On March 1, 2011, we received the keys to a small apartment behind Cat Street in Harajuku. At the time, we were three people on the ground — meeting, networking, exploring, discovering, learning — determined to figure out how to build and grow a brand new IDEO office in Japan.
Fast-forward to March 2021, our mission to help enable change in Japan through design and creativity remains the same, and we now have a 40+ full-time staff, a studio space overlooking Omotesando crossing, and an offer that extends beyond Design Consulting to Learning and Change Programs, and Venture Capital.
Japan remains a country of extremes with a unique business and cultural landscape, and launching the Tokyo Studio of a global design firm presented distinct challenges. Like creativity, extreme environments can be incredibly inspiring. They heighten our senses and force us to focus and pay attention, see and articulate things differently, and explore new opportunities with curiosity and optimism.
As we celebrate IDEO Tokyo’s 10-year anniversary we’d like to pause, reflect, and share ten “shifts” we’ve observed taking place in Japan during our formative years, with a peek into the near future.
Davide Agnelli, Managing Director
Ten years ago, only 14.6% of people in Japan used a smartphone on the 3G network, LINE was yet to launch, only 14% of corporations used cloud based services, and DVD rentals were still a thing. Fast forward to 2021, DX (Digital Transformation) is on everyone’s mind, and the Japanese government is launching a Digital Agency.
We have witnessed a decade of digital progress that began with client requests such as, “We need an app,” or “the future of IoT,” and “innovative digital services.” The global rise in smartphone usage has set new expectations in high quality digital experiences. We swiftly found ourselves designing digital healthcare services, crafting coherent navigation systems, using new technologies to empower farmers, and helping build digital capabilities within our clients’ organizations.
What we design has evolved over time, yet our approach has
remained the same: focus on people. For digital transformation efforts
to succeed, people need to be at the center, with technology to serve
We are starting to see that businesses with sustainable practices as a core strategy outperform their peers. Back in 2011, with the devastating earthquake and tsunami, we questioned the responsible production and use of energy, and began to think how to rebuild sustainably.
For the summer 2020 Olympics, Japan aimed to create the most sustainable Olympics to date, accelerating the country’s commitment to sustainable efforts around climate change, sustainable sourcing and resource management, biodiversity, human rights, and cooperation. “SDGs” as a keyword have been trending upward in the last 3 years, and the government has made a commitment to carbon neutrality by 2050.
Shifting to a sustainable society will require long-term investments. With Japan having the largest share of 100-year-old companies in the world (41.3%) that prioritize stakeholders over shareholders, we hope to see Japan leading in efforts that shift economic gears in ways that create positive impacts for businesses, people, and the planet.
In the global Future of Jobs Survey by World Economic Forum, creativity ranks #5 of the top 15 skills required in 2025, up from #10 in 2010. Creativity in an organization inspires people to collaborate in multi-disciplinary teams, empowers people to see problems as opportunities to explore hypotheses, and enables people to solve challenges and conceive novel solutions that have value.
In Japan, there have emerged regions of innovation like Kyoto, Fukuoka, and Tokyo, with dedicated R&D labs, multi-disciplinary innovation teams, and lively creative and entrepreneurial communities. Despite Apple and Google dominating global smartphone markets and mobile gaming, Nintendo continues to innovate with novel hardware and first-party games, with the latest Nintendo Switch hybrid console and dedicated games far surpassing business goals and delighting players worldwide.
To thrive in the next decade and beyond, organizations need to cultivate a culture of creative confidence, nurture lifelong learning and adaptability, lead with the right questions not solutions, and design the right conditions and environment for sustained curiosity, creativity, and innovation.
Diversity is a known competitive advantage for businesses. Though Japan is largely seen as a homogenous country, signs of change have accelerated in the past decade. Conversations grew around women in the workplace and LGBT, and today we are seeing the highest rates of foreign hires in the workforce. Perhaps more visible is the rise in the number of mixed-race or foreign individuals representing Japan in sports, culture, and business.
At IDEO Tokyo, our strength comes from our diverse backgrounds and experiences, and we have celebrated our ‘oneness’ and ‘uniqueness’ through various cultural events over the years. With IDEOversaries, we celebrate our gratitude for our peers, and IDEO Stories is an annual event where we share deeply personal revelations from learning moments in our lives. The IDEO Tokyo Drag Race event is where we learned to embrace and unleash our ‘inner divas’.
In the next decade, we hope to see organizations demonstrate diversity through acknowledgement of the unique experiences and perspectives of individuals, while simultaneously celebrating the oneness and “wa” (harmony) of our whole group.
Japan’s work style reform efforts over the past decade reached a critical juncture when bills were officially passed by the Diet in 2018. As various experiments followed, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated more drastic considerations for certain companies, while putting a spotlight on areas of improvement for others, which otherwise may not have been considered for change at this time.
