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Global Innovation Design ‘Cultural Immersion’ Project in Kochi, Japan

As part of a process of ‘cultural immersion’, 11 students from Global Innovation Design (GID) spent two weeks in Kochi on the south coast of Shikoku island, Japan, prior to commencing their semester in Tokyo. Currently in their first year of study, the students are only the second year to be recruited to the new programme, which runs jointly at the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London, with significant periods of study at Keio University in Tokyo and the Pratt Institute in New York. 

The field trip was led by GID Senior Tutor Dr John Stevens, teaching assistant and Innovation Design Engineering graduate Tokushu Inamura, and local co-ordinator Sayuri Ozawa, who works at the i.School, the University of Tokyo’s innovation centre.

Intended to increase awareness of and sensitivity to Japanese culture, the students were given the opportunity to experience life outside the Tokyo megalopolis. In many ways, Kochi City and the surrounding prefecture reflect a more typical Japan, and through a series of activities and workshops, staff and students met people who have lived all their lives in Kochi.

‘You are expected to tune in to all that is around you,’ students were instructed, ‘to experience your time here both as a visiting foreign tourist, and as a designer/innovator: critical, curious and alert to opportunities. Pay attention, notice everything.’

The adventure began with a series of group tasks that took in Kochi City’s major landmarks and ended with a rewarding visit to the gustatory delights of Hirome Market. Away from Kochi City, the group visited Kure Taisho Ichiba fish market and Nishioka Shuzo sake brewery, before arriving at Kuroshio-cho and dividing amongst three homestay locations. There, each group prepared food with their host families, discussing their lives and learning about their culture, including living with the significant and constant threat to the region of tsunami. Students were struck by the fragility of this existence, and the extraordinary hospitality was an experience that many found humbling.

Following visits to Yusuhara for a paper-making workshop, and a hair-raising knife workshop – both local speciality industries – the group joined other students from the Kochi University of Technology (KUT) and visiting students from the University of Tokyo i.School for a three-day collaborative innovation workshop on the theme of encouraging ‘lifestyle migration’ into the region.

Working in mixed teams of four, students worked across languages, cultures and disciplines, reflecting a core value of the GID programme, which aims to offer a chance to acquire intercultural competence and understanding, essential for a future where graduates will be expected to work in multicultural and multidisciplinary environments.

Using idea generation methods common to the GID way of working, the groups made rough sketch models and took these into the streets to engage people and get their insights into their proposals. They came up with diverse projects to increase awareness of Kochi and attract more visitors and migrants to the area, from a skincare brand utilising local products of seaweed, washi (paper) and bamboo, to a project that tapped into the strong local surfing community. While these projects are unlikely to be realised, the hope is that they seed ideas for people who are approaching these issues locally, including Professor Nakagawa of KUT, a social scientist who specialises in this area and proposed the theme.

As a programme, GID was established in response to a demand for creative thinking to bring about innovation in society. As John Stevens reflected following his return to London, ‘We don’t know what students will go on to do yet, but we have a vision of producing people who are going to innovate on a life-changing or world-changing scale. We try to equip them with an awareness of global issues, an awareness of their own cultural perspectives – and the limitations they might have – and an attitude and set of tools that might equip them to tackle those issues.’