme-Washi which is a traditional Japanese paper, however, they did not limit the extent of ways you can use Washi. The idea was to think outside the box with just a single piece of paper at your mercy. Interesting, exciting, mind-blowing and crazy ideas were proposed by different groups either through a skit or a narration. The main goal of the workshop was to think extreme. To break all borders of limitation and assume you can create anything you like with a resource you possess. Many participants liked it because of the freedom and no-limit obligation.

skit1

A group makes a skit of their idea of a face mask made out of Washi paper that clears your face from any illness or ugliness in a few minutes. Instant makeover. This shuld sell anywhere.

While we have assimilated all these knowledge passed to us by two innovation schools, we moved into a less popular region of Japan, Tonou City, somewhere close to where the great 3.11 tsunami decimated. We mingled with High School Students and taught them how to create regional innovation. The ideas the kids presented were impressive. Post 2 of this blog will detail our interaction with the beautiful High School students. It is with such enthusiasm and results I witnessed at Tonou City, that I feel the need for regional innovation is universal. Every particular region has its set of resources that needs to be harnessed in certain ways not only by rich entrepreneurs, capitalists and multinationals, but also by the common man who will feel the impact more than anyone.

And our programmes caught the eyes of an Asian Newspaper Nikkei in Tokyo and Iwate Local Newspaper in Tonou City. In case you cannot read the Japanese script, you can watch the video here.

And for a summary of all our workshops in Tokyo City, please watch this video here made voluntarily by an amazing student staff, Demeturie.

Have any questions about the Innovation workshop, the work we did with High School Students, please do not hesitate to ask.

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Obon Festival in Japan

Saku City, Nagano Prefecture,
Japan.
Between 13th and 15th of July or August every year, depending on the region, Japanese people usually celebrate a festival called Obon (called Bon at times, addition of the letter o before a word in Japanese Language means an added respect to the word). Obon Festival is a time in which Japanese people go back to their different hometowns and honour their ancestral spirits together with their families. On the night of August the 14th, I got on a bus with my Japanese Language Sensei (teacher in Japanese Language) and friend Ikkan, in Tokyo and headed for his hometown, Saku City to celebrate the Obon with his family. The journey was memorable to me as that was my first and longest journey by bus during my short stay in Japan.
At the beginning of the 3 hour journey, Ikkan was fast asleep. He had not slept much last night because he spent the night performing a Karaoke at some place in Tokyo. I placed my laptop on my laps and continued making some minor corrections to my masters’ thesis, which was supposedly due for submission the next day. Halfway through the journey, we started to chat about the time he came to Kenya last summer. His pleasurable experience and how he looked forward to going back someday. Three hours passed, and the luxurious bus we sat in glided on the best highway I have ever travelled on. There were no potholes nor security road blocks, as it was the case of highways in my country, Nigeria. The bus pulled over at around 11.00 pm and we walked down the aisle and exited the bus. It took us a while of trekking before we arrived home, to his waiting kind parents, who had already bought a Yukata for me.
Yukata is a light traditional Japanese cloth that is also used during the Obon Festival because of the summer heat. Before I wore mine, Otousan (a respectful way of calling someone’s dad in Japanese Language) had said he did not know I was this ‘tall’. Okaasan (a respectful way of calling someone’s mum in Japanese Language) and Otousan were amused because my Yukata stopped mid-way between my knee and ankle, instead of covering my whole legs. Well, even if they did know my exact height, I believe it will take them a long time to find my size considering am taller than an average Japanese person. Otousan is a very kind old gentle man, who waited till midnight the day I arrived to have dinner with me. Octopus Sushi was the main meal on the table. He had told us by 12.45 am to wake up by 5.00 am the next day and go to his farm for some corns.
Japan is popularly called the land of the rising sun, asahi. By 4.00 am, the sun is already up. A challenging location for a Muslim person like me, who will have to fast for 19 hours before he/she starts to eat or drink. I did not sleep till around 1.00 am, 3 hours before the sun comes up. I barely managed to wake up some minutes before 4.00 am to say my morning prayers, then I prayed that Otousan abandons his plan of taking us to his farm for toumorokoshi. Around 6.00 am, in my sleep, I overheard Otousan trying to get Ikkan up. Thank God it was unsuccessful. We did not wake up till 10.00 am, Obon’s day. The day the monk will come and pray together with the family.
And he did come, around evening. And I did join the prayers, as an onlooker though. After the rites, through Ikkan’s translation, he told me about the practice. In the room where they prayed, there were pictures of Ikkan’s great grandparents, who they believe their spirits will come back, in the name of Okagesama to protect them. In the room lies a big box, where the spirits normally reside in, but today, being Obon, they will move to a smaller one just for that day, because of the sacrifice to be made. In my short stay in Japan, I have visited for more than 5 temples and shrines, in short, I have condensed a lot of knowledge about their religious beliefs. He left and we had dinner.

Ancestral home
Ancestral home

The sacred place used for Obon prayers in Ikkan’s home. The black door on the right is the box that normally houses their ancestral spirits.

The smaller temporary ancestral home
The smaller temporary ancestral home

The small box middle from both left and right with vertical writings is the smaller box the ancestral spirits will move in to honour the Obon sacrifice.

Considering the large number of people coming back home for the Obon, the Hanabi community had organized a Hanabi show at a place just overlooking the river, made just for Hanabi. Hanabi is a Japanese word for fireworks. It was raining cats and dogs, and we had thought Hanabi will be cancelled that night. Suddenly, the loud bangs of the fireworks reached our ears. And off we went to the scene, been driven by Okaasan. Within two seconds of normal time, she changes transmission. Such an aged woman with excellent driving skills. One hand always on the gear and the other on the steering wheel ofcourse. She swings her body slowly from left to right as she navigates the roads of Saku City.

With my basic understanding of Japanese, I was able to tell her how I exciting the Hanabi was, when she drove back to pick us up. The Obon Festival will be completed the next day, with a type of slow dance called Obon Odori. Will they also dance in the rain? We shall know in some few hours.