Rehearsed protests
Sunday March 15th 2015, 5:25 pm
Filed under: Participation

I read an interesting article in the Saturday Paper by Sam Cooney (March 14-20, 2015) about a training session by CounterAct on NVDA (Nonviolent Direct Action), which is described as a way to learn about ‘methods of protest, resistance and intervention without physical violence. Participants practice scenarios of their arrest, such as the ‘ability to become a total dead weight’, so that it’s ‘much more difficult for police officers to drag me away’. Another scenario he describes is to chain someone to the front desk of a hypothetical drone manufacturing HQ, while filming the scene of any altercations with the police. It all sounds hands-on, pragmatic and somewhat polished. It is a strange rehearsal in nonviolent protest, I assume, so that the protesting can be done well, with professionalism and confidence. The author shares how the NVDA training was ’super affirmative … too much about storytelling and sharing and famous proverbs repeated with gravitas’, and notices that ‘any discussion of politics was shunted aside.’

Apparently, involvement in activist action is increasing and public interest in it, in mainstream media and social media, is also growing. It reminded me of the ‘Occupy unmasked’ documentary that was aired on SBS a while back. The documentary revealed that, despite Occupy’s appearance as a mass movement of US public frustration with the government, financial crisis and corporate greed, the individuals who were participating had little political reason why they were protesting, or were misled to come to a gathering (eg. false rumours of Radiohead’s appearance). The Brooklyn Bridge mass gathering, which was catalytic to starting the Occupy movement, is alleged to have been orchestrated by the hands of a few journalists pulling strings. One person interviewed in the documentary says ‘…they got one thing that Occupy needs to get media … they don’t get media unless there is arrest or violence’, and such stunts achieved the publicity they wanted. This is reminiscent of the NVDA training. Protesters at Occupy are interviewed why they are there. Some are unemployed and are paid to attend. Others talk about the wealthy not being taxed enough, and look sheepish when they corrected on their facts. The documentary also show how many of the active and vocal protesters have a college trust fund (so not poor, under-trodden, or marginalised). It’s a carnival, vapid on a major scale.

Occupy Melbourne (and I think there was a camp also at RMIT University campus) just sounds like a mass youth tantrum, and I’m still not quite sure what they were protesting about. Their blog seems largely about their conflict with the police, and not much on what they actually achieved. Though the consequences for the City of Melbourne has been phenomenal – clean up, damages to public spaces, police and emergency personnel, and legal bills etc. – costing the tax payers $1 mil. You’d think that it would’ve been better spent on much needed services like education, healthcare, public transport – such a waste.

Protest as a forceful expression and participation in political issue, seems so fake, when viewed this way. Its bizarre phenomena when you know what it was like in the ‘old days’, when it was still considered genuine. I  used to work for human rights organisation whose tactics was their only way to get their voices heard, for example, at Rio Tinto’s AGM to speak out on their abuse of land and human rights for indigenous peoples. These protests, vigils and boycots got the attention of the press and raised concerns for shareholders, so they can in turn, demand change in the company’s conduct. If protest is now viewed so cynically, what avenues are left for change?

Embarrassing politicians
Saturday December 27th 2014, 9:41 am
Filed under: Some ranting

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Public figures in Japan continue to shock and entertain me… here are two highlights of 2014!

Hyogo Councillor, Ryutaro Nonomura cries hysterically and shouts incoherent excuses at a press conference in July 2014. He is one of many public servants suspected of mis-using funds. Since then, several other prominent ministers, including Yuko Obuchi (Trade and Industry) has resigned over alleged misuse of public funds in the Ministry of Trade.

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While Ayaka Shiomura MP took the floor to report recent findings in Tokyo on the increasing trend of infertility, women delaying childbirth and lack of maternal support, she was rudely heckled by Akihiro Suzuki MP who shouted ‘Hurry up and have a baby yourself!’ 「早く子供を産め」. He then denied all knowledge of this incident, to later admit and publicly apologise for his behaviour. Oh my goodness… only in Japan?

