The New Normal interview series: Reconstructing society with the power of design

Kinya Tagawa of Takram design studio tells us how breaking loose from the physical world can open up new opportunities. By Risa Shoji

Kinya Tagawa
Kinya Tagawa
By Time Out Tokyo Editors |
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The ongoing Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic is changing our world in unprecedented ways. In this new series of conversations with movers and shakers from both Japan and elsewhere, we’re taking a look at how the pandemic is already transforming city life and what changes are still on the horizon.

Hoping to find out what’s to come for society, daily life and the environment, and eager to hear how urban space will accommodate and leverage the ‘new normal’, we’ve lined up interviews with experts from a wide range of fields. First up is the multitalented Kinya Tagawa, CEO of design studio Takram, whose experience designing products, services and brands gives him unique insights into the intersection of business, technology and creativity.

This is part of the New Normal interview series. For the list of features, click here.

Reexamining the legacy structure of work and the office

‘The coronavirus crisis is transforming the world in significant ways. Avoiding all kinds of physical contact has made working from home the obvious choice, and people are spending more time with their families. This is something I haven’t experienced before, and it’s been a big change for me personally too.

‘As for Takram, my company, we had been working on the shift to digital for quite some time before the current crisis, and were already used to both remote working and online meetings with people overseas. Still, I now realise that our business was very much rooted in the physical world.

‘To think of it, in order to do business as an organisation, we had unwittingly adopted the framework the previous generation had arrived at through trial and error, and one that they considered optimal. We had a comfortable office, meeting rooms, desks and chairs for everyone, but why? Why do we take one-hour lunch breaks?

‘That is because someone invented both the office and the lunch break sometime after the industrial revolution, when large groups of people first started working in shared spaces. I hadn’t given it any thought at all before, but what we now consider “best practices” in the workplace were all invented at some point and slowly improved upon ever since. The coronavirus crisis helped me notice that.

‘At the same time, I think these things provide clues as to the role design should play in the post-coronavirus age. The original purpose of design is to smoothen out the incompatibilities between people and manmade objects in order to make those objects more convenient and comfortable to use.

‘Now that the coronavirus crisis has increased the distance between ourselves and the physical world, the gap between the human body and artificial objects is expanding. In order to reduce that incompatibility to the extent possible, I think we need to thoroughly rethink our current social infrastructure and knowledge, and harness the power of design to reconstruct them.’

Innovation is born from instability and fluctuation

‘Efforts to rethink things are already underway around the world. For example, in the US, where the Covid-19 situation is extremely serious, solutions have been developed to help prevent infection through contact with door knobs. These new ideas include tools that allow doors to be opened with your elbow or foot. The door knob, which everyone thought had already been optimised, is the subject of innovation once again. People may not be reinventing the wheel, but they are reinventing the door knob.

‘Rapid change is afoot in Japan, too. We’re seeing unprecedented progress in fields such as online medical care, which makes it possible to see a doctor without going to the hospital, and cashless payments. The fact that innovation is speeding up in all sorts of fields can be seen as one of the few hopeful consequences of the coronavirus situation.

‘New things and ideas are born out of instability. That’s been proven time and time again throughout history. In biology, the concept of an “edge effect” refers to how there’s greater diversity of life in places where two ecosystems overlap, such as at the water’s edge. Our society is also fluctuating between two worlds: the pre- and post-coronavirus worlds. Like a beach that cultivates diverse species, a society “on the edge” has the dynamism necessary to bring about new things and ideas.

‘Opinions vary on how long it’ll take for the coronavirus crisis to end, but I think we’ll have to live with the current situation for at least two years. A two-year period is long enough for a wholesale transformation of social systems. In other words, we’ll need to adjust to a society in constant flux, an unstable society where yesterday’s solutions may no longer work. We should survey society from a distance and switch from one parameter to the other in search of ever-changing answers. Going forward, we need to outfit society with such a metasystem.

‘How should we adjust to instability in society? It’s extremely difficult to always choose the right answer from a pool of hypotheses that all look equally convincing. But innovation thrives when ideas are exchanged at high speed between people who think in different ways. At Takram, we call that “pendulum thinking”, and have long valued it as a fundamental approach when working on various projects.

‘In other words, instead of seeking to fuse different ideas and ways of thinking, you respect differing hypotheses while bouncing them off each other – like with a pendulum. The idea is that doing this, along with repeated trial and error and much shifting and revision, eventually leads to the most likely solution.

‘I think this can also apply to many debates relating to the coronavirus crisis. You consider a wide range of solutions, proceed through trial and error, minimise risk, and look for the most likely way forward. I think we should all take an active approach and use this crisis as an opportunity to construct new social systems for the post-coronavirus age.’

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‘Synchronicity’ in the post-coronavirus age

‘At Takram, we have sought to use design and technology to provide society with alternative solutions. I think we can contribute to post-coronavirus society by coming up with novel ideas in the midst of instability, and by implementing these ideas socially.

‘I can’t talk about the details, but we are already working on projects geared towards a post-coronavirus society with our clients. The themes of these projects include new forms of entertainment that can be enjoyed while reducing physical contact, high-quality services that can be provided remotely without seeming awkward, and information platforms that allow for the provision of accurate information to large audiences in an easily understandable manner.

‘The shift from the physical to the digital world has caused a huge increase in the volume of services that are not provided face to face, but many of these services leave a lot to be desired in terms of user experience. For example, we know that applying for emergency subsidies is often extremely complicated, and people with possible Covid-19 symptoms are not always able to reach their local health centre over the phone.

‘Not being able to improve this situation would have a negative impact on public health and would cause dissatisfaction among the public. Incorporating a user experience perspective makes it easy to take note of such issues and understand that they need to be addressed as a matter of priority. Being able to put yourself in the user’s shoes is even more important when it comes to remote services. I think that’s an essential thing to keep in mind in the post-coronavirus world.

‘Even after the end of the pandemic, we are probably looking at quite some time before face-to-face services and public gatherings can be resumed. Still, people assembling somewhere to spend time together will remain something highly valuable. Music and sporting events are the obvious examples of real-world communities that have a significant impact on people’s lives. The act of people coming together somewhere to sing songs or cheer on their team – that is, doing the same thing at the same time – creates a sense of unity and belonging. Such synchronicity and simultaneity have significant value.

‘Unfortunately these things are quite hard to accomplish over the internet. Sure, there’s live-streaming, online games and the like, but very few online experiences available now can replicate the sense of unity you get at a real-life gathering of tens of thousands of people. That’s why I think there will be a lot of content with a strong synchronicity element being developed going forward. That field could become a new frontier in the post-coronavirus age.

‘How can people form connections and obtain a sense of unity when they’re separated from the physical world? Finding answers to that question is sure to be challenging for humanity, but I’d like to see Takram, with our capabilities in design and engineering, be there to support those willing to come up with suggestions.’

Kinya Tagawa
Kinya Tagawa

Profile

Kinya Tagawa
CEO of design studio Takram

Born in Tokyo in 1976, Tagawa is a graduate of Tokyo University and received his MA from the Royal College of Art, where he was made an honorary fellow in 2018. He established Takram in 2006 and has since worked on a wide range of projects, including prototyping the Japanese government’s RESAS system for analysing regional economies, and advising on design for the online auction service Mercari.

He is a member of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s Intellectual Property Committee, a part of the ministry’s Industrial Structure Council. Tagawa is the author of ‘The Innovation Skillset’ (published by Daiwa Shobo), an introduction to understanding and utilising design as an innovation-producing skill for businesspeople and engineers.

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