More and more people are being affected by social issues as the complexity of our society goes beyond human capacity
Designs, many people say, are capable of solving problems. Solving problems, however, is more difficult than we may think.
I have many opportunities to work with people with disabilities and so-called minorities, and I feel that our society is not adaptive to such people.
For example, many people think that the inconvenience faced by wheelchair users can be solved with slopes and elevators, but it is often the case that wheelchair users go through a lot of trouble to find such slopes and elevators, because usually there is no sign for them. I can cite other similar examples that illustrate such lack of imaginative power on the part of our society, because we tend to have a misconception that problems can be resolved through locally designed solutions.
We need to see things in more linear and aerial perspective, not in a point-perspective to resolve various social issues. If we had the capacity to imagine the daily lives of wheelchair users and what routes they take to reach their destinations, we would notice the need for signs. One product or service can solve only a small domain of the problem. Resolving problems is a very complicated task and calls for more than one solution.
In order for our society to be more adaptive to those who are affected by social issues, we need to gradually expand the scope of our individual imaginative powers, and we also need to foster more people who can design a better society for and together with those who have been neglected under conventional social norms and rules.
We need to cultivate people who are rich in humanity, who do not cling to conventional ways of thinking with flexibility, and who can take action not only for the immediate future but also for the future that lies a bit ahead. It will take time to develop people with such capacity; social improvement is something we cannot accomplish through just one product or service, however innovative it may be. It is a goal so high that it will probably not be achieved during our lifetime.
The theme I selected, “Designs that Take Time,” reflects such concerns I have About our society.
A “design that takes time,” however, does not mean a design made only for people with disabilities or other minority people.
People with disabilities are not well-protected by current social and economic systems, because those systems are designed for the people of majority groups. They have hence been directly affected by and struggled alone with various issues About their living. Among the people of majority groups, however, there are those who feel affected by social issues. Since I began working with people with disabilities, I have more often encountered people who say to me that they or their family are finding it difficult to belong to the world of majorities, or that they or their family feel excluded from society. Many of them are, though, considered by many others as healthy people who have no disabling condition. Having a disabling condition or not is merely one aspect of things. The first step to take in the creation of a “design that takes time” is to closely observe the relationship between individuals and society in multiple aspects.
More and more people who belong to the majority are acknowledging that they have pushed themselves too hard or that they have felt left behind by society. It would be safe to assume that the main culprit behind that is the rapid progress of technology. The ongoing process of digitalization has made our society and everyday living – including the environment, economy, and individual well-being – more and more complex, even to the extent that the complexity goes beyond human capacity.
Nevertheless, many of us fail to notice the resultant complexity as unnatural and continue pursuing technological innovation. With its negative effects surfacing as global environmental issues, more and more of us are now realizing that the whole society including themselves is reaching the limits of its conventional approach.
Was it really necessary what we had pursued unconsciously? Did the pursuit make our lives better? I think it is time to ask ourselves those questions.
Design the first “point of contact” with social issues that will take a long time to resolve
Projects that I found insightful as “designs that take time” were neither those launched to tackle big issues such as environmental problems, energy issues, and urban development, nor those designed for meeting the specific needs of certain affected individuals.
I thought to pay attention to projects that placed a particular focus on people, in other words, initiatives for developing people who can think About things on their own and who can imagine the well-being of other people, things, and the environment.
I found “House in Shima” very impressive. It is sort of a dormitory for hospital interns. Owned by a couple working at a local hospital, the house is designed to encourage occupants to intermingle with people in the local community.
- Detached House [House in Shima]“House in Shima” is an important place will help enhance local medical care services. This is a guest house for the hospital’s interns, owned by a couple working at a local hospital. The house serves not only as an accommodation facility for up to 20 interns, but also as a venue for them to intermingle with people in the community, thereby allowing interns who would otherwise have to stay at a hotel to blend in. It fosters relationships between future doctors and people in the local community.
The hospital’s interns used to stay at a hotel. They had no choice but spend the days of internship just at the hotel or the hospital and were not provided with a point of contact with the local culture or community.
The region, therefore, remained an unfamiliar place for many interns, and not many of them chose to stay and work in the region despite job opportunities offered to them. They can choose other places to work. The more determining factor for interns, I suppose, is whether they feel like building their personal life in the region.
