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The U.S.-Japan Innovators Project
(Co-organized by the Japan Society and the Japan Foundation
Center for Global Partnership)

Connect, Collaborate, Catalyze – U.S.-Japan Innovators Network Takes Off

How to deepen and drive in new directions U.S.-Japan collaboration in the 21st century? This was a key question Japan Society pondered as we looked to our 100th anniversary in 2007 and beyond.  Since our founding, Japan Society has connected Americans and Japanese for mutual understanding and cooperation. Building on this tradition, in spring 2005 we sent six Americans to Japan on a mission: Find leaders from business, civil society, and arts and culture who want to engage with their U.S. counterparts to create a multidisciplinary network to explore working together on common concerns. Among these first American “scouts” was Rosanne Haggerty, former Japan Society Public Policy and Local Government Fellow and President of Common Ground Community; and former Japan Society Media Fellow, writer and Fellow at the New America Foundation, Douglas McGray. Our idea was simple yet eloquent.  Let’s deepen the conversation between Americans and Japanese by bringing innovative people together who care about the future of the planet. Let’s give these change-makers the opportunity to meet, exchange ideas, learn from each other on an ongoing basis, and collaborate in new ways.

Today, the U.S.-Japan Innovators Network has grown to 50 individuals - businesspeople, social entrepreneurs, architects, artists, journalists, educators and others. Co-organized with The Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership, the Innovators Network explores new potential for U.S.-Japan collaboration by connecting people and ideas through network-building exchanges, private retreats, public symposia, and projects. 

Beginning in the fall of 2005 and continuing through the winter of 2006, Japan Society hosted exchanges by six Japanese to the United States, including Yoshito Hori, Chairman and CEO of GLOBIS Corporation, and Dai Sato, anime screenwriter and Executive Director of Frognation.  This gave Japanese participants the opportunity to identify and meet with American innovators, expanding the network.

In June 2006 we sponsored a public program in New York with two Japanese innovators, Yoshiharu Tsukamoto, founder of the Tokyo architecture firm Atelier Bow-Wow, and Limbon, Professor of Urban Planning at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. Called  Small Spaces + Big Imagination = Life in the Modern City, the event looked at challenges from building in small spaces to preserving the traditional machiya homes in Kyoto.

Also in June, we held our first Innovators Retreat in San Francisco, (IN)SPIRE: Connecting Communities, in conjunction with Stone Yamashita Partners. The theme of the retreat, Connecting Communities, reflected the unprecedented challenges communities in the 21st century face and the need for problem-solvers to cooperate across borders as well as across areas of expertise.

At a second retreat, held in Tokyo in January 2007, (IN)SIGHT: Bridging Gaps, we dug down  deeper into some of the areas of unmet needs identified in San Francisco. These included the role of joy and the creative process in education and business; new paths to funding community innovation; and fostering business and other essential skills for social entrepreneurs. Following the retreat a public symposium, Affecting Change Through Social Innovation: Design, Scalability, and Financing, was held at Keio University, focusing on new directions in social entrepreneurship in Japan and the United States.

Photo of Tokyo retreat Photo of Public Symposium
Cameron Sinclair, Founder of Architecture for Humanity, discussing unmet needs in social innovation at the Tokyo retreat, (IN) SIGHT: Bridging Gaps. [Photo: Hidenori Kondo]

Villy Wang, President and CEO, BAYCAT, participating in the Keio University’s public symposium, Affecting Change Through Social Innovation: Design, Scalability, and Financing from San Francisco, via high-speed video link. [Photo: Satoru Inoue]

In May 2007, a public symposium in New York brought some of the issues explored in the retreats to a wider audience. Improvisation, Creativity, Collaboration: Fueling Innovation in the 21st Century explored the importance of "right brain" qualities like empathy, improvisation and playfulness.

Shifting venues, in November 2007, we hosted a two-day retreat in Kyoto with the Kyoto Keikan Machizukuri Center.  Architects, urban planners, artists and leaders in culture and civil society shared the creative and innovative ways they are working in their respective communities in the area of urban revitalization and social inclusion. The public symposium that followed, Invigorating Communities: Learning from Four Successful Initiatives in the United States, featured Ruth Abram, President, Lower East Side Tenement Museum, Rick Lowe, artist and Founder, Project Row Houses in Houston and other U.S. participants talking about their work before a Japanese audience.

Japan Society’s Innovators initiative has sparked many conversations and collaborations among participants, and will continue to do so as the Network grows and evolves.  In spring 2008, Japan Society and Marty Ashby, Executive Producer of MCG Jazz, will embark on “Jazz is Life,” a series of concerts with U.S. and Japanese jazz musicians and public dialogues in cities across the United States. Kohei Nishiyama, CEO and Founder of elephant design co., ltd, is working with input from many Network innovators to create a “Wish Maker” website, harnessing the power of the web to raise consciousness.

In the months ahead, we are planning retreats, public programs, projects and exchanges on topics such as fostering young social entrepreneurs, building new models for disaster preparedness, creating new approaches to applying financial and business methodologies in the fight against poverty, and the impact of emerging technology on society.

In collaboration with The New School in New York, for instance, Innovators Network member Hiroshi Tasaka, Professor at Tama University in Tokyo and President of Thinktank SophiaBank, will give a talk Beyond Web 2.0: How the Next Tech Revolution will Change the World on November 29, 2007. 

On February 6, 2008, we will host a public symposium in Tokyo featuring Jim Donald, President and CEO, Starbucks. Called For Profit, For Good: Integrating Social Value into the Bottom Line, the event, cosponsored by the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, will explore how traditional corporate social responsibility in the U.S. and Japan is being replaced by new models that more effectively blend social value into the bottom line. It also will look at how non-profits are using business methodology to increase their impact.

The U.S.-Japan Innovators Network will continue to bring new and exciting opportunities for creative Americans and Japanese to learn from each other and work together in the months and years ahead. Realizing the vision the U.S.-Japan Innovators Network would not have been possible without the far-sighted support of The Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership, for which Japan Society is tremendously grateful.

Daniel Rosenblum
Vice President, and Director of Corporate and Policy, Japan Society

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