——Please tell us how future design came to be introduced to Yahaba Town in Iwate Prefecture.
Yoshioka Ritsuji: In recent years, how to maintain worn out water supply infrastructure has become a significant issue for the whole of Japan. Yahaba Town is no different, so we started a residents participation workshop to first learn about residents’ needs and also to communicate that the town office is aware of the issue. As a result of this, we learned that most residents take safe water for granted and want water charges to be as low as possible. But going into the future, we do not know if today’s water rates can keep providing safe water. So that they’d understand the actual situation we thought we’d expand the scope of the workshop. By the end of that, some residents said they thought it would be better to raise water charges. Water supply operations have an extremely long timescale and you can’t do infrastructure work without thinking 100 years into the future. The residents of Yahaba thought about the time of their children and grandchildren and actually suggested we raise water rates.
This initiative was covered by the NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) TV program Today’s Close-up on October 16, 2014. Then, in 2015 we were awarded the grand prize at the JWWA (Japan
Water Works Association) Water Innovation Awards. When Professor Hara saw the program he
phoned me up.
Hara Keishiro: From around 2012, we held workshops on future design at Osaka University, together with Prof. Saijo Tatsuyoshi and other researchers [See “Future Design,” Discuss Japan, No. 51]. Although we researchers were moving ahead with discussions on a frame of reference for conceptualizing and researching future design, at the time future design still hadn’t been put into actual practice in society. That was when I learned about the project in Yahaba Town. I realized that Yahaba Town was aiming at something very close to the direction of our research and I got in touch. Even though I called him without any warning, Mr. Yoshioka listened very carefully and we ended up doing joint research.
Yoshioka: Residents participation was producing results, but at the same time, I felt we’d reached the limits of the residents participation method. Residents themselves had proposed raising charges, saying: “We won’t oppose adding an extra 200 yen to water charges to renew worn out pipes.” That was a big change in attitude, but the consensus-produced 200 yen figure was pretty far from a solution to the issue. Even when we asked them to think about the future, at the end of the day, they were limited by what was acceptable at the present time.
Also, it took about four years and a half to reach the point where they made suggestions. I was wondering whether, within a different frame of reference, they might be able to think about the future in a slightly shorter space of time. I was also thinking hard about how to get past a situation where residents were making unfortunate choices because they didn’t properly understand current realities. I believed that was a big issue affecting Japan as a whole, not just water supply.
——What is the difference between residents participation and future design?
Hara: The participation of residents is important to future design, but that’s not all there is to future design. The key point to future design is how it provides a frame of reference from which to think about the nature of the present from the future. For example, when there is a choice between A and B, while one might choose A from the perspective of the present generation, if you put yourself in the shoes of a future generation and consider the choice from their perspective and interests, B might become the optimal solution. In short, within a frame of reference that considers the happiness of both present and future people, rather than making shortsighted decisions, we can invest in our future, take on temporary burdens, and make the best decisions for the future.
Future design is nothing more than a frame of reference to think about the present from the future. Within that frame of reference, the subjects that consider practical measures and ideas are simply residents in regional communities.
Also, as we implemented future design in various ways, we realized that it wasn’t just applicable to the topic of water supply, but various other fields, such as rebuilding the official town buildings, provision of infrastructure, and energy issues.
——How did you go about bringing in future design?
Yoshioka: Yahaba Town first introduced future design in 2015 when it created a regional revitalization strategy titled the “Comprehensive Strategy for Overcoming Population Decline and Vitalizing Local Economy.” We made our goal the town in 2060 and, based on that, formulated measures for things we should do over the next five years.
Hara: At that time just under thirty people took part, who we divided into four groups. These consisted of two groups who participated in the discussion as representatives of 2060 residents, i.e. imaginary future generation groups, and two present generation groups. All the groups discussed the vision for the town in 2060 and the policies over the next five years needed to achieve that. There were five workshops in total, with a consensus-building session during the last one. Up to that point, the four groups held separate discussions and worked out a policy proposal.
For example, regarding the issue of increasing town bus usage rates, the present generation group produced many suggestions to solve problems that were conceived within a present-day frame of reference, such as changing bus routes or making difficult bus stop names easier to understand. That way of thinking deals with present problems and unmet needs, then pictures the future beyond that.
When we make future plans in everyday life, present problems loom large in our minds, so we first need to get over that. For that reason, those solutions depend on the individual. This kind of thinking seems at first glance an effective way to provide immediate solutions, but there is a tendency towards shortsighted suggestions.
