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Designing a Future Based on Wellbeing Role of Universities and Companies in Overcoming Challenges Facing Society in 2050

President, Kyoto University Juichi Yamagiwa
President, Kyoto UniversityJuichi Yamagiwa
President & CEO, Hitachi, Ltd. Toshiaki Higashihara
President & CEO, Hitachi, Ltd.Toshiaki Higashihara

In what sort of world can people expect to live in 2050, 30 years from now? Japan will be experiencing depopulation along with a very high proportion of elderly, while public prosperity and people’s lives may well be under threat from things like climate change and resource depletion. With the singularity (the point at which the intelligence of AI surpasses that of humans) projected to happen in 2045, advances in digital technology have the potential to transform people’s values and how they live and work. Kyoto University and Hitachi are undertaking joint research into how universities and companies will change by 2050. In this article, the leaders from these two organizations, Juichi Yamagiwa, President of Kyoto University, and Toshiaki Higashihara, President & CEO of Hitachi, Ltd., sit down to discuss their visions for how we can expect society to change in the future, how universities and companies should adapt to this new world, and how they can work together to overcome the challenges the future holds.

Interview by
Hiroki Kitagawa
General Manager, Global Center for Social Innovation–Tokyo, Research & Development Group, Hitachi Ltd. (at time of interview)
Juichi Yamagiwa
Juichi Yamagiwa
Born in Tokyo in 1952. Graduated from the Faculty of Science at Kyoto University, and obtained research supervisor approval for the doctoral program at the Graduate School of Science at Kyoto University prior to completing his studies. He is a Doctor of Science. His field is primatology and anthropology. His main research focus has been on gorillas and he is a leader in the study of what gorillas can tell us about the origins of humanity. His past roles have included Visiting Scientist at the Karisoke Research Center, Research Fellow at the Japan Monkey Centre, Assistant Professor at the Primate Research Institute of Kyoto University, and Assistant Professor and Professor at the Graduate School of Science at Kyoto University. He took up his current position in October 2014.
Toshiaki Higashihara
Toshiaki Higashihara
Joined Hitachi, Ltd. in 1977 after graduating with a degree in electrical engineering from the Faculty of Engineering at Tokushima University. He obtained a Master of Science in Computer Science at Boston University in 1990. His past roles have included General Manager of the Power Systems Division, COO of the Information & Telecommunications Group, President of Hitachi Power Europe GmbH, President and Representative Director of Hitachi Plant Technologies Ltd., Vice President and Executive Officer of Hitachi, Ltd., Senior Vice President and Executive Officer of Hitachi, and Representative Executive Officer and President & COO of Hitachi. He took up his current position in 2016.

Hints from the Pandemic

KitagawaHaving adopted the title “Crisis 5.0” for the work it has done on the use of dialogue with academics from Kyoto University as a means of exploring the challenges we can expect to face in the society of 2050, Hitachi Kyoto University Laboratory is now pursing more in-depth debate on what can be done to help overcome the future challenges identified by this work.

Before we start talking about the future, can you please give me your observations regarding the world we live in right now, one that is said to be characterized by uncertainty.

YamagiwaThe focus right now, of course, is on the coronavirus pandemic. While human history can be seen as a series of battles with infectious disease, the fact that a new infection is running rampant right at this point in time suggests a reappraisal of our relationship with nature, including the relationship between humans and other living things. As our brains evolved to be larger, the human race improved its survival prospects by adopting a strategy of increasing the number of other species within our control, including crops, livestock, and pets. This idea of the world being under our control may be a rather superficial one. The expansion in group size has also been advantageous for the viruses and other germs that multiply through communication between people and through contact between people and other organisms or objects. This world is more complex than we imagine and this is how homeostasis (a stable equilibrium between living things) has been maintained. It may be that the lesson to take from the current pandemic is the capacity people have for upsetting this balance.

HigashiharaPutting that in a business context, the end of the Cold War was followed by rapid economic progress and technological innovation as the system of democracy and free-market capitalism spread across the world under the Pax Americana. This might be described as a survival strategy based on gathering together others who share a similar set of values. Now, however, we appear to have reached a stage where this system is beginning to unravel. The freeing up of the movement of people and goods under globalism has led to a breakdown of the old international and social orders, with growing social unrest and increasingly prominent nationalism. Issues that are beyond human control are piling up around the world, including not just the coronavirus, but also climate change, urbanization, and aging demographics. Unfortunately, the fear is that there will be no accompanying buildup of momentum behind international society coming together to address these problems. I fear we have entered a difficult time and I worry about what can we do to maintain homeostasis.