Multi-generational interaction in high-rises
Friday December 26th 2014, 6:57 pm
Filed under: Social design

Screen Shot 2014-12-26 at 8.00.52 pmOn the Japanese public broadcast network – NHK (Nippon Ho-sou Kyoku) today, there was a brilliant social innovation story between university students and the residents living in a large high-rise estate. Rent have been subsidised by a partnership between local Universities, resident groups (自治体) and councils, to let them out cheaply to students with the plan to re-invigorate an ageing community. Other modifications are being made to the larger apartments to enable multi-generation families to live, or help exchange students to house-share. Students are then invited to community meetings to proactively contribute to the community.

Ageing and de-population are affecting regional towns like Kasukabe, where my parents live. What was once a popular high-rise apartments now have more empty rooms. Seeing this, social innovation initiatives like ‘Neighbourhood festival’ 「隣人祭り」are bringing in new residents and fresh ideas to stimulate engagement and exchange. Partnering universities (eg. 日本工業大学と埼玉県立大学) are incorporating such community engagement initiatives as assignments to support a ‘real-world’ classroom.

One student living in a high-rise estate in Takesato (武里団地), Kasukabe, initiated a food event, noting how many people were eating alone. Heart warming scenes were observed where senior residents taught the younger ones how to wrap dumplings and cook traditional food.

A failed experiment?
Friday May 09th 2014, 12:49 pm
Filed under: Communication Design, Some ranting

One of my Honours student talked about Field Experiment in our class. He is Indonesian, studying communication design in Australia. His Honours research explores how communication design creates contemporary understandings of Jakarta’s culture, and how its citizen can participate in its making. To summarise, the Field Experiment is led by designers (from the West) who take a ’sabbatical’ from their usual work to fly to Bali, Indonesia, and undertake arts + craft based projects using local products and craft technique. The root of its interest / popularity is because it was led by Stefan Sagmeister (aka the David Carson of the 00’s naughties) and I was quite surprised to know that Sagmeister needed a sabbatical away from ‘client work’. The general perception by design community has of his practice is a feeling of envy of the amazing projects his studio undertakes, so the client-driven-nose-to-the-grind-stone is not an image that comes to mind…

As the class looked at the Field Experiment website and the associated interviews, blogs and general PR, we couldn’t help but feel that, here is yet another ‘cool’ project for designers and the design community – a self-indulgent, object-obsessed, white-middle-class entertainment, exploiting ‘local culture’s exoticism for their own gain. Just last week, we discussed and similarly, critiqued Jimmy Nelson’s TEDxAmsterdam talk, ‘Before they pass away‘, where he photographed and documented the last of the remaining indigenous tribes during his travels around the world. There were lots of resonance between Nelson’s photography that we saw in Field Experiments too. While the Indonesian Honours student who showed Field Experiment was excited by what Sagmeister and the other designers had done in re-appropriating the traditional arts and crafts of his culture as something interesting and novel, there were more troubling questions afoot. In class, we discussed its equivalent in Australia – designers / artists going to Arnhem land to ‘collaborate’ with Indigenous communities to design products for market. Dot Dot and bark paintings on scarfs and flip flops. Commercially viable, yes, but what does that do to their culture, their voice, their representation, their future…?

Similarly, who benefits from these design ‘experiments’? Clearly, its been a big ‘hit’, with an exhibition coming up in May 2014. But what about the local villagers and craftsmen and women who generously shared their skills? What do they learn or gain from this experience? How does the local community benefit, other than the small amounts of tourism dollars dropped into their businesses (and the $ goes a long long way in Indonesia). Is there any meaningful and mutual cultural exchange for them? What about the local environment? Are the things made sustainable to produce where it is, or does it rely on foreign manufactured and imported items? Can the craftsperson who weaves a basket, can they now make an additional living out of turning the basket into a lamp, and sell it through exclusive shops in the West? And if so, what does that mean for their business – would they need to learn how to be web-savvy and earn more to afford that extra technology…? Strangely, these systemic implications were not evident in the Field Experiment documentation, indicating that perhaps, the considerations weren’t there for the designers either. Field Experiments’ blog and Tumblr pictures are beautiful – products photographed in a white studio or carefully curated against local nature. They overwhelmingly demonstrate the designer’s obsession with craft, novelty of the created item and also of themselves (self-portraits). The interview with one of the designers, Paul Fuog, who accompanied Sagmeister is also illuminating in that regard. Much of what he speaks about is the familiar desire beind ‘Designer Authorship’ – to be creative, expressive, experiment, risk-take, playful etc – and little awareness of the impact of their interventions in a small, Asian village. It looks like colonialism all over again.

