by Jenny Yejin Byun
From July 29 to August 13, I participated in one of the most transformative programs of my life. The theme of this year’s Todai Innovation Summer Program (TISP) was “regional innovation,” or innovation tailored to addressing issues of a particular region. The goal of TISP 2014 was to learn how to create these regional innovations in order to revitalize disaster-stricken areas. For two weeks, thirty students from abroad and thirty students from Todai University collaborated in workshops and presentations.
For the first couple of days in the Tokyo Module, we conducted field observations of Japanese culture, design, and behavior. We were split into small teams and were given the assignment of visiting places like Akihabara, Ueno, and Sugamo. After taking many photos, we grouped them by similarities and presented our findings in an open poster board session.
After identifying what we thought was the essence of Japanese culture, we explored different ideation techniques through workshops held by the Royal College of Art (RCA) and i.school. In the RCA workshop, we experimented with rapid prototyping within certain design constraints such as scale and material. We also went through multiple rounds of brainstorming and group commentary, thinking about concepts, contexts, and consumer characteristics.
This workshop challenged us to think differently, defer judgment, encourage wild ideas, work visually and manually, and use structured exercises to keep on track when working in a group. These skills became important in later exercises.
The i.school workshop taught us yet another approach to innovation. We looked at multiple case studies of regional innovation and looked for structural similarities between different mechanisms for value creation. From these groupings, we used analogical thinking to create new ideas.
Prior to the Tohoku Module, we covered case studies on the March 11, 2011 earthquake. Companies such as the General Reconstruction Association (GRA) and Ishinomaki Laboratory also gave presentations on how they were making a difference in disaster-stricken areas. For the final four days of our program, we headed to the Tohoku area to visit Otsuchi Town and Tono City. Otsuchi-cho was still in the process of recovery after the tsunami. It was difficult to imagine it as it once was, when all that really remained was the devastated city hall building.
The program then took us to Tono City (while Otsuchi needs revitalization, it is still in the process of rebuilding basic infrastructure). In Tono, we broke up into our fieldwork groups and applied some of the techniques we learned in the Tokyo module to Tono. We discussed findings, opportunities, and preliminary ideas derived from those opportunities. It was a great chance to truly understand the meaning of “regional innovation.” During group presentations, I was surprised to find that all groups picked up on essentially the same charms and resources of Tono City. Our consensus was an encouraging confirmation of the city’s value, at least from an outsider’s perspective. As always, I learned much from the thought processes and conclusions of other participants.
We spent the remaining days of our program designing an innovation education curriculum for Tono’s high school students. Resourceful leaders can enter a struggling region and provide creative solutions, but ultimately this model is not sustainable. The region and its people often become dependent on a person who is not necessarily from that community—someone who may not have to live with the lasting consequences of the new venture or project. i.school’s idea was to insert local youth into the innovation chain and cultivate entrepreneurial, innovative mindsets. The students took what they learned in their field observations, brainstormed, and presented their own ideas for revitalizing Tono City.
The program is still in its infancy (this is only its second year), but I hope that it will continue on for the next five, ten, fifteen years. It is unconventional in that it offers no academic credits to its participants. Everyone in the program was there because they wanted to be there. The program’s participants were also highly diverse. People of all different ages, genders, countries, disciplines, and backgrounds came together in the same space to solve problems and create new things. It felt highly liberating to work towards certain goals together without the typical boundaries of age, experience, and occupation, and the program’s diversity only enriched our capacity for creative solutions. Finally, TISP 2014 changed my mindset. The lessons I learned, I will keep with me far into my career. I am deeply grateful to the facilitators, Professor Horii, Tono City, and FOTI for giving me this eye-opening experience.