On the other hand, those in the future generation groups gave their opinions as representatives of 2060 people, having imagined a time warp where they were the same age but living in 2060. When they did, a number of extremely creative and integrated ideas emerged. In Yahaba town there is a mountain called Nanshozan that Miyazawa Kenji (1896–1933) imagined in his novel Night on the Galactic Railroad. The group made a concrete and persuasive proposal for an extremely creative transport plan. This was to build a monorail that ran in a loop starting from the mountain. Alongside this, there were many proposals that the present generation group didn’t come up with, such as a wellness town concept that combined the “sixth industrialization” of health and agriculture. Notably, these proposals were conceived as a way to use the region’s advantages, such as local resources in the town, culture and environment, and the links between people. A completely different set of ideas emerged when groups thought both about the happiness of future people and the happiness of current residents.
——What particular statements stuck in your mind?
Yoshioka: One person said, “Won’t cars be flying in the sky in 2060?” At first everyone was taken aback, but by chance there was someone from an automobile research group present. He said, “Yes, that’s possible,” and participants realized how much they only imagine things within the frame of reference of the present day. Because of that, I think everyone started to produce some very unconstrained ideas.
Hara: The four groups held their discussions separately, but then in the fifth and last workshop the present generation groups and the imaginary future generations groups met for the first time and there was a consensus-building session. Since they’d proposed completely different ideas, it seems both sides were initially quite confused. For example, the present generation group proposed an idea: making medical treatment for children free in order to increase the town’s population. But in response to that, one woman from the future generations group raised a question, saying: “I have a child myself, so I’m attracted by that suggestion. However, if making it free puts the town’s finances under pressure, it will be future generations who bear the burden. We must think of a different method, not one that is just good for the current generation.” I believe that really was an opinion that represented future generations.
At first, the present generation groups listened to the future generations groups’ creative plans and proposals with some suspicion, but when they heard the intentions behind those ideas, they realized what good suggestions they were. In that way, when the ten policy plans were finally agreed and laid out, the majority were from the future generations groups.
Incidentally, we also realized that the discussions of the future generations group tended to be sensitive to the ways in which technology might affect society in the future. They flexibly imagined possibilities for technological innovation and change to the social system, then were dynamic in designing proposals.
Also, it was notable that everyone in the imaginary future generations groups were enjoying their discussions. When people imagine the future from the present moment, the discussion starts from the problems visible now, so there’s a tendency for it be pessimistic. On the other hand, when they consider both the happiness of people in 2060 and people now, and as they consider paths that link the two times and the optimal solutions needed, it seems they can discover hope for the future. We also confirmed that, by considering issues from a point in the future, there was a tendency to prioritize things that were complicated and time-consuming, and decide that they needed to be implemented first.
Yoshioka: The people who experienced the future design discussions wanted to tell people around them what they’d been doing. I think that way of transmitting information is also very good.
Hara: Six months after the end of the Comprehensive Strategy for Overcoming Population Decline and Vitalizing Local Economy session, Nakagawa Yoshinori, an associate professor at Kochi University of Technology, conducted interviews with the people who had adeptly become “future residents.” As a result, we realized that those who’d experienced being a future generation gained a bird’s eye view of their current self and future generation self, and from that perspective thought about what was most important. What’s more, that bird’s eye perspective also continued after the sessions ended, so it seems that there is a lasting effect.
——Am I right that following 2015, in 2017 you put future design into practice for a second time?
Hara: In 2017, the future design method was used in discussions on the Total Management Plan for Public Facilities.
Twenty members were publicly recruited and brought together, then divided into four groups. This time, we had two groups discuss one theme and two more another theme: “public facilities” and “municipal housing.” The group members stayed the same and there were three monthly sessions. For this project, all participants considered the issues and gave opinions as the present generation the first time, and as the imaginary future generation the second time. Mentally, everyone switched their perspective between the current generation and the future generation.
When they considered the issues for the first time as the present generation, the discussion centered on how to maintain and manage public buildings, and requests to improve because of certain features that were lacking. In other words, the discussion was mainly about meeting desires. On the other hand, when they considered the issue for a second time as a future generation, they changed to making suggestions, such as how to maximize the quality of residents’ lives, including the elderly, or how to reuse existing public buildings. During the third and final session, we had them come up with ideas, either as the present generation or the future generation. When we did that, the condition for the discussion was that they present reasons why they suggested those ideas and give advice to future generations. Policies and ideas then started to emerge that placed importance on links with surrounding areas. In this way, even among the same participants, visions for the future and decision making changed.