ServDes 2014
Thursday April 24th 2014, 5:31 pm
Filed under: Service Design, User/Human Centred Design


(from the CASS Foundation travel report – apologies for the rather ‘formal’ tone!)

The Service Design and Innovation (ServDes) conference is the premier research platform for bringing researchers and practitioners together to exchange knowledge and evolve the emerging domain of designing services. It is one of the most highly regarded conferences in this area and hosted at one of the foremost service design research centres, Imagination Lancaster, UK. Having presented a paper in their 2009 conference in Oslo, I have been impressed by the quality of papers, choice of key-note speakers and the general organisation of the conference. With the CASS Travel Grant, I had the opportunity to travel and present a paper again in 2014.

My paper’s presentation drew on my principal research focus since PhD completion. Forecasts of increasingly destructive natural disasters, such as bushfires, droughts, earthquakes and floods mean that more research is needed to ensure communities, services and systems become more resilient. This is a global concern and design can play a key role in this arena, funded by the Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre (CRC). As a Chief Investigator I explored a variety of community-based methods for engagement and preparedness, enabling  adaptive capacities to plan collectively. My paper, ‘Passing on, handing over, letting go – the passage of embodied methods for disaster preparedness’ explores  the complexities of how design can catalyse transformation for communities in a political, emotive and challenging terrain. It aims to contribute knowledge to this nascent field, highlighting the lived realities of practice that are often over-looked in theoretical or overtly methodological / instrumental discussions in service design.

Service design research, being a field of inquiry that is shifting its focus from designing ‘products’ (tangible, technological and artefact-oriented) to systems of interactions (intangible, relational and experience-oriented), I noticed how many papers were tackling this paradigm shift. It raised interesting questions regarding the problem of setting artificial boundaries around ‘service implementation’ and where a project begin and ends, literal distinctions between ‘goods’ and ‘services’ and the lack of awareness by designers who are stepping into change (and to change whom and what?). There were excellent discussions that reminded us all that the process of designing systems is far more complex, entangled and plural, only achieved through gradual change and enacted by people. Pelle Ehn’s (Malmö University) wonderful keynote elaborated, humbly and warmly, his research that spaned over fifty years in participatory design, an area that service design must learn more from. He called attention to the danger of creating artificial boundaries around projects, time, and future, describing key ideas like ‘thinging’ and ‘infrastructuring’ that sees design as an assembly of people to coalesce concerns in an on-going, evolving manner in manifesting multiple future-making. Other presentations that were also memorable include Alison Prendiville’s (London College of Communication, University of the Arts London) discussion on the danger of commensurating qualities into quantities – a trend that we see often when justifying public service support. In her case study of working with ageing people in the UK, she discussed how place-making, as an active, embodied gathering supported the elderly community to build their social relations and contribute to their well-being. Place-making in service design is often poorly acknolwedged, and all too considered as ‘space’ instead – a blank, static, neutral backdrop for design. Furthermore, Janette Blomberg (IBM Research) pointed out the current limitations of the service design discourse, echoing Pelle’s point, and the need to recognise the complexity often concealed in the service provider and recipient relationship, and the instrumentality of design in intervening in change. She asked us to consider the ethical and political concern when we perform in this arena.

Given my presentation attempted to highlight similar concerns about lived realities of transformation, embodied entanglements and dynamic complexities of designing with people, I thoroughly enjoyed my conversations with Pelle, Alison, Janette and many others during lunch, drinks and dinner. I have to admit that there were several who didn’t like or ‘get’ the argument I was putting forward – I think the concerns I raise are actually difficult to grapple with.  I was also introduced to several researchers who I am delighted to acquaint with in Korea and Japan, and we discussed the possibility of co-convening an Asia-Pacific symposium on service design in 2015/16 to further build stronger relationships in this area.

Bento-box and the arrows in-between
Friday August 30th 2013, 12:28 pm
Filed under: Some ranting

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In the event last night, Andy talked about the classic art-school exercise where students in their first week had to draw the ‘negative’ spaces to switch their perception from looking at objects. Its similar to how I to learnt typography or composition in my first-year undergraduate,  drummed into seeing the white space in-between the letterforms to understand kerning, leading and layout.

