“We apologize for the interruption in service”

June 5, 2011 — 3 Comments


This seems an appropriate title under which to resume my commentary on design and design thinking. I do indeed apologize for the lack of posts over the last three months but this is not the primary reason for the choice of title.

I just returned from a visit to Tokyo, a place I have visited more than twenty times over the last twenty years. I was struck this time by the change that seems to be going on in the national psyche as a result of the recent earthquake, tsunami and nuclear emergency. Japanese citizens have lost confidence in their institutions and in response all those institutions seem to be able to do is apologize.

The most striking impression you get on arriving in Tokyo is that it has gone dark. What was once one of the brightest cities on the planet has dimmed significantly as lighting in public spaces has been turned down and escalators in subway stations turned off to conserve power. This dimming seems emblematic of an institutional lack of imagination and resolve. Instead it is Japanese entrepreneurs and business people along with students and the non-profit sector who seem to be leading the charge into the future. I met with a group at the Tokyo University i-school, an interdisciplinary innovation institute based out of the engineering department similar to the Stanford d-school. The students were extremely eloquent in their assessment of the disaster and its impact. Here are a few of their comments:

“Japanese people have increased confidence in themselves but less confidence in the government”

“we have never felt more strongly Japanese”

“to win back trust government needs to be more direct and open”

“government should be a platform for information”

They commented on how important social networks, and in particular Twitter, had been in allowing them to share more information and bypass the government. I left thinking that this elite group of students who would normally head off to the major corporations or into government might just decide to take a different, more entrepreneurial direction with their careers.

At a meeting of TEDx Tokyo organizers and others concerned with promoting ideas about positive change in Japan I heard a similar message of needing to support the new generation in their desire to be entrepreneurial. The conversation centered on how to create networks that supported the implementation of new ideas. Ideas that might make a difference to the areas effected by the disaster and Japan as a whole. This seemed to me to be the nub of the issue. We have developed networks that very effectively promote new ideas. How do we move to creating networks that support getting those ideas done? Networks of action are far harder to establish than networks of conversation. What are the key principles for establishing them? How can the social web enable more people to get more stuff done?

I left Japan feeling that the old institutional hierarchies were left wanting at a time of crisis (and let’s not forget we had the same experience with Katrina) but that while we have the beginnings of a new social network driven alternative we still have some design to do.

Tim Brown


3 responses to “We apologize for the interruption in service”

  1. This post touches on several issues very close to my heart, both as a resident of Tokyo who has just returned from a stint volunteering in Tohoku, and as a person with a big idea trying to get a new UK charity off the ground.

    I couldn’t agree more that networks of information are the first part of the puzzle, but finding ways to get people with similar goals together where they can support each other is crucial to converting the wealth of innovative ideas into meaningful action. No matter how good an idea is, one person working alone can only do so much.

    Tools to do that are beginning to appear: Avaaz lets people the world over apply pressure to effect improvements in human rights while Kickstarter helps people pool resources to get comercial ideas off the ground, but there still seems to be a big gap when it comes to charitable and aid work.

    I personally would value a tool that would let me pitch my new charity idea to skilled people willing to donate some of their time pro bono or very cheaply to the right project, and I’m sure a similar site would help aid workers in disaster hit regions correlate what supplies are available with where they are most needed.

    I would also add a final note of caution:

    The Japanese authorities are superb at bureaucracy and certainly a number of individuals and charities (such as the excellent Peaceboat, please donate here: http://peaceboat.jp/relief/) have found the best way to help people is to ignore the rules and just do what needs to be done. But the flip side of that is the unregulated well meaning people who run blindly into disaster areas and end up doing more harm than good.

    Ultimately, people in Tohoku are not starving, the phone networks, power and water are back on almost everywhere and it was astonishing how quickly the highways were repaired (all the roads were open in less than a fortnight). That was all carried out by the fusty institutions doing exactly what they were supposed to do speedily and competently.

    The scale of the clean-up is mind blowing and volunteers and individuals are crucial to the efforts, but I do wonder how much of the perception that the people have been failed by their government is entirely fair given the astonishing amount that has been carried out by the authorities in such a short period of time.

    We need to bear in mind that people often feel the way they do because of incomplete or incorrect information and because of spin by the press. The real very brave and hard working people that make up the faceless “authorities” in the north have done incredible things under the most difficult of circumstances and I think we should keep that in mind before we rubbish them entirely.

  2. Hi Tim,

    Referring to the general question you posed. We could try a social network similar to the idea in the Pay It Forward movie. Here people will help others get their ideas done by using the connections they have. For example I will get you an appointment with my brother who specializes in design, CAD modeling, etc to try to see how your product will actually look like, what materials it should be built from, etc. Another person will get you an interview with their husband who works at the bank and can help you set a budget plan and a realistic payment plan for the loan you’ll need to take for the legal and promotional expenses you’ll have. And next time, when I’ll have an idea, you might be able to sit me down with your cousin who is a known patent lawyer to help me out. And so on, and so on.

    We all know someone, who would love to help us if we just asked. Sometimes they are “wasted” on us, but would be of great help to other people.
    It doesn’t have to be for free. The time and advice of someone who is well known in their field is priceless. And the time such a network could save to a young entrepreneur and help accelerate their career, is worth every penny.

    The beauty of today’s technology is that you don’t have to be in the same continent to get the advice/help you need from someone. Simple chat or email can jump start the execution of your idea.

  3. I have visited Japan five times in about three decades. In the last visit (December 2011), what struck me was the “intensely turning inwards” of the youth: (1) They are not interested in traveling abroad, except perhaps proximate Asia; (2) They are not interested in study abroad; (3) They are not particularly interested in furthering their knowledge of English or other western languages.

    [I am talking of the average young person, not the “globalist” students in Todai or Kyodai.]

    Who knows whether this is good or bad, but it does concern the older Japanese — particularly those (of my generation) who invested in language and western cultural skills — to see their young ‘uns draw into a tighter nihon-centric circle.

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