Corporate youth blazing a trail
Kristoffer Rage Krantz
Jun. 29, 2017
Japan Inc. once captivated the world with innovative technologies and products that transformed lifestyles. But the reputation for revolutionary manufacturing is long gone, with innovations like the Sony Walkman few and far between. While the old guard dreams of a return to the glory days, young workers are looking outside the corporate framework for new ideas to make that happen. NHK World's Kristoffer Rage Krantz reported on the story.
“AI EXPO,” Japan’s first exhibition of Artificial Intelligence, opened in Tokyo this week.
One product in particular has been getting a lot of attention.
"You sit here in the correct posture, close your eyes, and meditate for about three minutes, concentrating on your breathing," instructs a robot.
The robot teaches mindfulness meditation by helping improve your concentration in just a few minutes.
Here’s how it works: You put on an electro-encephalograph to record your brain waves, then just follow the robot’s instructions.
The EEG sends your brain wave data to an AI server that analyzes it and rates you on your depth of concentration.
The robot gives advice based on data showing the poorest concentration.
It helps people concentrate better.
The product was developed by a group of young employees from several different companies.
They all met at “One Japan,” an organization launched last fall to bring workers in different industries together to co-create.
More than 600 people in their 30s are participating in One Japan from 45 large-size companies. Their aim is to innovate beyond the boundaries of a single company.
Yosuke Okawa is the head of development and a founding member. He works for a major electronics manufacturer. He led the AI project as a sideline to his day job.
"I was driven by the desire to create something new, something fun and exciting that you just want to get your hands on. We got together to decide what would work and what wouldn’t, and we all believe we have a hit," he says.
Okawa has been with his company for 13 years. He’s in charge of new product development.
But he was finding that new ideas were hard to come by from brainstorming just within his department.
Five years ago, he started holding interdepartmental meetings. Even then, he felt the limits of meetings restricted to one company.
He and his friends realized they needed to create a brainstorming space that was bigger than any one company. The result was One Japan.
“When you only have these meetings in your own company, your thinking tends to be limited to what you're able to do and what you should do,” he says. “Our company can’t do this, but a wider range of new ideas come into play when we consider that we could do something with a second and maybe even a third company.”
It was at just such a meeting with other members of One Japan that the idea for the meditation robot was born.
Okawa and his team developed the product in their free time, in just two months.
They brought in people from other industries, such as computer programming and advertising. They combined each company’s expertise to improve the product.
A talking robot was supplied by a robot producer.
An employee at a major computer manufacturer who practices mindfulness meditation taught the other members of the team how to meditate.
The AI program analyzing brain waves was produced by people from a software development company.
And team members experienced in programming created an instructional program for the robot that would help anyone trying to meditate.
The team worked tirelessly. They were making adjustments to the robot’s voice, right up to the start of the expo.
The day of the AI Expo arrives. The robot’s instructions are smoother and more detailed.
"I’m a bit surprised to find I can concentrate without wandering," says one visitor.
"The robot's slightly artificial voice felt relaxing and helpful. I was able to meditate deeper," says another.
"I think we did better than I expected," says Okawa. "That’s because the team is a gathering of professionals: experts who are highly skilled, passionate, and willing to take action. There’s a sense of anticipation, and a feeling that we’re using our energy to create new things.”
NHK World's Kristoffer Rage Krantz joined Newsroom Tokyo's Aki Shibuya and Aiko Doden in the studio.
Shibuya: One Japan is putting young people together to generate innovation. Besides the meditation robot we just saw, has it spawned any other new products or services?
Kristoffer: Not yet, but other members have already launched more than 10 projects, ranging from healthcare and childcare to the problem of poverty. The Okawa group's meditation robot is still a prototype. But they're trying to attract major investment. If they get it, they'll have to decide on profit sharing and technology rights to turn it into a business.
Doden: But this is not just a challenge of technology, but of reinventing japan, is it not?
Kristoffer: Yes. I have lived in Japan for 10 years and find the approach is still typically Japanese.
In the United States and Europe, a lot of startup companies are taking enormous risks to come up with revolutionary products.
Trying to do this while still being part of a major corporation seems like risk-hedging and very Japanese.
Yet it's still a significant step forward for a country like Japan where lifetime employment is a deeply-rooted tradition.
It is said that novel ideas are conceived by bringing together different sets of knowledge in new ways. Personnel exchanges beyond company boundaries are believed to be key.
One new service in Japan matches human resources with firms to promote innovation.
A new member of a Tokyo startup company is taking part in a photo shoot.
Hotaka Saeki works at a major communications firm, but he has joined the startup to gain broader experience.
"I applied because I thought working here would help me learn management, marketing, business development, and other things faster," says Saeki.
Kazuki Shimomura is the CEO. The company produces high-resolution scenic videos for windowless office environments.
Mirai Harada introduced Saeki to Shimomura. Harada runs a “staff lending” agency that arranges for employees at major companies to work with startups for short periods.
The agency contacts companies and recruits their younger employees who want experience. They ask them what type of businesses interest them.
Then, they search for a startup that has a concept but lacks the staff and expertise to turn it around.
Once a match is found, the employee is transferred to work there for six months to a year.
Staff lending allows workers at large corporations to experience the process of building a new business, so when they return, they bring ideas for innovation.
“When employees spend time outside the company, they gain experience with totally new industries and learn about different business models and customer needs," says Harada. "I think experience like this increases the likelihood of staff contributing new, creative ideas.”
It is Saeki’s first day on the job.
"It looks like I’m a little early," he says. “I feel like a freshman again, but my expectations are high.”
The meeting starts as soon as the CEO arrives.
Shimomura has great technical skill, but he's worried about fluctuating profits. His hope is that Saeki will help systematize the business, and thus, stabilize profits.
"In some months we have no orders at all," says Shimomura. "It’s really unstable."
Shimomura asks Saeki whether he thinks they should charge for access to their online content.
"If you put content online for free and earn money from advertising, you could end up with branding problems," Saeki says. "I think you should create a model that allows you to charge."
"I expect Saeki to help build my business using the organizational knowhow and experience he’s gathered from working at a large corporation," says Shimomura.
As for Saeki, his corporate background hasn’t prepared him for the experience of throwing around new ideas. Saeki has tried to make a habit of brainstorming since coming here.
In the third week, he accompanied the CEO on a visit to their showroom.
Suddenly, Shimomura asked him for ideas for a promotion video.
"I think it would be interesting to have a variety of people using the space in various ways," Saeki says. "For instance, for families, we could add a picture book for children, to create the image of a whole family.”
Saeki is gradually learning to come up with ideas quicker and easier.
"I spend a lot more time thinking now," he says.
“In our startup style, you have to create your own job," Shimomura says.
Saeki and Shimomura's challenges have just begun.
NHK World's Kristoffer Rage Krantz continued talking about startups in Japan with Aki Shibuya and Aiko Doden.
Doden: Staff lending could bring in more business opportunities to both large corporations and startups.
Kristoffer: That's right. The lending agency in our report has already matched up employees from 5 companies. And their clients give them high marks. Analysts say younger workers at large Japanese firms are less likely to change jobs than their counterparts in Europe and the US, even if they're dissatisfied. Staff-lending services are expected to grow, as they allow workers to pursue a creative experience without quitting their jobs.