Social Innovation Perspectives in Japan: Robin Lewis [Interview]

Researching about sustainability, startups and social innovation for my global trip would often include endless keyword searches leading to infinite pages and bizarre paths. Luckily for me, Japan was easy! I typed in ‘social innovation Japan’ and front and centre was Robin Lewis with his latest venture, Social Innovation Japan.

I was fortunate enough to meet with Robin over lunch at a local restaurant in Yoyogi. Our conversation spanned from natural disasters to where Corporate Social Responsibility sits in large organisations to where Social Innovation Japan is headed next.

Knowledge is power

Robin is currently a consultant at the World Bank and helps developing nations adapt to the impacts of climate change.

He explained that the World Bank does more than just fund infrastructure. ‘What I am really interested in is facilitating the knowledge transfer between countries. The way Japan and other similar countries adapt, manage and pre-empt natural disasters is critical information for other countries as well. I assist with this knowledge transfer work between countries.’
With knowledge practically being is its own currency, Robin’s role at the World Bank seems to be a natural one!

Prior to the World Bank, Robin worked on the Peace Boat, a Japanese based international NGO working to promote peace, human rights and sustainability, guided by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). He saw the different approaches to humanitarian aid and climate/disaster resilience globally in over 20 countries.

Robin came from the UK to Japan to volunteer after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011. Since then he has settled in Tokyo and alongside the World Bank, has started Social Innovation Japan.

Social innovation and the challenges facing Japan’s future

Social Innovation Japan is building a cross sector community to build the ecosystem for social change in Japan. They focus on hosting events and workshops to strengthen the community as well as offering services to businesses who want to drive social innovation in their organisations.

Japan’s social challenges are growing and Robin discussed in detail both the issues and some of the solutions:

1. Aging population

It is commonly discussed in Japan that the aging population is leading to labour shortage issues as well as pressure on Government to fund the growing pension costs. Japan is the world’s oldest nation with the number of elderly people aged 65 or older accounts for 26.7 per cent of the 127.11 million total population, up 3.7 percentage points from five years ago, a summary report of the 2015 national census shows (World Population Review).

The labor shortage and government spend is one issue, I recently learnt the world’s saddest word, ‘Kodokushi.’ It literally translates to ‘lonely deaths’ where people die in their homes and it takes sometimes months for them to be found. This is unfortunately a growing trend and one that will require new business and community models to prevent. Already there are some community organisations stepping in and creating buddy programs, however, more needs to be done to connect people on the streets. It is estimated that 30 000 people per year will die a ‘kodokushi’ and with an aging population, action needs to be taken now.

2. Plastic usage

Japan’s culture of cleanliness and beautiful presentation can often be at the peril of the environment. According to the Japan Times, Japan exported 72 per cent of its waste plastic to China in 2017 but with China no longer accepting these imports, Japan will now either have to find a new destination or handle it on its own. Robin spoke about his friend Akira Sakano, Chairperson of the Zero Waste Academy, an initiative to lead  Japan to a zero waste future. She lives in Kamikatsu, the first town to issue a Zero Waste Declaration in Japan, where residents sort waste into 45 types under 13 categories (the town managed to recycle over 80% of its waste, and is aiming for 100% by 2020). Ultimately though, recycling is not the answer. Reducing the availability and consumption of plastic is required. I know somewhere they can start… the fresh food aisle of supermarkets…

Wrapping a lemon in plastic and then putting it in another plastic bag seems a bit much!

3. Earthquakes and natural disasters

This is a common issue Japan has faced into for centuries, however with climate change accelerating the volatility of natural disasters, the need for disaster preparedness is more critical than ever. When I have asked a few people on the streets of Tokyo what they believe to be the biggest issues facing Japan, earthquakes and natural disasters were often discussed at length. Although it is almost impossible to stop these, technology is being developed to create early warning systems as well as other technology to help communities and buildings become more resilient.

The evolution of giving

Earthquakes have signified new phases of philanthropy in Japan. Robin explained that the 1995 Kobe earthquake was seen as the beginning of volunteerism (where individuals would volunteer their time and resources). The 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami signified the beginning of corporate volunteerism (corporates releasing employees and resources). This led to a conversation about corporate Japan and the role of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Robin highlighted that many of these functions sit in the marketing department rather than in the strategy or product teams. This is slowly starting to change with the adoption of Creating Shared Value (CSV) teams which align more with strategy and product teams, however this is still a long way to go.

Businesses need to get back to their Japanese core

Robin taught me a new word, ‘Sanpo Yoshi’ which translates to ‘three way satisfaction’. A business dealing should be good for the buyer, seller and society. He said that the role of business has always been to improve society, however, during periods of intense economic growth, a misalignment has formed between the three parties. Getting back to the roots of Japanese business will require companies to understand the role they play in society by investing in non-financial metrics and assessing both their environmental and societal impact. You can read Robin’s blog post about Sanpo Yoshi here.

From Social Innovation Japan’s post about Sanpo Yoshi

A hopeful future

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics’ genuine commitment to environmental sustainability and their links to the Sustainable Development Goals signifies a turning point in making sustainability not just in marketing but also in action.

There is still a long way to go but Robin and I both agreed that the momentum of spaces like Social Innovation Japan, the startup ecosystem and the push from youth to drive social change has the potential to change the outlook.

Social Innovation Japan are actively tackling a range of social issues by empowering people from across sectors with tools, resources and connections to make lasting change. You can follow them on Facebook, Medium, Linkedin or check out their website here for more details.

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