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Corporate InformationResearch & Development

Members of the Vision Design Project. This project is based in the Global Center for Social Innovation-Tokyo.

(August 9, 2017)

Hitachi, Ltd.’s research and development process involves not just researchers, but designers, too. Among these, the Tokyo-based Global Center for Social Innovation’s Vision Design Project is a particularly ambitious undertaking. They explore societal issues of the future through the creation of images and prototypes. We listened to the 5 members of the Vision Design Project about the goals of this project and what they have learned while engaged in it.

Discovering the issues that people really care about

What does the Vision Design Project do?

In today’s society, societal challenges can be thought of as a new business concept. However, even if someone were to asks us to “solve the problems in society,” I don’t think it’s enough to actually know how to go about doing it. One of the most important things that the Vision Design Project does, is to start with the question, “What will the problems in society be?

The societal infrastructure and services that Hitachi is trying to create aren’t going to be ready overnight, Even after they’re created, they’ll be in use for a long time. In a situation like that, it’s important to understand the changes that a society of the future will face, and how people will live their lives in it, in order to think more concretely about the shape that services should take. The real work of looking ahead is becoming extremely important.

Unit Leader Yoshitaka Shibata (left), Designer Ryo Fukumaru (right).

We think about the circumstances of today’s society, and we think about how they might be different in the future. In order for us to consider, “This could be a possibility, too. Perhaps this way might be better,” we need to point out the different possibilities for a society of the future. When we think about that society, we think about what questions will be important. If we can come up with answers including possibilities that aren’t normally considered, then we can begin to discuss whether they’re good developments. As for why they might be better, nobody today for sure can say, so we need to keep discussing.

We’re often told that we’re doing unusual things at our company. Like other people, we work to understand the future of Hitachi’s business, but there’s something sci-fi about it, too. We’re not always optimistic about everything in the future, but we basically get to show people dreams as a job. It’s very interesting.

What we can do is to look at the future from the point of view of the people in it. And not just consider how people can be happy, but carefully consider many of its questions, like, “What sort of issues will we really care about in the future?”

Senior Designer Takuya Akashi (center), Designers Masahide Ban (right) and Ying Zhong (left).

Specifically, what kind of images of the future do you create?

This picture is an illustration attempting to capture a certain aspect of what life in a society of the future will be like. The topic is “Unshakeable worry.” In the future, the data that people generate in their day-to-day lives will accumulate in various places, and as the analysis of that data progresses, we will gain an ability to learn more than we actually want to know; we’ll be able to know things that we don’t want to know, too. That data will exposes us to various truths, the worry of the people living in the society will take on a different quality.
We see robots in many different places inside this illustration. We could say that the security cameras we currently see around our towns are also collecting a kind of data, but in this illustration, we considered, “Do people really feel relieved just by the presence of security cameras in towns?” How would humans feel if they could see robots watching over their town in a public fashion? There will be robots in many different places, but if they are able to blend into people’s normal lives, with un-intimidating expressions and interactions, we think they might be able to relieve worry in a new way.

An illustration of problems in the society of the future and their solutions. The topic is “Unshakeable worry.”

This is a mockup of one of the robots. These robots can hold conversations with the elderly, and even notice gradual changes in their health or behavior. They first start to enter homes as shopping assistants when the elderly still have all of their strength and mental faculties, but the robots eventually come to “realize” that “this person’s mental faculties may have degraded,” through interactions such as daily conversation. At that point, their role will change towards preventing the degradation of their owners’ mental faculties.

Mockups of the robots from the lifestyle scenario. A lifestyle support robot which converses with the elderly (left) and a street robot which watches over the town (right).

What makes your depictions of the future unique?

What we want to ask with these concrete scenarios is the question, “What are the societa lissues?” For example, our topic is the “worry” of people who live alone. I think the problem is that as more people live alone, worries like “What if I took a fall and there wasn’t anyone around to notice?” will become more common. We wanted our topic to focus on using technology to approach those kinds of problems.

