2021Design perspectives which gaze at “what lies ahead”
Kaie Murakami
Considering “Design for coexistence”

Yutaka Nakamura x Kaie Murakami | What design can do for true “coexistence”


It has been a few months since the announcement of the Good Design Award 2021 winners, and the “Focused Issues” discussion, which reveals a tide of designs from a different viewpoint of selecting Award winners, is still going on.
Selecting “Design for coexistence” for the theme as one of the Focused Issues Directors, Kaie Murakami, the designer, creative director, and CEO of SIMONE Inc., was vacillating more than ever after the screening of the Special Award winners.
That is because he felt that “a new coexistence with living beings including viruses, the Earth and the natural environment,” which was the initial implication he turned into the words “Design for coexistence,” may not be adequate. Therefore, Murakami decided to see and talk with an intellectual in order to deepen his thoughts.
He invited Yutaka Nakamura, an anthropologist and professor of Tama Art University, as a guest. While working on themes such as violence, social torment, and mechanisms of discrimination and assimilation within “surrounding circumstances,” based in Japan and the United States, he also works with students, artists, designers, and other creators through “Atelier Anthropology” led by himself.
What does “coexistence” mean in “Design for coexistence”? We will search for clues for this question from their dialogue.

“Coexistence” with someone with whom you don’t get along is required

Yutaka Nakamura, Anthropologist/Professor, Tama Art University

MurakamiToday, I have many questions I want to ask you About “Design for coexistence” today. This may go far beyond that, but I would be grateful if you could give me some advice.

NakamuraI feel honored. “Coexistence” is an important theme. But it is such a catchy word, and that is why it is easily used in an unexpected way. Everyone mentions “coexistence” and “diversity” now, but whether these words are used based on reality is another story.

MurakamiProf. Nakamura, you have doing research based in Harlem, New York City (note: an area located in the north of Manhattan, well known for a large population of African American residents since the 20th century), where coexistence has a significant meaning. In Japan, on the other hand, coexistence itself hasn’t been a big issue.
Since Japan is a rare country with high proportion of a single race... Of course, I am not saying that there was no racism or hierarchical structure issues, but it never has been a major topic of debate. However, as you said, the call for the word “coexistence” is booming now in Japan, too. This is the exact reason why we should shift our focus to “Design for coexistence” in the Good Design Award in order to prevent superficial discussions.

NakamuraThat’s right. When I talk About the communities and diversity in Harlem in my lecture or other occasions, I always feel some sort of uncertainty. This may be because, as you mentioned, a “myth” of a racially homogeneous nation has already been formed, and many people believe in it.
In reality, there are many residents whose ancestors are from foreign countries including Korea, African countries, etc., and there are many issues, including discrimination. Even so, there is still a strong but unconscious belief that “everyone is the same.” But in fact, the differences in Japan may be less visible compared to those in New York City. In the United States, diversity is straightforward in some way. People have different skin colors, and they have totally different cultures and customs. Also, the position of Japanese and English as languages in a society is very different. This fact is also relevant.
So, even though they both are talking About the same “diversity,” they are not sharing the same enthusiasm, extent, or quality. In Japan, people tend to expect that everyone can talk as equals when they try to make a diverse community. Let’s call it “equalized diversity.” But this cannot be taken for granted. I’m always thinking how I can unwind such a belief.

MurakamiFollowing the tide of SDGs, what commonly happens in Japan when making a company advertisement considering diversity is something like, “Let’s use a black person.” In this country, such an idea would look very superficial. As you mentioned, there are many people with different ethnic backgrounds in Japan, even though the differences between them are not so visible; therefore, their backgrounds and the way they understand things are different.For example, our company (SIMONE) has many Chinese staff, but some are from mainland China and others are from Taiwan. If I suggest “Let’s appeal to Greater China,” the China each of them has in their mind is not the same. Thinking based on market principles may be the simplest way, but we can’t do it when communicating within the company. We must think About each other and find the best way for everyone without ignoring every single member.

Nakamura“Diversity” means that there always is someone with whom you wouldn’t get along there. You are expected to come to terms with people who make you think “What’s wrong with this person?” and get along with them somehow.

Consider “coexistence” because we are in an unstable situation

MurakamiNow, we are facing a time of transformation, and for that reason, “coexistence” is required in the sense of “coming to terms with and getting along with.” We are facing a turning point as great as the industrial revolution. The rich and the poor, or those who have built a previous era and those who are to make a new era... Dichotomy is created everywhere, and there are always people who become worn out between them.
I have the impression that a huge wave far beyond our individual abilities is coming, and problems that can’t be solved by market principles or politics are occurring. However, the true picture of such problems is still unclear. That is why the entire society is in an indecisive and unstable state.

