Design of the Times: Creative Thinking on the Streets of TokyoPublished: November 02, 2010
Business challenges require innovative solutions. And yet, the mandate to "be creative" when coming up with ways to deal with a problem is not always a seamless strategy for business owners, particularly if customers are dissatisfied with a product, or sales are stagnant or declining. How best to creatively tackle problem solving and arrive at a solution that best meets customers' needs?
A relatively new approach suggests using the concept of design thinking to consider business challenges from a designer's point of view and, more specifically, observe how users are interacting with products in order to determine the most creative and effective solutions. "Design thinking consists of three different activities: observation, prototyping and collaboration," notes Naohito Okude, a professor in the Graduate School of Media Design at Keio University (KMD) in Tokyo.
Okude and other instructors brought KMD's expertise in educating business leaders in the creative industries, particularly through the process of design thinking, to 10,000 Women faculty members from around the world in November 2010. Some 25 professors from universities that have partnered with Goldman Sachs to teach women entrepreneurs, traveled from Africa, the Philippines, China, Brazil and other countries to attend a week of workshops at KMD. Using design thinking, the visiting professors were sent out for fieldwork in Tokyo to observe how people behaved and then asked to analyze their findings and propose creative solutions. "I asked the participants to see and experience everyday life in Japan, write ethnographical notes [to study a particular group or culture in Tokyo] and analyze the notes," says Okude.
Identifying Unspoken Needs
"We are moving from the informational age into the creative industry age where each individual can be competitive using his or her own creativity," notes Marina Apaydin, an assistant professor of strategic management and innovation at the American University in Cairo (AUC). Apaydin, a past instructor in AUC's 10,000 Women certificate program, was among the participants of the KMD training. "The design thinking course opened my eyes to the fact that breakthrough technology is not the only way to innovate," states Apaydin. "It takes out-of-the-box thinking, observing people and trying to understand how they behave. We became an invisible apprentice of someone in the field, someone behaving in a natural fashion."
Apaydin and her two class partners, who haled from the U.S. and Africa, spent a day in Harajuku, an area in Tokyo known for its fashion and retail, watching teenagers. "We observed teenage girls shopping," says Apaydin. "We thought, 'What kind of unspoken needs can we identify? How can we extend this experience that they are having to improve it, make it more exciting? How can we make it easier and more efficient without forcing them into an area that is outside their natural flow?'" Their ideas included introducing brighter color combinations in some stores, providing a girl guide dressed as a doll for out-of-town shoppers and creating a virtual room where potential shoppers could mix and match clothes from different stores.
Laya Boquiren, a professor of visual and performing arts for entrepreneurial management students at the University of Asia and the Pacific in the Philippines, attended the KMD training in preparation for designing 10,000 Women teaching modules on the creative industries, media and entertainment. Boquiren and her class partners from India, Nigeria and China did their KMD fieldwork in Asakusa, an entertainment district in Tokyo. "Our mission was to answer a problematique -- how Japanese cultural elements can be transformed into sustainable products and become a global brand," notes Boquiren, who admits that collaboration is a challenge in the Philippines, which can impede creative brand development. "In Asakusa, we looked at Japanese cultural elements in products for the tourist market, including both utility and decorative objects, as well as food and packaging design."
Sumo Wrestler Bean Cakes
Boquiren and her team observed cultural references to both new and old Japan, everything from sweet bean cakes shaped into sumo wrestlers to images of Hello Kitty and Doraemon, a Japanese manga -- or cartoon -- series. "The store fronts of Asakusa would be adorned with imagery that referenced Edo Japan, images of nature in ukiyo-e such as a mountain and the sea. Then there would be large, three-dimensional figures of samurai warriors, geishas and other remnants of the old world," says Boquiren. "Japan was already transforming cultural elements effectively and in a sustainable way. As for the products becoming a global brand, this would take time. American consumer products and cultural products are still globally dominant. Sushi and Ramen can't replace [McDonald's] filet-o-fish and French fries overnight. The answer to this cannot be found in Asakusa. Like any Asian product, it has to penetrate global consciousness through a variety of media. Marketing must be done across media and through [different] products."
Participants of the KMD training agree that their time on Tokyo's streets helped them capture the true meaning of design thinking -- and more importantly, transfer that knowledge to their own universities. "It all starts with ideation," says Boquiren. "Creative people need to develop innovative ideas. Design thinking and experience design concepts were quite helpful to me because they may add value to existing products and services in the Philippines." Boquiren designed a module for the 10,000 Women program based on her Tokyo experiences but has yet to teach it to the women entrepreneurs.
Apaydin has likewise consulted with AUC colleagues on how to incorporate design-thinking concepts into the 10,000 Women certificate program. In the past year, she has created a new AUC course on innovation that has resulted in two semesters of student fieldwork similar to her own Harajuku study.
Apaydin's favorite presentation involved students' observations in the Khan el-Khalili tourist market in Cairo. "They observed Japanese tourists," she says, adding that she sent the video project to her creative coaches at KMD. "For one, the students observed that prices were all over the place. They suggested creating tickets to sell to the tourists for 50¢ or $1 on which they would have a range of prices for each product -- how much they would expect to pay for a particular product, so they wouldn't get dragged into a sham, and some basic Arabic phrases like, 'How much does this cost?' A very creative solution, but we're not sure the sellers will respond well to this kind of ticket."