I have been attending to the 4th Conference called Sustainable Destination 2009 -2023, which is a conference of design for sustainability. This is an international conference discussing sustainable design issues, possibilities, obstacles, and our actions to achieve a sustainable society as soon as possible. The theme was "social innovation" and the program included reporting activities from the past and reconfirming the direction of sustainability. Sustainable Destination has been held 4 years in a row even though it is 2010 now and not 2009 (changed from before new years to after). I also attended the first conference in 2006 here in Tokyo.
Earlier years had these themes:
1# 2006 Finding a way to a sustainable society
2# 2007 Theme: Drawing a land map of a sustainable society
3# 2008 Steer toward Sustainable Society
At the conference this year there were around 250 participants from countries like USA, China and me from Sweden and of course Japan. The conference was well organized and everything ran smoothly. The first day we were in Shibuya in the Kuwasawa design school and on the second day at Roppongi Midtown with a nice view of the Hinoki-cho Park. The dates was 13-14/3-2010.
The first day
The first day consisted of four lectures by the keynote speakers (
The first speaker, Mr. Alex Kerr, is originally from the USA but has lived in Japan for more than half of his life. One of his great interests is Japanese traditional house building techniques and culture such as calligraphy, martial arts and ikebana and he is working at spreading and preserving it. Alex Kerr questions the Japanese way of building infrastructure, especially in the countryside areas where he thinks that they seldom have respect for the landscape. There is a lot of building going on now. A lot of concrete roads and strange monuments in the forests just so that the politicians have to have something to show, so that people understand they are doing important work.
He talked about strange behaviors like building fabulously ugly fake mountains made of concrete. Building this infrastructure in a more natural way that doesn't affect the nature or destroy the sceneries would be better for everyone. How can forest and hills covered in asphalt attract more tourists to the countryside of Japan?
One of the highway building companies slogan is "Kind to people kind to environment". How can that be when they build highways crossing over sceneries on concrete mountains?
This I have to agree with, there is a lot of strange stuff built where you can understand that there is no overall planning of a landscape architect, no attempt of combining areas together which is both good and bad ... For example in Sweden many areas have municipal organizations that are normally called "Skönhetsråd" - which would translate into something like "Beauty Council" that has the last say in every construction matter and are very restrictive about new forms in the already existing public rooms. So people are criticizing Sweden for being a boring architectural country, nothing new and that protrudes too much is accepted. So this is the opposite case of Japan, where you can find exciting combinations and unimagined views.
Alex Kerr was also talking about the utility lines. All other countries have started to dig their utility lines down in the ground, for example China. They are not allowed to have them in the air any longer. But in Japan, "the hi-tech country", the power grid still look like in India.
And he was talking about the use of billboards. There are ugly advertising posters even at the temple sites. There has com regulations that have made the situation better but for example China still look much better.
He showed an example of the images on front pages on guidebooks. All the countries had beautiful pictures of beautiful houses, things and scenery except for the book about Japan that had a power pole with a tangled lump of electric cord on it.
I believe that Japan needs something like the "Skönhetsråd" of Stockholm (read more here http://www.stockholm.se/PageFiles/68661/sammanfattning%20eng.pdf ).
Alex is questioning why the houses in Japan are so badly built. They get mould, they are ugly and the materials used are crappy. In Japan we used to have simple housing made with simple constructions with natural resource materials like wood and paper. But now a days so many things are made out of plastic. Imitations of natural materials like bamboo shaped plastic fences and making Ikebana out of plastic flowers. (Ikebana is the art of putting together and combining flowers).
To live in the nature in a more traditional way reduces the use of many bad things. He thinks that people feel ashamed of old scenery and old houses etc. And they want to modernize. It results in plain looking houses. All the big cities in Japan look the same and it would be difficult to separate pictures from different cities in Japan from each other.
Me as a Swedish person wonder why there is absolutely no insulation in the windows and in the walls. To have double-glazed windows with good seal that shuts out the cold air is a great way to save energy and lower heating costs. And to have good insulation in the walls makes the temperature nice and hot inside in the winters and opposite in the summer - it stays cool inside in the summer. The natural air without air conditioning is much healthier and not so dry.