Potential Emergence of Inclusive Sharing Society

YamagiwaAs you say, capitalism itself has come to an impasse.

HigashiharaBehind this lies a shift in the concept of “value” from the tangible to the intangible that has been brought about by advances in digital technology. For a manufacturer like Hitachi, this means that we need to go beyond merely supplying products and instead adopt a philosophy of first considering what it is that people value and then supplying the goods, systems, and functions that will deliver this value.

YamagiwaAs a species, it is through other people’s approval that we humans feel ourselves to be valued. In the past, the ownership of tangible goods has been the primary means of experiencing this approval. More recently, however, it is coming to be intangible things and activities such as what we have done or what we have seen that are perceived as representing value, and from which we gain the approval of others.

It may be that, in dispensing with physical goods, we will become a nomadic people. We may be on our way to becoming a society in which we have consumable products delivered as needed and where everyone has the freedom to go about their lives wherever they like, sharing goods like appliances or furniture as they go. If such a society comes about, one based on sharing and the “commons” (shared land and resources) rather than being a capitalist society based on private property, then the nature of communication between people too will likely undergo a shift toward forms in which mutual coexistence is central. Whereas science and technology have been the driving forces behind social change in the past, the humanities, social sciences, and arts look set to play increasingly important roles.

HigashiharaWhat constitutes wellbeing for people is also going through a change. In a society based on sharing and inclusiveness, the ability to understand other people becomes more crucial than ever. It may be that we are on the cusp of an era that will address the challenge of how to build a society of prosperous coexistence, one where we are conscious of the wellbeing of others as well as of ourselves based on mutual benefit and win-win propositions rather than zero-sum games. In the future, we may be called on to take control of how we use technology based on considerations of wellbeing and inclusiveness. I believe that the ethics of doing so is a subject that needs more debate among universities and companies as well as society at large.

Serving as a Platform for Local Knowledge

KitagawaYou have presented a variety of ideas, including the redefinition of value, the new shape of society, and the nature of communication. President Yamagiwa, with regard to these matters, can you please tell us your views on what they mean for university education and for the relationships between universities and companies and public?

YamagiwaUniversity education and collaboration between industry and academia in Japan is said to trail behind what is happening overseas, but this does not mean we should just follow successful examples from other countries. In geographically diverse Japan, universities have played a central role in the careful fostering of local knowledge. Japan’s universities have built up “knowledge platforms” for their respective regions. I believe we need to make the most of this strength.

While “think globally, act locally” is the common saying, I believe what we will need to do in the future is to “think locally, act globally.” As the Internet has tied the world together as a single entity, local news and local opinions can be conveyed worldwide in an instant. As such, the true nature of global society lies in its diversity rather than its uniformity and what will matter will be how we are able to introduce diverse local ideas to the wider world and engage and collaborate with other regions.

At the heart of this activity we should find universities, meaning entities that create knowledge without the direct pursuit of gain. Japan has national universities in each of its 47 administrative regions. These institutions will become central to their respective communities, bringing together government, industry, and the local population to come up with innovations that draw on local knowledge. These innovations will be combined together to create things that can then be made available to the wider world. To underpin this, what will also be essential will be to educate people with the ethics that you referred to earlier and an ethos of wanting to help the people of the world.

Seeking an Openness to the World

HigashiharaAt Kyoto University, I understand you have what you call the WINDOW Concept of seeking greater openness by opening a window to society and educating students who are “wild and wise.” Does this mean that you believe in openness as a way of playing a core role in your local community?

YamagiwaI would like to see national universities in general, not just Kyoto University, being made more of as a public good. Hopefully, this would involve people from all parts of the community, including the general public as well as students, engaging with universities and making use of the knowledge they have to offer. Rather than just communicating knowledge, universities need to be places where knowledge is put to use to generate new value.

Here again, diversity is crucial. A prerequisite for resolving the challenges for society in 2050 will be for universities to adopt openness, and for people with different ways of thinking to build cooperative relationships and enjoy dialogue as they are exposed to different capabilities and ideas that transcend individual fields.