Students as interns will grow and have colleagues and friends in the area. Then interns-turned-medical professionals will return to the region and thus contribute to the enhancement of local medical care services. Therefore, “House in Shima” is the first point of contact for the hospital’s interns. The house cannot accommodate a large number of people, and it will take some time until occupants return as medical professionals, but if and when that happens, it will help alleviate the healthcare worker shortage in the region.
In the aspect of the first point of contact, I also found impressive Architecture for the First Time, an architectural education book for children.
We are born and live in a building and are surrounded by buildings. Despite this, few of us are interested in or curious About the building we live in, and not many schools teach architecture.
Architecture is a comprehensive art and a synthesis of disciplines; it involves a science perspective like mathematics and engineering as well as a humanities perspective like history, culture, art, and society. Architecture, in other words, is a field that teaches us scientific, liberal arts, and their mixed viewpoints and mutual associations. Despite the great merit, few people, except for students majoring in architecture and professional architects, know About architecture, which I have always considered rather strange.
- Architectural education for children [Publication of Architecture for the First Time and Open House Event]With a focus on architectural education for children, the Executive Committee of Living Architecture Museum Osaka has conducted children-only tours and workshops at the annual Open House Osaka event since 2014. The book “Architecture for the First Time” is the first book for children on architecture published by the committee. The book, filled with photographs and illustrations, tells of the art of architecture by asking readers questions and encouraging them to find their own answers.
Architecture for the First Time teaches its readers how to appreciate architecture around them and provides them with an opportunity to think About the influence of such buildings on culture and society.
The book and its related event alone are not influential enough to make big changes happen. I believe, however, that the project to introduce architecture to children will help them learn a new way of seeing things and cities and of telling culture, and nurture them into grown-ups who will have different ways of choosing a career. I believe that this project will contribute to enriching the regional culture, although it will take some time for all those expected effects materialize.
Nurture the capacity to imagine the well-being of strangers, and bring back points of contact within broken communities
“KITANAGASE Community Fridge” project, a platform designed to link persons in need with donators, was also impressive in that it cultivates people who can imagine the well-being of others.
“KITANAGASE Community Fridge” was not the only project whose purpose was to serve as a platform for the donation of groceries and household essentials, but this project launched in the town of Kitanagase stood out because of its clear-cut focus on persons in need in the town.
- Community Fridge [KITANAGASE Community Fridge]KITANAGASE Community Fridge was launched to help those whose daily lives have been severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic by enabling them to bring home necessary groceries and household essentials donated by individual persons, shops or stores, and corporate bodies (1) without attracting notice, (2) anytime 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and (3) at the discretion of recipients as to the choice of items. As a new type of ICT-based public service, it is jointly run by a commercial facility and a non-profit organization aimed at supporting persons in need and reducing food loss and waste.
Placing a focus on people in the community gives you an opportunity to think About persons in need who are sharing the same landscape and economy with you. Another outstanding point About this project is that it is building a community in which people help each other through donations when others are facing difficulties, instead of directly supporting their acquaintances who are in need.
When I am with people with disabilities, I often find that they and I are helping each other. For instance, many visually impaired persons have advanced skills in organizing words and making analogies, and often help me build logical conversations; they are far more perceptive About situations and context and quicker to speculate and understand what others are saying or thinking than the non-visually impaired.
I am often reminded by a friend of mine who is visually impaired that I have left my mobile phone charger in a power supply at our office. He remembers better than I do that I have plugged it there, and he speculates from noise and other hints that I have, once again, forgotten to remove it from the plug before leaving the office. I help him when we are outside the office, but that is not because he needs my help; rather, it is more simply because our society is not equipped to handle his needs. The recipient of support in the relationship between people with and without disabilities depends on the situation.
It appears that the spirit of mutual support in communities is being lost, as communities are getting broken up amid the emphasis on individual self-responsibility. I would say that communities commonly have these kinds of situations. I believe that it is important for community capacity to have an opportunity, which makes local people imagine the well-being of neighbors, even though in a limited number of people through a safety net like KITANAGASE Community Fridge.
Spaces for “idling” to allow for more diverse lifestyles
When I discuss “designs that take time,” I cannot help but bring up “AVATAR ROBOT CAFE DAWN ver.β,” the winner of the 2021 Good Design Grand Award. Through the use of remote-controlled avatar robots, OriHime, the DAWN cafe makes it possible for people with disabilities to work there.