Andy’s talk highlighted our conditioning, as industrialised cultures, that makes us focus on objects, and that it is problematic because it doesn’t make us aware of the in-between connections that are there that is almost as important, if not more. This in-betweenness is where we find things like relationships, engagement, movement, experience… Andy used, as an example, an organisational chart of a management structure in an organisation, and talked about the ‘arrows in-inbetween’ that often become neglected, or perhaps, treated as ‘objects’ in an effort to control it.

In parallel, there’s a conversation that I’ve been having recently with my colleagues in Japan, based on that works with a community in Kesennuma, devastated by the 3.11 Great Eastern Earthquake, in an attempt to catalyse empowerment and transformation through participatory social innovation. And in this conversation, we touched on the ‘bento-box‘ activity as it was one of the things that the high-school kids designed by re-discovering their traditional food cultures and to share and celebrate that within the community and beyond, and potentially re-generate local businesses again. And whilst we were talking, it was a delightful surprise when we stumbled on the ‘bento-box’ as a metaphor for the project. The culture of bento-box in Japan is creative and playful, often incorporating regional ingredients and flavours that allow its diversity. Its limitless possibilities, combination and variety are its charm. In contrast to western notions of a ‘box’ that gives it a restrictive, bounded, ‘boxed-in’ feeling, a ‘box’ (hako) in the Japanese context is almost its opposite. Here, a ‘box / hako’ is, in fact, a receptacle that has the capacity to be filled with anything. It is openness.

Relating this back to Andy’s talk about the ‘in-between spaces’, to the notion of a ‘bento-box’ as a open and limitless possibility, I was suddenly struck by its similarity. The ‘bento-box’ as a metaphor for a receptacle, suggests that the thing that is being designed is the scaffolding itself, borrowing a pedagogic terminology. So if we designed the ‘bento-box’, the in-between space inside it can become anything, supporting the ‘liquid network’ of people’s relationships, movements, experiences…

And there must be something in the universe… serendipitously, Kenya Hara is coming to Melbourne, because Muji is just about to launch its flagship store next year, and I’ve been asked to host and introduce his lecture next week at RMIT Design Hub. And his talk will be on ‘emptiness’, a classic Japanese, zen-buddhism philosophy that underlies the concept of what he does. Hara-san’s philosophy, emptiness, is empty space to attune our sensibilities towards how we ‘notice’ it but can’t ‘grab’ it, how we attempt to create it by clearing it, and by clearing it, help something enter. But its not the ‘less is more’ modernist philosophy: “The roots of expressions like … ‘less is more’ are subtly different than those that underlie emptiness. Emptiness does not merely imply simplicity of form, logical sophistication and the like. Rather, emptiness provides a space within which our imaginations can run free, vastly enriching our powers of perception and our mutual comprehension. Emptiness is this potential.” (Hara 2010). This is all tied with ancient ideas that were developed through Japanese tea-ceremony, the aesthetics of simplicity and nature, and further still, to Shinto, where gods are invited to reside – in the shrine, in the landscape, in ourselves. He talks about the Shimenawa as the lines that invoke such spaces – made of rice-stalks twisted as a rope – marking the lines where people and spirits crossed over and entered hallowed spaces. Thomas Kasulis, in his book Shinto, interestingly talks about these as ‘bookmarks’.

Returning back to Andy’s talk again, he referenced some ideas to his life in Germany and German language, and how adjectives were harder to learn because they are culturally contextualised. The example he gave was Shadenfreude, a term borrowed from Germany  because there is no English equivalent. After the talk, we briefly discussed how interesting it is that such words exists in different cultures. I related it to my own culture, where there are many words in Japanese (but not in English) that refer to people’s relationships. Japan is a small, mountainous, island country leaving little choice but to live closely with one another – so its no wonder it had to create words to consider and be more aware of the in-between spaces among people. Nonaka’s contribution to the knowledge management discourse, through Ba, is one such example, and because this word exists, in a Wittgenshtinian way, we can actively create its relevance to and meaning in our lives. Similar to how the notion of a ‘box’ connotes restrictiveness in the Western context, but in total contrast, means openness in the Japanese context, and that there is the idea+word existing in the first place can help us talk about it and consciously ‘design’ it too. Its a bookmark!

Perhaps the tangent with Hara-san’s emptiness has taken me too far away from Andy’s talk on the ‘arrows in-between’, but I reckon there’s something here worth thinking about more…!