What we think is important, as the creators of the visions, is that the issues that people will find important are established. That’s why we’ve created what we call “Future Signs”. There are several likely societal phenomena, but designing based on the aging of society and changes in population dynamics themselves is somewhat different. If we weren’t considering the issues that people will care about from the point of view of those people, then the subject and even the purpose of the vision might be unclear.
What we’re trying to do with “Future Signs” is envision how people will react to the societal phenomena that are likely to occur in the future. Based on those phenomena, people may experience changes in their lifestyles, or changes in their behavior, and they may hold new values. But it would be impossible to design without establishing what those are. “Future Signs” do that.
What we’re trying to represent, in as concrete terms as possible, are the “questions” and “answers” to that question. We use “Future Signs” to craft a vision of what life is like in the society of the future, and inside that idea lie the issues people will really care about. On top of that, we look into how they will respond to the concrete products and solutions offered by Hitachi. I think it’s important to move in this order.

Each “Future Sign” contains multiple perspectives, and we project members do things like meet together and ask each other which way we think things will go.

The Future Signs used in selecting topics (left) and lifestyle scenario evaluations based on them (right).

This is how we turn an idea into an image as a use case. By turning it into an image, we can figure out the world described by this vision, and then have people enter into that world. I think this makes it easier to gather opinions from others about the things which we considered.
The images are released publicly so that they can be viewed as widely as possible, and just the other day, we even submitted them to an exhibition(CeBIT) in Germany for the first time. There were people who said “I think this is what’s going to happen,” or, “I like this,” while others said “It would be scary to have robots so close to me,” or, “This is creepy.” By depicting a single, concrete story, the feedback we receive can also be concrete. I think that’s one of the merits of creating images like this.

Lifestyle support robot” storyboard (top) and concept art (bottom).

We’d like to make our discussions as inclusive as possible. We want to keep coming up with concrete answers to questions like how people think their minds will change, what the society of the future will think is important, and what kind of services they’ll need. We’re also going to try making something like a mockup of one of these robots, and give people the opportunity to actually experience what it would be like on a physical level. We welcome people to share their opinions with us at any point. We would like people to discuss abstract notions like “Future Signs” with us, or to start with more concrete ideas like mockups, and gradually deepen the discussion to become more abstract. We want this to be accessible from many points. I think we’ll be able to offer a very inclusive Vision Design, from “Future Signs” to product design.

How will we accept the coming “Super Smart Society”?

What is the relationship between Society 5.0 and the Vision Design Project?

Society 5.0 is known as a “Super Smart Society,” but we didn’t interpret this to mean “incredibly smart.” Instead, we chose to interpret the word “super” as, “Let’s create a society which goes beyond smart.”
There are many smart technologies in today’s world, but it’s not our intention to just stick them together and say “We’ve created a convenient society.” There will surely be problems that even smart technology can’t solve, and smart technology may well be responsible for creating new problems for people, too. Looking out for those, and finding solutions to them, when they arise, is Hitachi’s concept of Vision Design for a Super Smart Society.

When we hear the word “smart,” I think the idea of something becoming optimized, or becoming more efficient, comes to mind. But it’s not enough for society simply to become more efficient or more optimized. If we look at it from the perspective of the people who live in that society, there may be issues, no matter how small, that are brought about by smart technology. It’s our goal to fully understand them, and to create a vision that can deal with them.
As data analysis becomes smarter and people are able to learn the exact percentage chance that they will become sick, their ideas of illness might suddenly become more realistic, and they may feel even more worried for having seen the numbers. This is an example of an issue that smart technology could bring.
What we’ve thought about with these robots is exactly that sort of issue. When the worry that one’s own mental faculties have degraded goes from being something about which we think “could happen someday,” to becoming represented by a number, that worry will only get stronger. Once we realize, “It could happen to me, too,” we can never fully be rid that worry by ourselves. That’s an issue that smart technology, like data, will bring about, from the human perspective.

Concept sheet for lifestyle support robot which addresses issues from perspective of people.

