Monthly Archives: February 2012

Workshop with Hiroshi Tamura for PINC12 Conference

My time was limited during the Participatory Innovation Conference held at Swinburne University, but I managed to register a spot to participate in a workshop with Hiroshi Tamura, the Director of at The University of Tokyo.

A description attached to the event was as follows:

Title: Idea Brokering, a workshop technique for innovation

The Earthquake and tsunami that took place on March 11th has taken away thousands of lives on that day in Tohoku Region of Japan. Media since then has covered the disaster and the consequent Fukushima nuclear accident, however, has done so little apart from confusing people with rich yet cryptic data of little relevance. Yet one thing was certain, which is that we could no longer expect changes to take place in this society unless we actively come up with innovations ourselves. Now, the question is: how can we bring that change?

As practitioners, we find ethnography a perfect source of information to breed ideas for people to act upon. In this workshop, we will introduce a workshop method called “idea-brokering”, which we utilize ethnographic, human-centered view to raise awareness on the social issues. An example case would concern the behavioral and motivational changes of people in Japan that are taking place today. We will then describe key points how the workshop can be designed and be prepared. Towards the end we will open up the discussion for how we could practice ethnography for social innovation.

We invite participants of the conference with experience and/or interest in:
* Research in sustainability, communications, energy and water, products and services
* Research in corporations or institutions with mild/little practice on human-centered design or innovations
* Design for behavioral and motivation change
* Creative workshop methods

Having a keen interest in sustainability (and Japan in general) i was really intruiged to learn more about how the Japanese have been using design methods to tackle unfamiliar issues that had been born in the tsunami aftermath. Specifically, how the use of human centered design methods have been employed and to what effect they have been successful in developing sustainable solutions.

Work, work, workshopping!

The workshop began at 9am. Mr.Tamura (i should really be calling him sensei Tamura out of upmost respect) asked participants to sit at tables with others from the same country/region. I was at a table that included three other participants, a large A3 piece of paper, a packet of fat markers, some post it notes and a little orange envelope.

Mr (*sensei*) Tamura gave us a brief intro on himself, the structure and outcome expected from the workshop. He then, with a warning, played a video of the tsunami wave engulfing a village center in Kesennuma.

I had been following the tsunami and the ongoing disaster it has caused for the residents in and around the prefecture of Fukushima since March 11. I watch NHK world (both in English and Japanese) to keep myself informed, along with independent news sources on the web. I thought I had seen almost all of the footage available from the disaster- until i saw Mr. Tamura’s video.

It was truly heart wrenching. It was sickening to the stomach. It was not the fast, explosive and dramatic scene we all knew and saw published in our mainstream media. The video was approximately 10 minutes long and was shot in POV from a man standing on his roof, narrating what had just happened (the earthquake that hit 15 min prior to him recording). Five minutes go by, and you see people move from a brisk pace to running hysterically. Cars begin to drive out of the streets and then the water starts to slowly pour in. Only once the water hit, the tsunami sirens went off- but by this point it was too late. Over the course of the next five minutes, you see the water enter rather slowly in the streets, rise higher, wash cars with people trapped inside and eventually fall beneath its wrath. You witness people dying and can hear the desperation and cries of the people stranded on the roof, helpless to those below. This footage was literally a slow and painful death. By the end, the water had reached the rooftops of second story buildings.

Mr. Tamura explaining Idea Brokering

I suspect that this movie was a strategic move to shock the participants, ignite empathy and raw human emotion. After all, to be a good human-centered designer, surely you must be good (empathetic) with and towards humans. Im not sure how others felt, but it distressed me enough to really want to think hard about the issues we were about to tackle and find some kind of plausible solution. If this was the intention behind Mr.Tamura’s video then he certainly succeeded.

Mr. Tamura proceeded to describe his experience during the earthquake and the chain of reaction that followed around Tokyo:

  • Lost mobile connection
  • Realised how 1 to 1 communication was important during and directly after the event
  • caused traffic jams
  • all bicycles had sold out due to the above for transportation
  • long queues to withdraw cash from ATMs as many machines stopped working
  • Supermarkets were cleared of produce- emptied due to panic

He then described ongoing problems that still affect residents in the surrounding prefectures of Fukushima. It was later revealed that the little orange envelope sitting on each of our tables contained images of these ongoing problems with related headings (see image above). They are outlined below:

1. Tsunami Tendenko

Tendenko roughly translates to ‘everyone for his or herself’. It is the teaching that when a tsunami strikes, you look out for no one: not your parents, children, friends but your self. This sounds counter intuitive to the Japanese culture of community and as such many adults sacrificed their lives for their children. Only five children died when the tsunami struck. To read more about the ideology and founder of Tendenko, click here.