The scope of this openness is not limited to Japan alone, it includes the whole world in its purview. Many countries in Asia and Africa in particular are confronting the challenges identified by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I hope that we can contribute to overcoming these by bringing people from such places or sending them out to build networks.

Reiterating Stance on Contributing to Society and Environment

KitagawaHaving established that openness is needed for universities in their pursuit of solutions to societal challenges, what are your thoughts on the new roles that companies need to play in the societies of the future?

HigashiharaAs President Yamagiwa said, companies, too, need to look to their own strengths. One of these, I believe, is the establishment of a new ethic, a stance of contributing to society and the environment. While there has been interest from around the world in investment based on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) considerations, contributing to society is something that Japanese companies take for granted as being fundamental to corporate activity. At Hitachi, we have held to our corporate mission of “contributing to society through the development of superior, original technology and products” ever since our beginning in 1910. Reminding ourselves of this, our 2021 Mid-term Management Plan announced last year emphasized social and environmental as well as economic value and highlighted our intention of pursuing these in partnership with customers.

There is an idea that people’s motivation to work may well be diluted in future by advances in technology. If so, however, then it is also true that among the important roles played by companies is the role of engaging in businesses where all staff can feel that putting in a full day’s effort will be rewarded by a sense that in doing so they have contributed to society and the environment. Moreover, the use of bottom-up as well as top-down management to create an environment in which all staff can gain satisfaction from their work is, I believe, something that Japanese companies in general should address, not just Hitachi.

YamagiwaThat’s right. It may also come to pass in the near future that we need to find motivation in things other than work and employment. I believe that the three concepts of community, sociality, and spirituality will be important in the world of the future. Economy is a concept that should serve these three. The impasse we spoke of earlier has come about, I believe, because the prevailing belief that economic progress will deliver public wellbeing has created a situation in which society is in the service of the economy rather than the other way around.

Aida Philosophy Needed for Future Society

YamagiwaSpeaking of spirituality, the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari reviewed the history and future of the human race in his books “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” and “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.” In his follow-up book, “21 Lessons for the 21st Century,” he went on to write about how meditation offers the best way of achieving peace of mind and wellbeing in the present-day world of rising uncertainty driven by concerns about climate change and technological progress. I find it very interesting that someone like Harari, who has lived in societies based on Judaism and Christianity, should have hit upon meditation in this way, a practice associated with the spirit of Zen Buddhism. Meditation is a way of focusing inward and entering one’s own mind. To confront the world of the mind on a deep level and seek an understanding of it as something that is part of nature and separate from words and other man-made things is to become aware of what it is to be a person and oneself part of nature.

The dualism at the heart of the modern western worldview separates people and nature. Japanese culture, in contrast, being rooted in eastern thinking, sees both as being part of a whole. Dualism equates to true or false, to a zero-sum world, and indeed to digital logic. Japanese culture on the other hand prizes the concept of aida, meaning a range or in-between space. This is a view put forward by Kitaro Nishida and Tetsuro Watsuji as well as by my own mentor, Kinji Imanishi. That meditation and mindfulness have attracted attention from corporate leaders in America suggests that western societies may be starting to realize that this aida philosophy will be needed in the world of the future.

HigashiharaThe aida philosophy gets at the heart of business management, I believe. Opposites like top-down or bottom-up, market-in or product-out, are an ever-present part of management. Rather than swinging between one and the other, I have always believed that the essence of management lies in striking a balance and taking the “middle way.” Taking the middle way is the same as ku (space) as it is used in Buddhism in the sense of absence, but rather than existence or non-existence, this is about detachment. I believe that the idea of taking the middle path represented by aida rather than being fixated on one of two opposing options will be vital to the future management of companies and universities, as well as to how we organize society.

Thinking Collectively about the Nature of Human Wellbeing

KitagawaThe idea that Japanese culture and spirituality have a potential role to play in helping resolve the world’s problems is a very hopeful one. What is your thinking with regard to companies and universities working together in the future to address societal challenges?

HigashiharaCrisis 5.0 included a scenario for society in 2050 in which people are faced with a three-fold loss of having “nothing to believe in, nothing to rely on, and nothing to do.” To overcome this, Hitachi has been using the concept of Imagination 5.0 as a basis for pursuing more in-depth discussion of how we can foster science and technology in ways that make society a better place, and how we can build social systems that are inclusive of the public. Crucial to this is to get to the heart of issues like what we want our society to be and what the nature of human wellbeing is.