Graphic design thinking – beyond brainstorming
Tuesday July 23rd 2013, 2:13 pm
Filed under: Communication Design, Thoughts on readings

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Jeremy had lent me this book the other day. Its one of those ‘pop’ books that Ellen Lupton is really good at  churning out these days – she’s done a suite of these among things like ‘DIY’ creativity books. Out of curiosity, I sat down and read it cover to cover (easy reading on the train) and its actually very good examples of framing problems, idea generation and creating form visually. It is solidly wedded to the ‘graphic’ form of designing as a medium and a tool. In fact, ‘design thinking’ here is done through form-making – sketching, compiling lists, diagramming relationships, mapping web of associations. Let me list what it contains in the Contents that relate to it:

• Mind Mapping - or ‘radiant thinking’ a ‘mental research’, starting with a central term or idea the designer quickly plots out associated images and concepts.
• Visual Research - a study of brand space of a client/product/ service by looking at logos, names, promotional language, colour and other aspects of a brand
• Brand Matrix – uses x-y axis to cross two values eg. rational /emotional and elite / popular to plot the brand and where it would like to be
• Brand Books – ‘a way to visualize the personality and life story of a product, company, organisation. The designer uses a selection of colors, shapes, textures, photographs, words, and photos to set a mood… as a narrative’ (p. 46)
• Visual Brain Dump - sounds like another form of mind-mapping but the process is not to stop drawing
• Forced connections – eg. visual puns like crossing iconic products with unpleasant forms
• Action verbs – visually explore applications of different verbs, eg. magnify, rearrange, alter, adapt and forces a fresh view of the idea
• Everything from everywhere – looking beyond the familiar
• Rhetorical figures - using structure of language / words as forms of inspiration
• Semiotics – this rich area of linguistics has been boiled down to the visual exploration of logo design
• Visual Diary - emphasis of this is on ‘unguided creativity’
• Concept presentations - the example they showed here was interaction and service design mock-ups and storyboards

Graphic designers seems to have cornered the market with this many repetoire of visual thinking, and the examples Lupton shows are pretty diverse. Though, given its meant to be ‘beyond brainstorming’, this book doesn’t go past the initial stages of ideation, which is a shame. I only found a couple of pages (11 pages in total) on research that aims to generate well-rounded understanding of audiences / problem context (as opposed to other forms of research they discuss that only looks at something one-dimensionally), which may give a rather poor impression for the profession.

There’s also a section on ‘collaboration’, which I thought was very odd (its a bit like ‘breathing’ or ‘eating’ – don’t we all collaborate as part of our job?). ‘Sometimes, designers let their individuality get in the way of teamwork. Effective collaboration yields something new, not a Frankensteinian mash up of parts’ (p. 92) was very reveling. Are graphic designers poor collaborators? Are they too ego-centred, and are these individuals celebrated too often in the profession?

Interestingly, there’s a section on co-design that references Liz Sander’s work. Given my lament on the lack of any kinds of research being demonstrated here, this shows promising signs of designers actually involving people in the design process. ‘Designers today have learned that users are experts in their own domains. Many designers now view themselves as not controlling an end result but as putting a process into play that actively involves an audience’ (p. 96). Despite this grand gesture of equal footing, the ‘how to co-design’ is a rather disappointing account of gleaning insights from the users through visual / tactile mediums. It actually sounds more like user-centred design rather than co-design, as the designer is still designing the final outcome on behalf of the users.

The case studies that showed signs of extending beyond the visual thinking stages of a project was the PieLab – a 48hr public event that morphed into a pop-up shop called PieLab in Greensboro, Alabama that then became a permanent storefront. This is more than baking, it brings people in the local community together to talk and share. Bielenberg says ‘Conversations leads to ideas, ideas to projects, and projects to positive change’.

Get Ready Cherbourg
Sunday June 16th 2013, 11:43 pm
Filed under: Case study, Methods+Tools, Participation, Social design, User/Human Centred Design

welcome to cherbourg

I was met at 5.30am by Anthony, a six-foot four man from Natjul Indigenous Performing Arts, and despite only speaking briefly on the phone to arrange this lift, he gave me a bear-hug greeting. I knew then that we were off on a great 4hour car journey to Cherbourg.