Yoshioka: Generally, most municipal plans are put together based on resident requests. But when we consider that they are only produced from the perspective of the present generation, we might become concerned. Once you have experienced devising plans with future design, you don’t want to go back to the original frame of reference. Yahaba Town has now started to produce its “comprehensive plan” (the town’s main administrative plan) using future design.
Hara: We are now using future design as we work at an ongoing comprehensive plan together with local residents, and with the support of many researchers, including from Osaka University and the Kochi University of Technology. All the residents participating in the project evaluate past comprehensive plans from a bird’s eye perspective; then, from the perspective of future generations, design policies that the town should adopt in the future.
Support staff researchers cooperate closely with everyone at the town hall, and there is careful preparation to ensure the future design can perform effectively.
Yoshioka: Town staff who get advice from the professors constantly discuss how they can implement that on the ground. When preparatory documents for the discussions are ready, facilitators (who keep things running smoothly) and the graphic artists (who put visions into diagrams) set aside time to share information, conducting repeated and careful work between them.
Additionally, they spend a year studying the future design from the 2017 Total Management Plan for Public Facilities, and take part in study sessions to learn facilitation and graphic art skills. Rather than just doing as they are told, the staff get into that so deeply that they are tired from using their brains too much. That really supports Yahaba Town’s community development.
Hara: Around the time that we started putting future design into practice, it was usually the researchers who took the lead when it came to methodological elements. Recently however, many municipal staff have also started to come up with ideas of their own accord. It is also one of our goals as researchers for municipal staff and all the residents to become central players as future design is implemented. And a situation like that is gradually coming to be in Yahaba Town.
Yoshioka: Although the university professors have prepared an academic set of theories and give us feedback, we who work with the local administrators are not doing this as an experiment or for academic reasons. That’s why the municipal staff (who are supposed to be there as facilitators) sometimes get very enthusiastic and tell us about their ideas. Strictly speaking, they are exceeding the limits of their role, but that enthusiasm will be communicated to residents and the gap between them narrowed. I think that this process of trial and error by town staff and residents strengthens the basis for discussions.
——Has the size of Yahaba Town affected the success of future design there?
Yoshioka: Yahaba Town has a population of 27,000, so it is not too big a town, and in some ways is a convenient size. Staff can cross division and section boundaries, and communicate flexibly with residents, so there’s probably also an advantage to the town hall being small.
However, it seems that in Germany resident participation discussions are being introduced even in big cities. Thinking about it that way, I believe that even large local authorities could do it.
Hara: Alongside Yahaba Town, future design is starting to be implemented in various other places, such as Matsumoto City (Nagano Prefecture), Suita City (Osaka Prefecture) and Kyoto City. Suita City (population 370,000) introduced this method when devising its Basic Environmental Plan. I believe that it can be used in municipalities of all sizes, and for problems both big and small.
I also believe that future design could be used for industrial innovation. When issues are considered from a present day perspective, the questions become ones like “how can we develop existing technology?” or “how can we bring that to market?” so there is a tendency for thinking to be an extension of the present. Within a framework where matters are considered from the future however, there is potential to discuss technology development policy and innovation strategy from a completely different perspective.
Yoshioka: In Yahaba Town during a meeting this April, the Mayor declared Yahaba a Future Design Town and set up a Future Strategy Office to operate from this fiscal 2019. We are working at policy making with a 2060 perspective, thinking about what technology we can bring in to build the community in a different way to the past. The scary thing about a society with a decreasing population is that elderly people tend to close off their thinking, saying that their children or grandchildren can live in the big city, or that it’s enough for them to just keep on living as they are. It all becomes someone else’s problem and they lose interest. When that happens, the town will only decline.
It’s my opinion that robust community building needs more chances for as many people as possible to participate, and for the town to become one where all the residents are actively involved. I think future design is an excellent way to do that.
Translated from “Mirai no shakai wo sozosuru: 40 nen-go no jumin to tsukuru Iwate-ken Yahaba-cho no sosei senryaku (Creating a “Future” Society: Iwate Prefecture’s Yahaba Town: creating a revitalization strategy with residents from 40 years in the future),” Chuokoron, October 2019, pp. 136-143. (Courtesy of Chuo Koron Shinsha) [November 2019]