2. Identification

Passports, wallets, etc were lost. Hard to identify misplaced or missing persons.

3. Secondary Hazard

Debris and biohazard from nuclear spillage is still present as a secondary hazard

4. Privacy

Due to moving into temporary shelters, there is a lack of privacy amongst displaced persons.

5.Lacking Local Information

No source of info for locals to track missing persons. Information provided from government itself was scarce

6. Lifeline, old+new

Daily necessities cut off for over 2 months

7. Delivering to Consumers

Processed food was hard to get to survivors because of issues with packaging (particularly plastic wrap, etc)

8. Credibility over Authority

9. Neon Nation

Lights in Tokyo were turned off for half a year, most of the city was in darkness except for street lights.

10. Adjusting technology lense

Since the disaster, taxi drivers are now relying more on GPS navigation

11. After forced changes

The disaster has changed family networks. Survivors are more likely to spend time with family and company

12. Migration trigger

Trains from the affected prefectures stopped running because of the tsunami, which were vital connections when travelling to Sendai or Hiroshima

13. Community, old+new

Local people who lost their traditional homes were given temporary housing. This housing lasts for only 3 years. It also created a new community within this temporary village.

Feel exhausted? Yup. It was definitely overwhelming to see so many important and serious issues that still have not been fixed.

So what are we to do with all of this information? Answer: An inspiration session!

All of these topics are main issues that are in need of resolution today. Our goal was to decide what topic/problem was of interest or importance and work together to provide a solution. After picking an issue, we were guided into the ‘inspiration session’ of the workshop, which involved a new orange envelope dropped on to each table containing images of various common japanese (cultural) inventions or daily products:

random inspiration material to use for developing our solution

And here is a close up just so you fully understand the sort of random pieces of inspiration we were given to use

really random eh??

Now this brings me to the most important part (and point) of this post….


The method used in this workshop reflects precisely one of the main methods Victor Papanek (check previous post) was famous for promoting in sustainable design. Originally developed by Arthur Koestler, bisociation is a method that aims to inspire innovative creations by bridging completely unrelated material together.

I did not touch on the method of bisociation in my post on the history of design thinking (as it would’ve been far too long), so I am going to dive into Papanek’s approach briefly here as it directly reflects what Mr. Tamura asked us to do in this workshop.

Papanek’s theory of bisociation for sustainable design

Papanek took the concept of bisociation and applied it in his practice of sustainable design. Papanek used this method to create innovative and sustainable products prototypes, utilising existing (unrelated) materials and objects as sources of inspiration. This allows designers to take what is already available to them to construct an outcome that is sustainable and renewable through these (often local and existing) resources.

Papanek made this method of creation practical by including an additional measure for the outcome developed. Solutions formed from the exercise are filed under feasible time frames or areas of development, such as: “2-5 years: a concept not quite ready for production” or labelled as “gimmicks”. This categorisation of feasibility from the idea brokering sessions Papanek employed allowed him to analyse his ideas and proceed with the best and most feasible outcome.

We need to be doing more of this, especially for sustainable design

This is a really powerful method of idea generation and one that is not used often enough in design let alone sustainable design. I was really excited when i realised that what we were doing in Mr Tamura’s workshop was Papanek’s method of bisociation for sustainable design. I believe this to be the future for innovation and if anyone has been keeping an eye on innovation in Japan, this method appears to be at the heart of many mind blowing Japanese inventions.

And If in case you were wondering what our group came up with, here is our outcome:

A self generated information kiosk to be placed in temporary villages

Our chosen topic to address was community old + new and lacking local information. The ‘inspiration’ triggers we used was an image of a bike storage rack, a self generated radio and portable waterproof tv. The concept was to mount the portable waterproof TV onto the bike storage contraption which was to be powered using energy generated by community members cycling together. Kind of like those sustainable smoothie kiosks where individuals ride a bicycle to power the blender.

All we need now is to analyse this idea using some of Papanek’s feasibility methods and principles. But it is just amazing that we could have conceived a (somewhat) sustainable solution to a current, real world problem using (culturally specific) inspiration material completely unrelated to the problem at hand. All in just two hours. Imagine what could be done using this method in two months, or two years??