While analogical thinking is one tool for coming up with fresh ideas for overcoming challenges, I believe that the study of ecosystems and living organisms, including the primates that are President Yamagiwa’s specialty, can also be helpful when thinking about human wellbeing. Under the supervision of academics from Kyoto University, Hitachi Kyoto University Laboratory has developed inspiration cards based on biology. This is structured in a way that prompts insights into social systems that are derived from biological processes, such as the possibility of utilizing the mechanisms of inter-cellular communication in distributed systems, for example. Our intention in making use of tools like this and the knowledge available in universities is to bring into existence practical technologies and other social systems that contribute to human wellbeing.

Furthermore, a vital part of our vision for the long term is to bring companies and the general public onboard with local knowledge platforms centered around universities, and to advance toward a bottom-up style of urban development based on collaborative creation as well as innovation. Our aim is to combine the knowledge of universities and companies to consider wellbeing and the factors required for achieving it in different regions, and to put these into practice.

YamagiwaI believe this is what it means to be a smart city in the Japanese style. The work of Hitachi Kyoto University Laboratory is certainly very original. Nevertheless, my feeling is that we have yet to fully exhaust the reserves of humanistic knowledge inside ourselves. The elements of surprise and unpredictability are essential to living a vibrant life and feeling a sense of wellbeing and this makes it important to consider a diverse range of ideas that go beyond homogeneity and efficiency when thinking about the form of society and the places people live. I talk about the university as a jungle, meaning a place where academics of many different types coexist without necessarily knowing each other very well, and where new species, which is to say new forms of knowledge, are continually arising. A place with such a diversity of knowledge is a place with many possibilities yet to explore.

Innovation Arising from Aida

HigashiharaDiversity will be a keyword in the times to come. If we are to make the most of our own strengths amid global competition, then as a company we will need a diverse workforce that supports the three forms of value we spoke about earlier. To this end, our aim is to create an environment in which people of many different ethnicities and nationalities can go about their activities and express themselves freely. As you mentioned before, the ideal would be a world that enables lifetime learning where different types of people can come and go freely in the aida (spaces) between universities, companies, and wider society, such as by studying at university after entering the workforce, for example. I hope we can do our part as a company to help bring this about.

Hiroki Kitagawa
General Manager, Global Center for Social Innovation–Tokyo, Research & Development Group, Hitachi Ltd. (at time of interview)

YamagiwaRespect for diversity means a recognition of aida. I believe that new things will arise from the spaces between the academic and corporate worlds, and between people of different types. The many wilderness areas around Kyoto are places where people and animals can come and go in the space between the everyday and the exceptional. Japanese people value such places highly and we have drawn on their richness and grace to make our lives better. Furthermore, we have acquired a view of life and death that does not discriminate between people and nature. The Nishida philosophy that seeks to find the life truth of people inherent in this extends into all realms of knowledge and is something that has been passed on unbroken to Kyoto University. One idea that I believe will be essential to the work that universities and companies are doing to overcome various challenges is that of revisiting this way of thinking in our present-day context of shifting values and seeking to design ways in which it can be combined with digital and other modern forms of science and technology to help people achieve wellbeing.

The theme of Expo 2025 Osaka, Kansai, Japan is “designing future society for our lives.” I look forward to this event as a significant opportunity for us to tell the world about the possibilities for Japanese culture we have spoken about today and about how we can utilize them in designing the society of the future.

HigashiharaI agree. Designing a society of the future in which life and wellbeing have a central place is something that Hitachi is pursuing as a whole, not just Hitachi Kyoto University Laboratory, taking advantage of the Expo and many other such opportunities as we put this question to society.

KitagawaOur discussion has reminded me of how, by embracing diversity, both the academic and corporate worlds can draw forth the creativity that exists in the spaces between different people. Thank you for your time today.

While this discussion took place on February 19, 2020, it is hoped that the comments made about the growing pandemic nevertheless recognize the importance of the response being mounted around the world. Hitachi would like to take this opportunity to reiterate its sincere gratitude for everyone involved in halting the spread of coronavirus infections.