New Ways of Seeing
New Ways of Seeing

New Ways of Seeing

Natalia Polouliakh (left) and Annette Werth (right) approach Japan’s regional challenges from different perspective.

TEXT: Adam Fulford

In regional Japan the average age is rising and the population is shrinking. As these trends accelerate, communities have less access to people who can examine the situation with fresh eyes. As I’m lucky enough to know some very talented young scientists who are exploring diverse realms of knowledge, I thought I’d ask a few of them what constructive proposals they might make for a struggling community in the Japanese countryside.

First of all, I asked the scientists to imagine that a representative of the community has been showing them around.

On their tour they’ve noticed that while, as usual, there are plenty of ugly billboards and unsightly power lines, the area does have beautiful scenery. They’ve learned that most local people of working age are employed in agriculture, tourism, local government or elderly support. There are almost no shops in the community, and even elderly people will regularly drive up to an hour to go shopping in the nearest fairly big town. The oldest people in the community are becoming increasingly isolated, both emotionally and physically, as the distance between inhabited houses grows and advanced age makes it more difficult to get around.

Masatoshi Funabashi.
Masatoshi Funabashi.

Now, at the end of the tour, the local representative asks the scientists this question: “How can you use your experience and expertise to change the future of this community, so that more people will want to visit and live here?”

So what do the scientists say?

“To offer a proper response,” says Masatoshi Funabashi, “I’d really need to spend months or even years living in the community.” But he is also able to offer a valuable insight from his study of agriculture: the cultivation of exotic edible species holds a key to survival for people everywhere. “Maybe this community has a specific climate, a specific natural feature, a specific type of soil; and maybe that characteristic is an extremely good fit for a certain species that has not previously been introduced to Japan. That could create a market niche.”

The market is very much on Natalia Polouliakh’s mind, too. An expert on ageing mechanisms, she believes that Japan’s regional diversity will help her to identify valuable ingredients for use in the anti-ageing cosmetics that her new company will be selling. “In the Ogasawara Islands, Hachijojima, Okinawa and other parts of Japan we can find lots of unique products, and the quality of Japanese ingredients is very good. I want to establish connections with these areas. First of all, I’d want to know what is being overlooked: what is not present in people’s minds, but nevertheless present in the natural environment.”

Masatoshi Funabashi’s preferred footwear.
Masatoshi Funabashi’s preferred footwear.

Polouliakh’s comment draws attention to the problem of being so accustomed to something that aspects of it become almost invisible. When you’re searching for new value, an outsider’s perspective can be essential, and increasing the number of visitors to an isolated community will boost the number of potential new viewpoints.

Using his own outsider’s eyes, Funabashi sees an “intact environment” as potentially a great tourism resource. “One thing would be to make a trail to enable people to find edible plants in the mountains. You could provide education on the way, and this could of course be supported by information technology.”

The mountains may offer calories as well as beauty, but not everything in the Japanese countryside is quite so appealing. As Annette Werth says, “If there was a way to avoid having the landscape polluted by power lines, maybe more people from the city would visit.”

Werth is working on small-scale alternatives to the kind of energy that is generated in large power plants and distributed over great distances. She notes that, “Generally, people are attached to what is locally produced. If you produce your own tomato, it tastes different from a tomato you buy in a supermarket. Maybe for energy it’s the same thing. If you produce your own energy, maybe you’ll try not to waste it. That could be a valuable idea for a local area. When people from cities visit, you could say the food is produced here, and the energy is produced here. Visitors would be more aware of the nature around them, and the energy around them: from the sun, from electricity, and their internal energy.”

“We could make a sustainable beauty salon!” exclaims Natalia Polouliakh, in a way that makes you think she might actually be serious about this proposal. “I’ll provide the cosmetics, and you make the salon, up in the mountains, with no power lines!”

New ways of thinking

I was speaking with Natalia Polouliakh, Annette Werth and Masatoshi Funabashi at the offices of Sony Computer Science Laboratories, Inc., which is where they all work together with a number of other researchers including Kazuhiro Sakurada, who was featured in my last article.

Sony CSL brings together a diverse assortment of researchers who share a commitment to pursuing science that can change the world for the better.

Long before Japanese companies were making headlines with the introduction of policies about “English in the workplace”, Sony CSL was using English as a medium of everyday communication. CSL’s foreign researchers, for their part, work hard at communicating with their Japanese colleagues in Japanese.

The many creative and collaborative minds at Sony CSL make for a dynamic environment in terms both of intellectual discovery and of entrepreneurial initiative.

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