David Blecken
Apr 10, 2017

Man's place among the machines: NEST2017 highlights

Campaign attended the fifth New Economy Summit (NEST) in Tokyo on 7 April. Here are the key takeaways.

Hiroshi Mikitani (photo: NEST)
Hiroshi Mikitani (photo: NEST)

The event is organised by the Japan Association of New Economy (JANE), which is headed by Rakuten CEO Hiroshi Mikitani. Its aim is to explore global growth areas in the field of technology from a Japanese perspective. Rakuten, as diamond sponsor, was a strong presence alongside the likes of IBM, Ideo, and a former prime minister. High on the agenda this year were themes such as nuclear power and alternative energy; the applications of AI and autonomous vehicles; drones and what they mean for commerce; and the importance of design thinking for Japanese startups. Much of the discussion did not apply to marketing, but here are the key points that did.   

More than ever, we must be sceptical of ‘official' communications

Whether you agree with him or not, Junichiro Koizumi is still worth listening to. The former Japanese PM gave an impassioned speech about why the world needs to eliminate nuclear power reactors. Why are we telling marketers this? Because the speech was a reminder of the power of PR to do harm, when applied in bad faith (in this case by nuclear power proponents). Many in Japan wonder why Koizumi did not adopt his anti-nuclear stance when he was running the country. His simple explanation is that he and many others were misled by the information that was made available, and his activities now appear to be an effort to make up for that. “I discovered the assertions [that the Fukushima nuclear reactors were safe] were all fake,” he said angrily. “So many smart people had been lying…all the newspapers reported the reactors were safe.” As technology in all fields becomes increasingly complex, communications professionals have a duty to fully understand the messages they are putting out, and audiences have a duty to question them.

For those interested in the art of presenting, Koizumi’s delivery served another purpose too: it was a reminder that when you have something interesting to say, you really don’t need all those enormously detailed slides to get your point across. Speaking with clarity and conviction, as he did, is far more important.

Storytelling is a key part of design thinking

It’s easy to dismiss talk of ‘the power of storytelling’ in this industry as nonsense—it often is. But it can be interesting in the context of design. Tom Kelley, partner at Ideo and founder of Design 4 Ventures, which supports early-stage startups in Japan, said three elements are essential to effective design thinking: empathy, experimentation and storytelling. Empathy means understanding people well enough to identify what they need, and it must always be the starting point. “Companies in Japan are good at problem solving, but before that comes need finding,” Kelley said, pointing to TJ Parker’s rethinking of the pharmacy as an example of true need identification. 

He went on to note that ‘genius’ is usually just a willingness to experiment more. If you want to be really successful, “you’ve got to be prepared to try more stuff than others,” he said. So-called geniuses “have more failures but also more successes.”

Lastly, he said those with tech backgrounds still tend to be sceptical of ‘stories’. But a story may not be what you think it is. It’s simply “how you bring your data to life and how you make your message memorable”. He attributed Apple’s success, at least while Steve Jobs was alive, not to technology but to having “the best stories”, which expertly distilled the products’ essence and made them understandable. Startups in Japan can learn a lot from that, he suggested. “You’re trying to paint a picture of the future with your idea in it, so people can understand and spread it for you.”

AI also has an important role to play in identifying unmet needs

Rakuten’s head of technology and worldwide secretary of the Japan Institute of Information Technology, Masaya Mori, said the company is increasingly employing AI to analyse the diverse, granular needs of individuals. Trawling through millions of patterns is clearly not a job for humans—but taking into account new frameworks definitely is. He noted that AI failed to predict the massive impact a fan ‘handshake’ meeting would have on sales of an AKB48 CD.

For Jay Bellissimo, GM of IBM’s Watson and Cloud Platform, AI stands for ‘augmented’ rather than ‘artificial’ intelligence and will never supplant human creativity. (All panelists tried to dispel concerns that AI will steal jobs—although Mori suggested logistics and strategy may eventually become AI’s domain.) One of AI’s most important applications, Bellissimo said, will be transferring accumulated knowledge, which has implications for companies in every conceivable industry. As an example, he said Watson had advised an oil rig designer on safety considerations after crunching 30 years’ worth of data. “AI is not coming; it’s here,” Bellissimo said. “It’s a question of how fast it’s going to be adopted in all facets of society.”

Ironically, while there was talk of AI helping support Japan’s dwindling workforce, there is apparently a shortage of people with advanced AI knowledge in Japan. 99 percent of Rakuten’s AI department are non-Japanese, Mori said.

Japan’s openness to drones could give brands a head start

Rakuten’s innovation chief, Takashi Toraishi, said that while it’s still working out how to regulate drones, Japan’s government is “pushing hard” to apply the technology to commerce. “I would say it’s much more supportive than the US government,” he said. At the same time, just as with AI, making people feel secure about the use of drones is a public affairs challenge. Rakuten sees drones as an important part of its future and hopes the technology will give it a competitive advantage as a brand. Having experimented with drone delivery on a golf course, Toraishi said the company is learning to manage consumer expectations and is working closely with a range of external companies to stay on the pulse of the industry as it evolves.

Campaign Japan

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