Anthony has a very rich life experience which he shared through his amazing stories. He has immense wisdom in looking at the entrenched problems for indigenous peoples, from the prison system that encouraged juveniles to offend again, to the bureaucracy of government systems and the inter-generational trauma that keep spinning the negative cycle. Peppered among this was snippets of hilarious stories of his artistic life as a performer. ‘Having a Yarn’ was something he excelled at and enjoyed, allowing hours to fly by for the passengers – Martin the cameraman and myself.

Upon entering Cherbourg, we were chased by a pack of dogs that threatened to go under the wheel, which really freaked me out, and then we were greeted by loud music on outdoor speakers and a group of children in bright clothes at the Church. Its Sunday morning at 9am and a crisp, blue sky.

I was invited to Cherbourg to run a workshop on disaster preparedness. I had met Jennie Schoof, the project co-ordinator of ATSI Natural Disaster Resilience Project, at a past AEMI workshop and she thought the visual, participatory and capacity building approach could contribute to this community. She had been working for many months with the Cherbourg Aboriginal Council, SES Queensland and local Aboriginal leaders and volunteers, culminating in this weekend. This hard work has been central in building the fundamentals of trusting and respectful relationship for all, especially for this community that has experienced relentless tragedy and atrocity since its days as an Aboriginal settlement. The entrance to the town (top image) says it all. More recently, they’ve had a succession of devastating floods that had resulted in one death and widespread infrastructure damage, in January 2011 and February 2013. The state government funding came with a Disaster Management Plan handed to the Council, a very thick document that had no connection or meaning to the community. Its a familiar story but more wretched when its carried out in this town, echoing the same treatment of people as vulnerable, disempowered and unable to make their own decisions.

So instead, the Council used the funding to establish Get Ready Cherbourg. They then engaged in several months of dialogue with the community and people had put their hands up to volunteer and assist in the process of capacity building and preparedness. Jennie was the touchstone of this project, and due to prior familiarity with the methodology, she was able to inject richness, experience and knowledge into the exercise and really bring it to life. Together, we facilitated two groups of Aboriginal volunteers who were all keen to participate and develop a community action for preparedness. Jennie was fantastic, and I was really impressed with how she had made this method her own. For example, in the neighbourhood visualisation exercise on identifying those who they thought were vulnerable, she pushed what that really meant and helped people think about the difference between pension week when they had money or not having any. Seeing what she was doing enabled me to learn and realise that the real work was in how well you can connect the story of awareness and preparedness to people’s own lives and contexts. The knowledge a facilitator had of the community was central to this methodology, and her ability to listen and incorporate their personal lives enabled this exercise to be ‘real’ for them. The social network mapping exercise was an eye-opener, for me and for the participants, revealing how inter-connected and enmeshed their networks really were. The challenges they face are significant – low-socio economic background, illiteracy, alcoholism, domestic violence and absentee parents – but the bonds between people are strong here. This was voiced time and time again, especially in the ‘what if’ scenario responses where looking out for one another was common practice for this community. Having seen or spoken with other people in other towns about disconnect in their community networks, this was an invaluable asset that made them resilient against all adversity.

Cherbourg 1-6-13 for web
As the workshop progressed, Jennie facilitated the last session where they had to come up with two things that each person had to take responsibility of in their street, as many of them lived in different parts of town. This made sure that it wasn’t too complex or onerous, setting them up to fail, and instead, made it achievable. They recognised that you didn’t have be the person doing everything and other people were going to undertake other tasks and roles. This collective approach to co-creating preparedness ensures that it is decided on their own terms, in their own words and they take ownership of what happens. This will then be adopted by the Council and passed on to Emergency Management Queensland as a Cherbourg Disaster Ready Strategy. A ground-up approach that makes more sense.

Jennie gave me a lift back to Brisbane, and we talked endlessly in the car, reflecting on the day, the method, the outcome and everything in between. Though I was only in Cherbourg for a short amount of time, I felt privileged to have met such amazing people and could help in their path to preparedness. It was a gift they gave me, perhaps unknowingly, in enriching my experience, intellectually and spiritually and enabled me to weave another thread into my tapestry of stories on the strength of the human spirit.

i.club気仙沼 – i love kesennuma
Monday December 17th 2012, 10:19 pm
Filed under: Education, Sustainability, User/Human Centred Design, student activities
Boat kesennuma1-low

Having done a research trip through several cities in the US (which was all awesome), I’ve landed in Japan and travelled up to one of the towns, Kesennuma, along the northeast coast that was hit by the earthquake and tsunami last March. I went to take part in an amazing project born out of Tokyo University’s i-school initiative (Maru NPO), funded partly by SCF Japan (horrah!) and private companies.