We have been working on Hitachi’s Vision Design since about 2010, but it wasn’t until 2016 that we decided to interpret Society 5.0 in our own way, and depict it from the perspective of the people in it. We hadn’t completely settled on the concept however, when we first started. The first time I personally felt, “This is what we should be doing,” is when we created a vision for energy. We actually started while thinking about how we could put together a vision, in our own way, of what a normal person might not notice about the energy industry in their day-to-day life. We chose the topic of microgrid, but instead of talking about the microgrid technology itself, the discussion turned to whether it would be difficult for a town full of people to switch over to a microgrid. That discussion, about how difficult it would be to build consensus to change the way a town operates, really connected with people.
While discussing topics like “Well, how might we make a town with a microgrid,” or, “What does it mean for the town to change gradually,” we worked on creating – or discussing – the direction of the concept, and I feel like that’s when it really started to take shape.

The scenarios that we came up with for the energy vision showed that if there was a benefit to paying attention to energy in people’s daily lives, then their behavior might change. So we imagined that people might be able to use the surplus energy that their homes generated as a kind of “local currency,” and exchange it for goods and services. We thought that if they could do that, more and more people would use it, and gradually the town would agree to shifting over to a smart grid.

Image from the vision about the energy field. Local residents and businesses pair off one-by-one to create a microgrid.

Are there any other unique projects you’re working on?

When we made the vision about self-driving cars, we depicted the visions we were thinking of as concrete scenarios in a maximum of 4 panels, and started sharing them with people outside of the company before deciding on the details. This allowed us to receive opinions at an earlier stage than creating images, made it easier to share opinions than just publishing a paper, and allowed the discussion to be more engaging because the scenarios were easy to imagine.

The vision for the field of self-driving cars was also put together a little bit differently than the others. The process of creating the vision is what was different. For the first time, we worked on the project alongside people from outside the company, from beginning to end. In the field of self-driving cars, there are a lot of stakeholders who are going to have to coordinate in order to promote it. So we had car companies, local governments, developers, college professors and students participate in the workshop, that we held many times. We were able to keep asking what kind of roles autonomous driving technology would have on social systems beside just transportation, to help us create a few visions of that.
In doing so, we realized, “Oh, these are the topics that these people are interested in,” and, “These are the things they see as problems.” Of course we were able to develop networks with such people. I believe creating visions together with people outside of the company is one of the most important things we do.

*“The field of self-driving cars” was produced for Japan METI’s R&D and PoC of smart mobility system: a study of autonomous driving and its social values and use scenarios. (2016)

*METI: Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry
*PoC: Proof of Concept


(As at the time of publication)

Yoshitaka Shibata

Senior Designer / Vision Design Project, Unit Leader
Global Center for Social Innovation - Tokyo

Currently leads the Vision Design Project examining the structure of societal innovation using visions formed through a design-based approach. Shibata joined Hitachi, Ltd. in 1999. After working on designs for products such as ATMs, he became responsible for the development of services utilizing digital signage and IC cards for transit. In 2009, Shibata contributed to operational reforms through co-creation, after which he started-up Service Design research in Hitachi.

Takuya Akashi

Senior Designer / Vision Design Project
Global Center for Social Innovation - Tokyo

Started-up the Vision Design field within Hitachi, and currently leads various Vision Design projects.
Akashi joined Hitachi, Ltd. in 2003, initially working on designs for products such as medical bio-measurement instruments, public-use products such as elevators, and development of advanced design for electronics. In 2007, his responsibilities shifted to interaction and service design for social infrastructure services such as healthcare, energy and banking services.

Masahide Ban

Designer / Vision Design Project
Global Center for Social Innovation - Tokyo

Currently contributes to the robotics and AI fields in the Vision Design Project. Ban joined Hitachi, Ltd. in 2002. After working in corporate branding and web design, he became responsible for software and construction equipment interaction design in 2008. From 2011, he worked at Hitachi America, Ltd, conducting interaction design for IT operation management systems for 4 years before returning to Japan.

Ryo Fukumaru

Designer / Vision Design Project
Global Center for Social Innovation - Tokyo

Currently a designer in the Vision Design Project, Fukumaru joined Hitachi, Ltd. in 2009 as an Interaction Designer responsible for development of digital signage and smartphone apps for public transportation. Since 2015, he has been engaged in a project to formulate visions of future public transportation.

Ying Zhong

Vision Design Project
Global Center for Social Innovation - Tokyo

Zhong joined Hitachi, Ltd. in 2015, and initially worked on the development of service design methodology and tools, as well as education programs. Since 2016, she has been contributing to Vision Design in energy and financial fields.