Masuda-san later commented in his summary on Alex speech by mentioning the metaphor of cooking the frog. And saying that there are so many shocking stories in Alex's book about how the world is changing.
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The next speaker, Mr. Eisuke Kumano, founded the Amita Institute for Sustainable Economies (AISE) and in 2007 he established the Shinrin no Bokujo open range and dairy farm, also known as La prairie de la forêt (The meadow of the forest). Eisuke spoke about how we live with an economic lifestyle that doesn't make us happy. He made the participants raise their hands if they were close to someone with an allergy or people that might commit suicide. I think everyone raised his or her hand.
He says that men are breadwinners, which they do not want to be. People used to share, for example, their timber in villages in past times. Shared values in villages are lost. Community rules have to be changed.
He told us about his company selling milk in old style re-used glass bottles from cows that roam freely in the nature to keep the landscape open. It is eight times more expensive than ordinary milk, but people still buy it.
Eisuke can by this prove that it is possible to sell things that are manufactured locally, which is more expensive, but it still sells out with storytelling and a fun experience. Take away the intermediaries and create value for a product - high quality.
I think that we have to transform the concept of design and the designer. It should not be someone who is good at drawing a new car. We do not need more production. What we need is new ways of doing things to change and limit production.
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The third speaker was Mr. Teruo Kurosaki who started out as an importer of furniture but in recent years has started IDEE, which is a business centered on cultural lifestyles. He is also a teacher at the Freedom University and a culture advisor at United Nations University among many other things.
He spoke about how the first questions between people in Tokyo has become: What company are you working for? And: What is your salary?
People used to be happy just by living well and making money.
Kurosaki spoke on several areas like homeless people collecting and selling aluminum and living sustainability. He also spoke about changing Tokyo. For example Tokyo has too many restaurants, but too few places where you can relax and feel an inner calm. Tokyo should have hiding places for all those who need it.
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Mr. Yoshiaki Nishimura did the last lecture for the day. He has written several books - one of them is called "Live alive". People told me that his presence was unusual since he is quite popular and rarely gives lectures. His main message was: use your strength and time on the things you love!
He also spoke about how you can affect each other just by being. For example watching the Olympic games on TV makes you want to move and exercise.
100-yen shops are filled with so many things but still they are so empty. As a designer we don't want to do that. Value your feelings and hold on to your personal feelings. If you follow the sustainable trend and don't feel for it you will lose your identity. You have to be sensitive to your own feelings.
You should feel things with your heart instead of thinking with the head - it is better. If you do something that you don't want to do you have to shut off your emotions, and that will lead to bad things.
I believe that doing what you want is probably something that lots of Swedish people are quite good at. Sweden always scores high on "individuality" compared to other nations in studies (like this one where, interestingly, Sweden and Japan are surprisingly "close" http://margaux.grandvinum.se/SebTest/wvs/SebTest/wvs/articles/folder_published/article_base_54)
There is a gap between reality and the way reality is advertised. Noodle shop that portrays itself as something that it isn't. That is what I feel like in this country. Everything is a surprise and I cannot have any preconceived ideas of how things will be or, for example, what that restaurant will serve - because it never actually is the way I first thought.
Yoshiaki Nishimura also spoke about art school and how it shapes students. He asked if it is right to continue with design studies? Aren't there better, more useful things to do?
I think it is important for all professionals to always question whether they are making a meaningful contribution to society or not. And I agree that it is depressing that so many people want to study design and that so many new design schools are started.
But the end result and how people use that training is what is most important.
Nice sustainable food plates and drinking glasses of bamboo was used during the conference.
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To me it seems as all these lectures are about a future utopia where we might live in new ways. But they all seem to have in common that people should communicate more.
For me Japan has from the beginning been a country of contradictions. It has so many cultural, historic and esthetic values where simplicity and precision is extremely important. (This is well described in, for example, the book "The book of tea" by Okakura Kakuzo.)