NakamuraI find that an unstable situation is the most threatening because everyone wants to find a clear answer. Everyone wants someone who gives a straightforward answer. But looking back on history, this may be a dangerous situation, leading people to brain freeze, as represented by the Holocaust implemented by the Nazis, who aimed the brunt of the attack at Jewish people to solve their problems.

MurakamiThe United States capitol attack was also a sign of such a tendency.
Even hip-hop lyrics have changed. Before, they focused on crews, that is, their mates, drugs, money making, and descriptions of their own society and lives reflecting issues of racism. But now, they are becoming more and more introspective and singing About internal conflicts and mental instability. That means they have something else to fight against now.

NakamuraI see.

MurakamiOne of the causes of public anxiety becoming more apparent may be the weakening of systems such as churches and local communities, which were playing a certain role to solve the issue of coexistence in the United States.

Kaie Murakami, Designer/Creative Director/CEO, SIMONE Inc.

NakamuraThe Nation of Islam (an Islamic political organization formed by African Americans), which I have been studying, is a prime example of such communities. It offered a helping hand to people who were rejected even by churches.

MurakamiIn Japan, on the other hand, our good old fantasy of a racially homogeneous nation, where we were somehow coexisting without thinking, is tumbling down. As a result, not just governments, but even private corporations are forced to face this issue all at once. Under such a situation, we have to reconsider guidelines or a mindset that can be a trigger for coexistence.

Violence cannot be eliminated, but it can be reduced

MurakamiWhen considering “Design for coexistence,” we should take generation gaps into account. Youngsters, people in their 30s to 40s, and the over 50s... there is a big difference between these three generations in the sense of value. I think we should consider coexistence of these three generations.

NakamuraIt is natural that a generation that has iPhones from a very early stage of life and a generation that didn’t see things and face the world in different ways. Technology evolves exponentially at least for a certain period of time, so we can’t handle it if we remain within our conventional mindset. I myself ask my students many questions, but I find it quite difficult to figure out what they take pleasure in, or what they are enjoying. In addition, considering the population composition of Japan’s super-ageing society, the social structure will become more and more unsuitable to reflect their voices.

MurakamiAlso, it is obvious that experiences of seniors are become less useful in these days. They are useful as wisdom for everyday life, or for succession of culture and improvement of success probability of projects. However, at least as a source of ideas for these times where an update of civilization is required, I think the young generations are more beneficial.

NakamuraAre there any special characteristics in ideas coming from the young generations?

MurakamiIn the first place, they are skeptical About the existing social structure and political framework; in other words, feeling a disruption in it. The young generations understand that every company is working so hard on SDGs and ESG now, but it is just based on a framework made by society for convenience sake. Therefore, they have this strong feeling within themselves of wanting us to sort out the past merits and faults and prepare a proper setting where they can drive by themselves, so that they can work it out properly. I have this strong impression that they have strong desires for affirmation for a flat, inclusive society without boundaries between generations.

NakamuraPerhaps so.

MurakamiAlso, they have high abilities to explore things in greater detail once they set a certain theme.

NakamuraI think they are able to collect information naturally; in other words, they handle technologies very well without being confused by the authenticity of information on the internet.
On the other hand, there is an interesting indication. Sudhir Venkatesh, a sociologist in the United States who is known as the author of “Gang Leader for a Day,” has pointed out several problems related to platforms on his podcast based on his experience while working for Facebook and Twitter. The common issue is that the features of platforms or technologies themselves are designed to lead people to separation.
Of course, it is possible to focus on the good side of technologies, but we must think carefully About how to deal with the fatal problems of such technologies. In addition, such technologies are already broadly used, and simply implementing restrictions would only cover the issues without solving the problems. We only have to handle them properly.
For coexistence, we should remember that “violence cannot be eliminated, but it can be reduced.”

Implement coexistence into a society by design anthropology

MurakamiThinking in this way, I have to say the Good Design Award itself has much room to improve. I set “Design for coexistence” as my theme, but when we look at the designs selected as this year’s winners 20 years later, will they still be persuasive...? I am afraid that people may think, “These designs were still in transition.” Perhaps, we should make decisions that are more drastic and braver, considering the perspective of future generations.
As technology develops at an accelerating pace and environmental problems become more and more threatening, we need more people with a keen insight for technology or future direction as judges in order to select possibilities for the standards of the next 10 or 20 years. I want to consider good design that can pass a baton to future generations by receiving assistance from generations younger than us or people from academia like Prof. Nakamura.

