Commentary / Japan

Making cross-border collaboration work

by Yoko Ishikura

The unprecedented scale and intensity of the fires that raged in the Amazon region in recent weeks have caught the world’s attention. The dark sky above the city of Sao Paulo was shown many times in international media to indicate the seriousness of the blazes.

One reason for such a high alert was the concern over the environmental impact that would be caused if they were not contained soon. It also reflected the heated debate on how we should balance development and sustainability. As the fires broke out during the Group of Seven summit in France, where there were hopes — which did not eventually materialize — that the leaders would agree on coordinated action of the G7 countries to address increasingly serious climate change, the fires gained much attention.

The fires had even larger significance for me, since I had spent three days in Sao Paulo the week before they broke out. All of a sudden, Sao Paulo and the Amazon fires became a much bigger issue in my mind, even though for many Japanese it was an incident taking place far from home.

My recent visit to Sao Paulo, which has the largest overseas Japanese community, showed me the potential for collaboration across borders, no matter how distant the countries involved are from each other. It made quite an impression on me how Society 5.0 — a Japanese initiative led by the business community (Keidanren) and the government to create a sustainable society — has been received in Brazil, a country with a long history of Japanese immigration as well as interest in contemporary Japanese art today.

It was not the first time I was asked to discuss Society 5.0 overseas. I gave a talk on the issue in Porto, Portugal, last year at the Green Project Award Conference, and at an information technology forum in Bahia, Brazil, earlier this year. I am scheduled to give another one in Istanbul.

Society 5.0 is often compared with other well-known initiatives such as Industrie 4.0 in Germany and the Fourth Industrial Revolution by the World Economic Forum, since it attracted considerable attention in Europe when it was introduced a few years ago.

It describes the stage of human development after the eras of hunting, agrarian, industrial and the information society. Its main concept is to combine digital transformation and imagination and creativity of diverse people for problem-solving and value creation. Unlike other initiatives focusing more on technology and industry, Society 5.0 is human-centric in that we apply digital technology and big data so that people, regardless of age, education or background can choose to live with purpose (ikigai) and comfortably.

Whenever I give a talk on the initiative, I focus on the central concept of people as the main players rather than technology. I also emphasize the need to co-create the society together with partners throughout the world in a global collaboration.

Questions and comments I received from the audience in Sao Paulo included how the concept can be applied to a country like Brazil. The digital infrastructure and technology are yet to be established there and require much more investment to embark on this type of collaboration. In fact, the No. 1 item that Brazilians expect from Japan, according to a 2013 survey by the Japanese Embassy in Brazil, was technology transfer.

The Brazilians are aware of the status of technology in their country and seem to wonder how the transition to Society 5.0 and how collaboration with Japan, particularly in the area of science and technology, can take place.

As the audience showed signs of anxiety about Brazil’s technological readiness, I suggested that there are many different paths to make Society 5.0 a reality. There are practical and feasible solutions that would reflect their current status. One of them is the education of new skills for the young generation.

Brazil could give high priority to teaching the skills that are required today, such as computer science, complex problem-solving, creativity and imagination as a core element of basic training.

Brazil is a young country with a high ratio of young people, unlike Japan, whose population is aging very rapidly. I also suggested that Brazil could leapfrog in its economic development. It could “design” infrastructure and develop industry structure from zero in some areas, with digital technology in mind.

On the other hand, it is more challenging to transform existing (or legacy) industries with the most updated technology, as in the case of Japan. In this respect, Brazil could be in a better position to design infrastructure and transform industries than Japan with mature infrastructure and industry structure. In addition, the startup ecosystem has been emerging in Brazil and some have been successful in attracting partners to invest and license their ideas.

Combination of education based on new skills and knowledge for the young generation, leapfrogging of industry and the newborn startup ecosystem could lead Brazil to a society where digital transformation and imagination are combined.

During my stay in Sao Paulo, I also visited the Japan House, the first hub of a Japanese government project for showcasing contemporary Japan overseas. The large number of visitors (1.7 million since its opening in May 2017) and the profile of visitors (people below 34 years old accounted for 74 percent of the total, with non-Japanese accounting for 84 percent, not including Nikkei Japanese-Brazilians) indicate there is a growing interest in contemporary Japan among Brazilian youths. A visit to the Japanese Immigration Museum exposed me to the long history of Japanese immigrants in Brazil since 1908 and the Nikkei-Japanese integration into Brazilian society.

All in all, my stay in Sao Paulo made me realize that there is great potential for collaboration between Brazil and Japan. At the same time, I am now more aware that to make collaboration result in tangible results, creativity and imagination must be adapted to each country’s conditions and needs with agility. And despite the availability of information on the internet, being there and seeing it with your own eyes provides the total picture and drives you to take action.

Yoko Ishikura is a professor emeritus of Hitotsubashi University and serves as an independent consultant in the area of global strategy, competitiveness and global talent. She is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Expert Network.