The stakeholders left behind
In teaching my approach of evolutionary thinking, which contrasts design with biological evolution, I often make comparisons and observations About ecosystems and society. A point emphasized in this context is the state of symbiosis, or coexistence. The word symbiosis (and its Japanese equivalent, kyosei) is now used in many situations, but it was originally a specialized term in biology. Clownfish and sea anemones enjoy a symbiotic relationship, for instance, as different species living together with shared interests. Symbiotic relationships can be cooperative (mutualistic), competitive, or otherwise. To understand how to observe such biological relationships, I think it is directly applicable to observe stakeholders in a corporate relationship. Corporate marketing usually only shows the role of consumers, but there are stakeholders in a broader symbiotic relationship.
In a traditional consumer society, too few stakeholders are accounted for. For example, subcontractors whose costs are considered excessive and quality inferior cannot build ties with manufacturers and are left behind. Other problems may occur if the things consumers purchase are soon discarded, which has an environmental impact over time that may lead to others being disadvantaged by this relationship. Neither should we overlook the existence of those without access to beneficial technology, or those who fall outside of market standards. Fewer people survive when the competitive relationships of a consumer society intensify.
Instead of this, finding value in the stakeholders left behind or somehow saving them can be described as a key theme in business and contemporary society at large. In other words, only by rebuilding traditional relationships and considering arrangements where a variety of stakeholders support each other can we take on design for a society in mutualistic symbiosis.
Many approaches to designing a society in symbiosis
Otera oyatsu club represents design that finds neglected stakeholders, seeks to reframe relationships, and turns something familiar into something valuable in new ways. It is the design of an arrangement, without a definite physical form, that redistributes temple offerings to families in need, which in Japan exceeds 100,000 households. This relationship may seem one-sided, but it is not, because families in need offer thanks and prayers in return, which in a sense helps the temples spread their faith. This moving narrative struck a chord with many jury members: Temples have served as hubs of the community for 1,500 years, and here, they are tapping the value of their unique relationships to build an ecosystem with poor families left behind by society.
Another project representing society in symbiosis is the Gogoro. Electric vehicle batteries are shared as social infrastructure, and sustainability is supported. The project envisions a symbiotic relationship with quite a broad range of stakeholders. To provide batteries, stations under direct management coexist with stations outsourced to convenience stores. In this way, companies that might otherwise be competitors cooperate on the same energy platform. Moreover, this system is offered under a clear vision of eliminating pollution and creating sustainability in the world.
Similarly, the hanare hotel concept has discovered the value of turning vacant apartments into guest rooms. It is a wonderful case of creating symbiosis in a veritable citywide hotel. We can admire how hanare maintains ties with other stakeholders, such as local public baths and restaurants, which shows quite well how to establish a symbiotic relationship.
Also significant is how renovation by a waterfront park called tocotocodandan linked embankment work (for flood control and disaster preparedness) to the creation of a promenade for people to enjoy the river. It gave me a sense of hope to see how an area that had been left behind has been transformed into a place that the community will be glad to discover and have in their life. In these ways, design for a society in symbiosis seemed like a key theme in this year's Good Design Award program.
The power of design to meet future needs
Recent years have seen growing interest in the U.N.'s global sustainable development goals, or SDGs. Besides establishing 17 goals (such as "No poverty" and "Zero hunger") and 169 relevant targets, the U.N. has promoted symbiosis in society by stating that no one should be left behind. Many people are beginning to notice the risks posed by societies that are merely competitive and offer no vision for potentially symbiotic ecosystems.
It was immediately after the two world wars of the 20th century that design flourished, during the Mid-Century Modern movement. Good design no doubt fulfilled a vital role in rebuilding societies ravaged by war. But over time, more specialized and narrow matters of design diverged from social concerns, as design split into specializations. Design is good at narrowing things down, and indeed, we can say that those working in design readily spent much time doing this. But in Japan, especially in response to the Tohoku disaster, besides developing new things, we should leverage strengths to compensate for the weaknesses of existing things. We are recognizing once again that good design makes it possible to invent new symbiotic relationships in society. Now that design is no longer the exclusive domain of professional designers, will we share an attitude of finding ways to encourage the symbiotic relationships increasingly needed to take shape in the world?