And then there is this hysterical Japanese society with plastic gadgets, collective things, which is really hard to grasp and understand. A society filled with contradictions between plastic, commercials etc vs. tradition and simplicity.
And people live somewhere in between...
The second day
The second day of this conference was made up of workshops. We had short lectures mostly from companies that already did something that was connected to some kind of sustainable work. And all of us in the audience were having brainstorming sessions in between the presentations to try to develop their ideas into something even better.
The first subject was Shermo (http://www.shmo.jp/), a web site that works as a meeting place for sharing. Sharing things and sharing economy - they called it SSS - social sharing service. The goods are exchanged between people without money involved just a point system with grades. The people within Japan that need something can borrow it and when he or she doesn't use or need it any more he or she can send it to someone else that wants it. This is a perfect solution for especially books, because you don't need books once you have read them. In this case Shermo works like a library, but even more efficient than a public government run library in many ways. And Shermo is also very good when working with things used for babies (which you often use only for a short while). A big library of things that is run by everybody.
We had a brainstorming session about how Shermo could be a place for other goods or activities.
We thought that it would be better sustainability with smaller units within Japan to avoid sending big packages all over the country and also make it possible to meet face to face. Services could also be a part - exchanging services with each other like gardening, hair cutting, babysitting, Internet training etc.
And to make the webpage in English as well so that newcomers like myself can use it. In the situation I am in - living abroad just for a short while of some months, it would be brilliant to be able to borrow a bike or a baby bed or a baby stroller for a couple of months.
And SherMo is a brilliant idea so it would be great if spreads around the world.
In Japan it cost you money to throw thing away. As far as I know there is no place you can go by yourself to throw away big things like furniture. All the rubbish is put out outside your house, and if it is bigger things than household rubbish it cost you extra money.
I believe that garbage sorting and disposal works well in Japan. People actually do as they're supposed to. But a lot more plastic is being used that wouldn't be necessary in the first place.
So then Shermo is a much better way of getting rid of your stuff with a feeling of satisfaction and at the same time someone else gets happy.
About garbage - I think it is such a good solution to put on a fee to throw away your things. It might make people think twice before redecorate their kitchen again... but I guess it wouldn't work anywhere else than in Japan. In Sweden people would just dump their rubbish anywhere instead or burn it themselves.
Another presentation was from a company selling experiences instead of things. They worked mostly in the wedding business. The company is called Sow experience. We had a brainstorming session about what more experiences you could sell. Our suggestion was to have sustainable experiences like living 2 days with no carbon dioxide footprint, using no unnatural things, a 100% carbon dioxide free experience.
A third presentation was about a network that has been started in the countryside, where the people in a village had been involved in organic plantation. And the question for us to discuss was how to reach out in the cities to sell these organic vegetables and how to create networks to connect the different parts - the countryside people and city people.
People were concerned with the differences between countryside and city. That people live so different lives so that it is difficult to connect with each other. Here I can see a big culture difference between Japan and Sweden, and it is hard for me to fully appreciate the problem. I don't think there is the same cultural gap in Sweden between those kinds of lives compared to what it seems to be like here in Japan. The suggestions people had for solutions to connect the two worlds was among other things to make manga (cartoons), which to me was both a bit surprising and strange in this context.
Another session was focused on products that can be used in development cooperation. The speaker said that Japan doesn't help as much as other countries. Someone said that Japanese aid still builds things that the people don't use, not a modern system. What can Japan do to better help these countries?
The solution that my group presented was to export the techniques of building with, for example, bamboo to the countries that also have bamboo forests and plantations. That would be a thought through and sustainable version of "don't give fish, teach fishing".
I think you can export thinking methods and mentality as well. So that everybody actually does recycle right.
It was a good experience for me to participate at the conference even though I wish I knew Japanese to be able to understand everything right!
Next year's conference
Next year the conference will be held in Yamagata instead. There were 7 men from Yamagata city council to represent the city and to invite everybody to next year's conference, which will be held on 26-27 February. Keep an eye on or send an e-mail to secretariat to get more information.