I arrived at dusk and saw the massive vessel, eerily marooned in the middle of a highway, quite a distance from the harbour. When we re-visited it the next day, I realised that its surroundings was once peoples houses, shops, schools and businesses – though nothing remains but concrete foundations and wrangled debris. Underneath the hull were several crushed cars. Next to it, a temporary shrine of paper cranes, flowers and toys was erected to remember the family and friends who had died that day. Kesennuma had lost 1038 (+ 259 still missing) people. We then visited several homes to understand how they were getting by – some better than others. I was heartened by how welcoming and positive they all were, demonstrating their strength and resilience. Though their stories weren’t all encouraging. I felt a fresh surge of anger in discovering that the government were slow and inadequate in assisting the community on all fronts – infrastructure, services, industry and basic housing – many were going into another bitter winter in temporary fibro shacks. I was there on the last day of the national election and understood, first-hand, the apathy and lack of confidence (60% voter turn out – shocking but inevitable) – electing the least worst of all parties.

The role of non-profits and university-led projects are salient in this context. i-school’s initiative is using design and social innovation as a way to re-build Kesennuma’s devastated local seafood industry. It involves local high-school kids and their input to re-discover their native food resources and generate many ideas that could lead to new businesses. This project, ‘i-club kesennuma‘, focusses on dry foods – products that doesn’t require refrigeration so it could be made and distributed easily as well as be a nutritious provision in an emergency. Its focus is to shift the attention from raw food like sushi and sashimi (used to be its main industry) which is costly to keep and limited in what can be eaten, often resulting in a large amount of waste and high energy bills. The kids’ vigour was generating another effect – pride and hope for their town – infecting the adults with a renewed optimism to face day-to-day difficulties.

iclub kesennuma2-low

The photo above shows a scene from a workshop I took part in – the young people conducted quasi-ethnographic research and talked to local residents, later sharing interesting insights about customs and products that they discovered. There was a lot of laughter and lightness. The next workshop is in January and February that involves them making the actual dry-food products in partnership with local businesses. I won’t be able to take part but I hope to keep in touch with the researchers at i-school to see what happens. I felt that there was a huge value in this project than evaluating whether it succeeds in producing a viable product.

The trip to Kesennuma was mixed with many thoughts and it’ll take me a while to digest all of these feelings. I still feel powerless and frustrated, living so far away from home but the connection with the kids and the community was a real, tangible feeling that I’ll remember for a very very long time…

Lessons from Fukushima – a systemic organisational failure of Tokyo power company (TEPCO)
Friday December 14th 2012, 11:41 am
Filed under: Case study, on empathy and values

TEPCO is one of the largest companies in Japan, producing 30% of the country’s entire energy needs. Critical reflection on why the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster occurred has now swung its attention from the tsunami towards the internal mechanisms of the organisation. The criticisms they’re facing is similar to what the CFA had experienced.

One major failure was largely due to systemic inadequacy in the organisation. It was built on a heirarchical, pyramid structure and the nuclear energy department were perceived as the ‘elites’, immune to scrutiny and input from other departments. This led them to ignore the concerns of the public on nuclear power, which was accutely felt by the sales department, though the communication between these departments had been inadequate.

Public anxiety and outrage has now become so severe that many employees, especially the new, younger people, are leaving the company. Unable to gain back the trust of the citizens, these employees are feeling that their values for social contribution is no longer being relfected in the company. Many observed that this was having a detrimental effect on others.

Interestingly, their past lack of awareness to public concern and arrogant attitude have also caused them to be adverse to failure, responding only to obvious risks. They had become too risk-averse to think of the worst case scenario, leading to insular thinking and making them more ill prepared. Again, this reflected the shortfalls that were observed in Black Saturday.

As a way to counteract this prevalent thinking, rhetoric on having a ‘manual’ has been raised. It is a typically safe and ‘Japanese’ response – a one-size-fits-all template – and it seemed to me that it would only compound the problem rather than breaking the negative cycle.