Understanding three phases of social infrastructure
The supportive role of social infrastructure is clear from infra- (meaning "below" or "beneath"), and this narrow, traditional sense of the expression may call to mind structures such as bridges or train systems. More advanced infrastructure raises standards of living, and at another key stage, these arrangements keep society and everyday life running smoothly, but each phase is intended to benefit society as a whole.
Social infrastructure that is both practical and beautiful
In traditional social infrastructure, we find exemplary architectural, spatial, and signage design at the Group 7 facility of the Nishi-Nagoya Thermal Power Station. Other power plants or facilities that were engineered or designed mainly by focusing on their functions as machines have faced some problems. To workers, they are inconvenient, and errors are more likely to occur. More pleasant, convenient facilities can be created by taking an approach common at public transit stations, for example, where designers pay close attention not only to the use of space but to color schemes and signage, which may also inspire a greater sense of pride and belonging among workers.
In soft social infrastructure, one award-winning Kissa Laundry seems to epitomize this kind of infrastructure. It is as if a company has opened its office to the public, creating infrastructure resembling a private community center. The role it fulfills is not too different from that of government offices of a bygone era, so it is only fitting that the patrons themselves are largely responsible for organizing the 500 or so events held here each year.
Similarly, Otera oyatsu club taps the practical infrastructure provided by a network of established temples across Japan to take on a social issue that should be addressed by public policy on family poverty. Although it is the philosophy behind the program that tends to capture people's interest, jury members no doubt appreciated the idea of linking intermediaries in this unique network, as well as the skillful supply chain operations and community management applied to collect and distribute offerings. The program has attracted attention elsewhere in Asia, which raises the prospect of forming global infrastructure.
Also commendable is how an app called Nigetore serves as a form of infrastructure. The service provided by the app shows evacuation routes for large earthquakes and tsunami near the Nankai Trough. Based on estimates of tsunami flooding, the app also shows the user's progress as they practice evacuating. During the Tohoku disaster, some older students who had participated in routine evacuation drills could lead younger students to safety, and community members who saw this were also able to escape. People were once guided by warnings from older generations as inscribed on stone monuments, but these monuments tend to fade from the landscape and lose their significance over time. This modern design achievement gave me the impression that apps can replace such monuments for use in drills or actual evacuation.
NarrativeBook in Akita is another award winner that holds potential as a new form of infrastructure. Unlike most medical records that are merely efficient chronicles of patient history, these records tell a fuller story through additional, personal accounts given by the patients themselves or their caregivers, which may facilitate needed treatment and improve the quality of care.
Thus, it seems significant that we find both practical and emotionally engaging design elements in each of these impressive winners this year.
Meeting needs for a human approach
Looking ahead, I think people will gain an appreciation for things with a sense of humanity—qualities that emphasize the human. When we consider technological startup projects involving online services, apps, or hardware, it seems that those developed with the human dimension firmly in mind find widespread support sooner and ultimately become more popular.
The Gogoro Energy and Transportation Platform demonstrates this well. Working backwards from the goal of solving the problem of global air pollution, the developers thoroughly considered the time needed to give users a pleasant or exciting experience—just a 0.3-second initial encounter with their iconic electric scooter, a 3-second glance in person at a showroom, 3 minutes trying out the app, and 3 days of riding before switching to a charged battery. How each of these scenes has been carefully framed to advance customer communication is impressive. The platform has become established in society at a scale quite in line with users—the human dimension so carefully considered in development. In this respect, we might call the Gogoro platform a perfect example of infrastructure for a new era.
Especially when we want to shift the perspective from Is this a viable business or enterprise? to How can we gather the resources to solve this problem?, good design can be effective.
Now that a broader understanding is called for—to the extent that design also encompasses delivering goods or services precisely the right way, or maximizing their sense of purpose—it is more important to realize that besides individual designers, participants of all kinds help build social infrastructure that brings happiness to people.