Many people highly commend this project for creating a point of contact between people with disabilities and those without, and reversing their typical roles, i.e., people with disabilities become service providers and people without become service recipients. For me, though, the point of commendation is that the project will contribute to the expansion of job options for people with disabilities, or more accurately, that the project is built on the question, how can a job at a cafe produce serendipity for people with disabilities in their lives?
People with disabilities who are known to many of us are the so-called “chosen” ones, or those who have an outstanding personality or talent and are very energetic and not afraid of being under media spotlight – someone like writer and TV personality Hirotada Ototake. The role he plays is very significant, and people like him serve as a role model for many people with disabilities. In reality, though, not all of them can or want to become like Ototake, just like not all of those who do not have a disabling condition can or want to become an Olympic athlete or a Nobel Prize laureate.
It is not the only right answer out there for people with disabilities to become the next Ototake. There is no future for a society that only appreciates the chosen ones. A big disadvantage for people with disabilities in the comparison with people who do not, I think, is that the former have far fewer opportunities than the latter for mistakes, wasting time, and hence serendipity.
Our society has called on people with disabilities to prevent mistakes by planning in advance and acting as planned all the time, shelving the fact that it has failed to be kind even to people with disabilities who are meticulous preparers. Moreover, our society has valued efforts to overcome a disability or disease more highly than the pursuit of diverse and fulfilling lifestyles like people with disabilities. The cafe sheds light on the question of what designs can provide social participation opportunities, including the serendipity involved therein, for majority ordinary people including those with disabilities. This is a very important topic.
- Avatar robot cafe [AVATAR ROBOT CAFE DAWN ver.β and avatar robot OriHime]Avatar robots developed by ORY Laboratory, OriHime, and OriHime-D are easy to operate regardless of age, gender, and disabilities. The company also designed “AVATAR ROBOT CAFE DAWN ver.β”, a cafe using the avatar robots as servers under the control of employees with disabilities or a place to come, and launched “AVATAR GUILD,” a remote recruiting and staffing service designed to have and keep people with disabilities actively involved in society.
Employees of the DAWN cafe include people with disabilities. They can continue to work at the cafe if they want to work. They are also allowed to use the cafe as a venue to look for other job opportunities. The cafe is not a conventional facility to assist with the rehabilitation, training, and employment of people with disabilities in those three steps; rather, it aims to provide its employees with any options they can take, including to stay and work at the cafe. In this way, the cafe gives its employees an option to work as part-timers or interns. The DAWN cafe serves as a space for idling, where the parties have a role and can simply be there.
The social issues I mentioned at the beginning are partially, if not completely, attributable to society’s emphasis on purposes and excessive pursuit of economic growth thereof, in my opinion. Too many places are designed for exclusive purposes and too segmentalized.
It is increasingly difficult in any town to find a place where you can just loiter. It is even more difficult for people with disabilities to find such places, as they tend to be mistaken for being there because of an incapacity to take themselves to their destinations.
The DAWN cafe distinguishes itself by a design that allows employees with disabilities to meet people whom they would not otherwise meet, associate with new acquaintances, and prepare themselves for new roles.
It is important, by the way, not to excessively sharpen the objective to create a “design that takes time (to take effect).” One may envision a specific objective at first, but if it is not open to or inclusive of other possibilities, the design will end up being ineffective.
Constant and small efforts for robustness
What I found impressive About the 2021 Good Design Awards was that projects conducted by individuals or small organizations were vibrant and had important roles. Take, for example, “Kuwamizu private house with public bath,” an individual’s residence with a secondary purpose, as with the “House in Shima” project. This house is a communal bathhouse-cum-disaster relief center. Notably, none of the projects I have mentioned so far is conducted by a large organization.
- Disaster Relief Housing for Community Preparedness [Kuwamizu private house with public bath]The plan is simple: a public bath on the first floor and a residence on the second floor. The public bath is also the bath of the home and the foyer doubles as the bandai (watch stand) of the bathhouse. The owner opened the bathhouse business after witnessing the hardships of residents in his community following the 2016 Kumamoto earthquake. The bathhouse is now part of the daily lives of his and neighbors’ families. For people in the community, using the bathhouse is almost synonymous with doing an evacuation drill. The bathhouse, which can double as a small-scale disaster relief center, is a new prototype of residential buildings in this time of many natural disasters.