NakamuraCertainly, the largest crisis for Europe and the United States in the past 20 years has been the environmental problem and climate change. However, countries that used to be called “emerging countries” demand economic development, and “advanced countries” receive benefits from them. Therefore, the top-priority issue is how to work on this crisis without returning to colonialism.

MurakamiIn the communications and alignments surrounding the adoption of SDGs, I thought they were talking exactly About coexistence, but at the same time, there was a moment when the market principle was still prioritized. I am wondering if we can find an answer from somewhere separated from such logic by using technologies.

NakamuraThat is interesting, and can be done. In that sense, as you pointed out earlier, it can be said that academia keeps a distance from profit-earning groups; therefore, we will be able to discuss things from a science and technology or academic perspective. From a similar viewpoint, I am now taking particular note of the field of study called “design anthropology” as an approach to social issues.
It is difficult to explain briefly, but it is an attempt to develop business projects or systems by designers and anthropologists in cooperation, taking criticism from society into account from the beginning. In Europe and the United States, anthropologists and sociologists are often invited by companies to join work sites. For example, an anthropologist or sociologist gets into a specific department and conducts fieldwork in order to investigate issues in the department and explore improvement methods. Lately in Japan, SONY’s announcement that it would hire a cultural anthropologist as a researcher was in the news.
Scientific researchers are already employed by many companies, but by having humanities researchers, they can think About the future over a longer time frame. I wish we would see more such cases.

MurakamiI totally agree.

NakamuraIn a sense, what anthropology has been working on is similar to basic research. Anthropology can only be built based on retrospective review. Anthropologists think and review based on examinations, write reports as research results, and set standards for other people to refer to. The flow of their thoughts is similar to that of designers. That means trial and error. Anthropologists in the early days departed from the Western world to the non-Western world, started with being surprised how different “humans” are, corrected their way of thinking over and over again, and discovered common terms in the differences. That is, a repetition of introspection and reconstruction. Therefore, they have a large accumulation of critical theory. But output of such in the form of reports and books have a low, delayed impact.
On the other hand, designers are expected to “intervene” to solve “problems” immediately. It may be similar to applicative study. For that reason, they can produce direct impacts. However, designers can release even failed works derived during the trial and error process, one after another. Or their works may be widely released before it is considered whether they are a failure or not. In the past, unsuccessful projects could be covered up afterward somehow, or sealed off, but now, many of such troubles are easier to be revealed. Even an impact on the environment cannot be left unsolved. So, it may be a good idea to commit to manufacturing by reviewing with anthropologists and incorporating a critical perspective. That is a true social implementation.

MurakamiThat’s interesting. That’s how it should be.

Creating a different economic zone

NakamuraOn the other hand, I think academia also has problems. The research and education system is not keeping up with these drastically changing times. Particularly in Japan, the hierarchical structure still remains strong, keeping old-fashioned systems. To describe it in strong terms, people are trained just to fit in an existing mold by deducting marks up to high school. Then, those who survive the race and get into university will be allowed to go unchecked all of a sudden. The exchange system for faculty members (researchers) is not functioning properly, and it is difficult to utilize external funds in the existing system. I fear that the entire research and education system will collapse one day if we leave this situation untouched.

MurakamiI see.

NakamuraBut I think university is originally the last resort in a society where mechanisms of diversity and coexistence are working and people can deepen discussions neutrally without any interests. Universities in the United States clearly indicate on their admission policy or employment policy of faculty members that they emphasize diversity from the perspective of the presence of disabilities, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, language, and social class. I am not saying that there is no discrimination in universities in United States, but there is a consensus formed by the entire community of the university to some degree, so that they can say, “Your definition of discrimination is incorrect,” when they receive an opinion claiming, “That is reverse discrimination.”
That happens commonly in Japan. People who are at a certain level of position in the male-centered society end up saying, “That is reverse discrimination.” They say this without thinking that they are the ones who control rights and interests. Probably, they haven’t had an opportunity to learn that discrimination is not an individual matter but a structural and systemic issue. But I think we should form a proper consensus in Japan, too. In that sense, the Good Design Award also needs to adopt more diverse and inclusive viewpoints, according to the composition of society, such as age, gender, and attribution.