Despite struggling to reverse trends such as work-related death tolls, overtime hours, workplace equity, and career diversity, we have witnessed an increase in dialogues around Japan’s twenty-first century approach to work, evident in the kinds of design challenges on which we have collaborated with our clients over the past 10 years. For example, 10 years ago, our most common questions were in regards to activating different ways of thinking around individual employees. Meanwhile, the discussions have now evolved into considerations about organizational cultures, as well topics about how workstyles may impact the creativity of companies.
Now, we are designing new workplace values, principles, and conditions, combined with new technologies and are crafting exciting briefs with clients to design what workplaces could look and feel like in the future.
Since the Basic Act on Education in 2006, education in Japan has been gradually shifting toward a twenty-first-century model of active, lifelong learning. Japan has risen to the top world level in the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Some schools and Kosen are introducing a blend of classroom-based and experiential, project-based learning. Universities are designing environments that support independent learning and reforming the selection process to evaluate broader competencies beyond academic ability.
However, there remain many challenges in education reform in Japan. Students are struggling with low motivation to learn and self-esteem. On average, only 16% of students conduct independent research, trailing other OECD countries including the US, China, and South Korea. The government has begun improving conditions for a lifelong learning society based on the principles of independence, collaboration, and creativity, with a long road ahead.
At IDEO, we’ve been preparing for this moment, designing a school system from the ground up in Peru, a visionary blueprint for a new school in Thailand, collaborating with institutions in Japan to foster creative confidence, and hosting design camps for high schoolers to develop creative problem-solving capabilities and mindsets. We need to design lifelong learning that nurtures the whole person through creative confidence, multi-disciplinary collaboration, global communication, and equal opportunities for all.
Many feared the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 would negatively impact tourism in Japan. On the contrary, from 2013 onward, Japan became one of the world’s fastest growing tourist destinations, increasing international travelers from 8.6 million in 2010 to almost 32 million in 2019, particularly for its acclaimed culture of cuisine and the arts. In 2019 alone, Japan’s consummate hospitality captivated visitors during the Rugby World Cup and G20 summit. The 2010s were the decade the world rediscovered Japan.
Now, with travel halted by the pandemic, Japan is being challenged to rethink tourism while embracing recent progress. In preparation for easing travel restrictions, Japan is already starting to explore new visitor experiences, technologies, and business models. Tourism remains an important industry for Japan, and the next decade is bound to inspire new design challenges as travel resumes.
The discussions at IDEO Tokyo have also evolved from thinking about increasing visitors to Japan, to briefs such as thinking about what the future of Japanese hospitality means to both Japan and the rest of the world.
By 2035, one in three people in Japan will be over 65, and Japanese life expectancy (already #1 in the world) will continue to increase. Along with the growth of this healthy and aging population, we have seen a surge of interest in the future of wellbeing.
In the past decade, Japan has made incredible advancements in physical wellbeing — we have used AI to free healthcare providers to spend more time on patient care, and enabled the early detection of diseases. In the next decade, we’ll help people to lead not just longer, but more meaningful lives.
Despite living in the most technologically connected times, we are lonelier than ever, and in need of innovations that boost mental and emotional well-being. We’re excited to design better food and healthcare services that put control back into the hands of people, and help them to find their sense of purpose and joy in life.
While Japan’s venture ecosystem might be nascent compared to the US, and the number of unicorns small in relation to the country’s economy, the number of startups and the amount of capital invested have been steadily rising over the past ten years.
Of equal importance, entrepreneurship has been experiencing increased cultural and social acceptance: the risk associated with starting a company — and possibly failing — is being cast in a new light, with traditional family opposition mostly a thing of the past. Successful Japanese entrepreneurs are regularly highlighted by established media, and the government is backing numerous startup initiatives.
Optimistic about this shift towards a more entrepreneurial economy, and following our own long-standing history of enabling and accelerating startups, in 2016, IDEO Tokyo launched D4V (Design for Ventures), a Japan-focused Venture Capital firm aimed at supporting and strengthening the culture of entrepreneurship in Japan. We believe it’s only a matter of time before we’ll see Japanese startups compete and succeed on a global scale.
Besides being the third largest economy in the world, over the past 10 years Japan has established itself as one of the world’s soft power superpowers. Japan has displayed increasing global influence through its unique, cultural soft power assets.
Whether manga and anime, Pokemon, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, fashion, architecture, Muji, or Marie Kondo’s philosophies, the world’s growing interest towards Japan has been demonstrated by the explosion of foreign visitors and the increasingly sophisticated understanding of Japanese culture beyond traditional stereotypes.
A decade of influence culminated in high-profile international events, from hosting the Rugby World Cup and G20 summit in 2019 to the planned Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics. Looking forward to the next decade, where Japan remains to make progress is in education reform, trust in government, and gender equality. Will Japan’s socio-political stability, combined with the digital transformation accelerated by COVID, be fertile ground for advancement in these areas?
Illustrations by Mark Dingo Francisco