I consider it positive that we are seeing more and more small-scale projects. Designs that take time are, by their nature, likely to attract empathy, but oftentimes not a lot of money, at least in the short term. The design domain is, so to speak, difficult to pursue economic efficiency. That is why “designs that take time” have a great affinity with projects launched by individuals who are committed to doing whatever they can to improve society.
Small-scale projects can realize significant improvements to society. The scale of a project has nothing to do with the impact that it can produce on society.
Ms. Yui Tezuka, an architect and juror who selected “House in Shima,” said in the Screening, “A dramatic change will occur to our society when all of us begin to think that building a house of our own means building our daily life as well as affecting the society around it.”
I could not agree more. The idea that “social systems should be managed by public-sector organizations” has already become outdated. Whether it is through the use of a small house for your family or through your privately run small business, you can change society as long as you have a strong will and if there are more people like you out there, and I took note of such belief in many of the entries for the 2021 Good Design Awards.
Being mall means being flexible and adaptive, and hence being sustainable. One need not make a project big from the beginning. Rather, a project should be broadened only when one is sure that it will turn out viable. There is something in common, I think, between thinking About the sustainability of one’s project and imagining the well-being of other people.
The company “kitamoc,” a campsite operator that has extended its domain to include forestry, woodworking, and beekeeping, is a good example of starting small. The company used the term of “agile development” many times in its presentation, indicating that it is important to have repeated a small-scale development process, and that its project is to grow its businesses.
This example speaks volumes About the unnecessity of setting a goal as big as nationwide expansion in the earliest stage. It has incrementally enlarged its facilities and gradually enhanced its skills, all the while in the pursuit of improving its camping and leisure sites. There is no doubt that the repeated trial and error has made the company’s business robust enough to overcome changes in the environment and personnel.
- Circular business for the future of the region [Circular business by making regional resources valuable, and creating fields such as a campsites]In Kitakaruizawa, an area at the foot of Mt. Asama, the company runs a Zibatsu-style forestry business at a plantation mainly consisting of broadleaved trees. It is also engaged in beekeeping in idle woodlands and abandoned crop fields to stimulate the circulation of vegetation. Trees felled by the company are used as fuel or building materials, while most of honey is consumed raw or processed at the company’s campsite, which attracts 100,000 visitors a year. By adding value to local resources and creating a place for people to gather, the company has implemented recycle-oriented and sustainable businesses that seamlessly link production and consumption within the region.
How to design new social evaluation standards
The first point of contact with social issues, stimulation of imaginative powers to people unknown to you, spaces for people with disabilities to idle, small-scale implementation of projects – all of these factors are important to create “designs that take time.”
I have one more thing that I would like to emphasize.
It is About the aforementioned increase in people who are affected by social issues.
As I said earlier, it is not only people with disabilities or minorities who are affected by social issues; all people living in today’s society are more or less affected by them. The number of healthy people who nonetheless feel affected by social issues is increasing due to flawed structures in society and also probably due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In any case, I think we must avoid having more “affected” people lead to the relative de-emphasis of the rights of those who have disabilities – rights that remain unproven to exist in current society. People who have no disabling conditions should take a hard look at themselves for having supported a society that has put people with disabilities in a different category from theirs without discussing the rationale for the division and for thereby having enjoyed the benefits of not being persons with disabilities. People who have without disabilities should remind themselves of their responsibility for the consequences that has caused reduced current society’s capacity.
Our society has managed to evolve itself by dividing people into segments and creating products and services as diverse as those segments. I do not think that such a labeling approach will work anymore. I think the time has come to deal with the obscure and complicated individuality of each person, instead of judging people based on attributes.
I think we must now remove the divisions between people in the current society and reconnect the humanity that is divided in each one of us and in our society.
Although a society without divisions will be less efficient than today’s, a society without today’s divisions calls for a new social direction and evaluation standards other than growth. How can our communities nurture the attitude and intelligence for understanding the innate complex differences that exist among individuals? Designs have the time-tested power to have people share problems and think About and connect with others and I am wondering About using their linkage power.