MurakamiSeen in that light, implementation into corporations has a possibility. What is interesting About company organizations is that they can be changed in any way according to the future vision created by managing directors and employees. For example, our company SIMONE Inc. is a unique organization where people with different backgrounds, nationalities, thoughts, and techniques gather and its organizational operation is left in the hands of employees, without belonging to any categories of the design industry in Japan. We have offers only from similar types of companies or clients who can understand a certain community vision. Therefore, we can work with them as partners who share the same philosophy rather than as a client and a subcontractor, with less of a chance of misunderstanding. As a result, most offers that we receive are from overseas clients, and 80% of job applications come from overseas applicants.
In Japan, presenting work examples on an official website is very common, but we don’t want to be bound by our performance in the past. We are trying to talk only About our future and visions we are heading to, instead of controlling the company by rule.

NakamuraI get it now. Before I saw you online for the first time, I looked through your official website, trying to learn more About you. But the only thing I found out there was your philosophy, and I ended up coming to this interview without knowing what sort of company SIMONE is, or what it does (laughs).

MurakamiWell, that is not really good, actually. I will reconsider (laugh). We are often trapped in a joint illusion without knowing, and tend to think of eliminating people with whom we don’t agree, or we don’t get along. However, we should consider anew the fact that “a society is an aggregation of different individuals standing on the precondition that everyone is different” and our positions in society from a higher perspective. By doing so, we may be able to acquire a neutral viewpoint for coexistence, which is required in today’s world. That is what I thought while talking with you today.
The same can be applied to the design perspective. In order to produce design that has a greater social impact, it is important to progress by taking in ideas derived from past cultural works of human beings, as well as by keenly listening to alternative opinions and criticism. I assume something like changing the perspective or acquisition of a new lens will lead to the development of future horizons of design.
Lastly, can you please tell me if there is anything people who engage in design work like us can do to implement the theme of coexistence into a society, or anything that can serve as a clue when we work on this theme?

NakamuraThere are three things that come to mind in relation to the theme of coexistence: firstly, to reconsider the human-centered way on the planet with limited resources; secondly, to listen hard to indiscernible voices that tend to be left outside of “imagination” because they don’t form clear words due to stuttering or screaming; and thirdly, to respond by networking beyond individual profession no matter whether you work individually or on a team.
There are many designers who make a positive commitment to solving social issues by interacting with a community in depth, or by working enthusiastically on environmental infrastructure or in the medical and welfare field. I think their efforts are wonderful. I think design in domains that seem to be far from design, for example laws and politics, will be in greater and greater demand in the future. Also, design will be required to address issues related to new technologies such as AI and metaverse. When the distance between technology and the human body is shortened, the technology stops being a tool that a human can use independently or proactively, and become closer to the body-embedded condition. From technology’s side, it can be said that the body is embedded into the technology. If this happens, we will need a new word to describe “human with technology.”
Then, everyone will mention that we need to consider it with opinions from creators and users. In such a case, instead of thinking of “solutions” just with managing directors, engineers, programmers, or designers, it may be better to have anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers, or historians who can consider, imagine, or create with them. If the process to work on the theme of coexistence itself is polyphonic, or something that includes “discordance,” we can avoid falling into assimilationism-like coexistence to some extent.
In this way, we can aspire to or consider the “becoming” (*1) of human in the “planetary society” (*2) discussed by Alberto Melucci, in more depth or more flexibly in a longer time frame. Then, design will become closer to caring.

(*1) Note by Nakamura: “Becoming” has been discussed by many philosophers in the past. In the 20th century, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, and others dealt with this topic directly. This concept drew attention once again in recent years and has been used in many contexts. For example, the term “human becoming” or “human co-becoming” is used to describe a human as an object transforming into something within the movements, instead of “human being” based on the precondition of a fixed self. Not just living organisms like humans, but also societies, systems, things, and designs can be reacknowledged as “becoming.” Kevin Kelly, the former chief editor of “WIRED” magazine at its foundation, discussed “Becoming” in the first chapter of his book “The Inevitable” (Viking Press, 2016).
(*2) Note by Nakamura: Alberto Melucci’s “The Playing Self: Person and Meaning in the Planetary Society” (Cambridge University Press, 1996) is a useful book to consider coexistence. The “planetary society” proposed by Melucci is very suggestive when we try to understand the body that lives in a specific time and space with limited resources and opportunities with movements. Melucci focused on subtle movements within individual bodies by practicing clinical psychology and tried to grasp macro movements within a society through sociology, especially by using theories of social movement. What outcome was he foreseeing, and what sort of society did he expect to come?

Editor: Masayuki Koike Writer: Sachiyo Oya Photographer: Shunsuke Imai

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