Is inclusivity a zero-sum game? Experts discuss at Rakuten Optimism 2023

When was the last time you made a compromise?

It may sound like a tricky job interview question aimed at probing your soft skills, but compromise – or the lack of it – may be at the heart of one of society’s most pressing problems: making the essential products and services we all use more inclusive for everyone.

This was the focus of the Rakuten Optimism 2023 session, Eliminating Barriers by Unleashing the Power of Diversity for Innovation.

The panel session saw Rakuten Group’s Chief Well-Being Officer, Masatada Kobayashi joined by Hirotada Ototake, a best-selling author born with the genetic condition tetra-amelia syndrome, and Kaede Sari, an architectural designer who identifies as a member of the LGBTQ+ community.

Inclusive services: A zero-sum game?

Realizing an inclusive society is about creating freedom from discrimination so that all people can feel they are accepted for who they are. For an internet services company like Rakuten, Kobayashi says this means ensuring that services can be accessed by everyone who needs them.

Sari Kaede, an architectural designer, also gives lectures on LGBTQ+ issues and provides branding services.
Sari Kaede, an architectural designer, also gives lectures on LGBTQ+ issues and provides branding services.

 “Are we providing services that a diverse range of customers can access? Are our products inclusive? These are questions we are working on across the company, with each department and each business.”

One of the challenges that arises in this pursuit is the zero-sum game. Sari summarized the problem, referencing an all-gender toilet she designed in Iidabashi, Tokyo.

“People who had been fine with the normal men and women bathrooms start to complain. For example, a woman might be surprised when she goes to use the bathroom and a man comes out” she explained. “I realized that it’s a zero-sum game, where convenience for one person reduces convenience for others.”

The all-gender toilet, designed by Sari.
The all-gender toilet, designed by Sari.

Zero-sum games require that one party compromise for a solution to be found. However, Sari emphasized that when it comes to these situations, for a long time, the needs of minorities have often been neglected.

“Until now, when developing a product or designing a building, you just had to consider around 90% of the people. As long as 90% were satisfied, then it was fine if the other 10% complained that they couldn’t use it.”

Choice as a catalyst for social progress

Re-framing the issue, Ototake posited that social barriers are caused by a lack of choices.

“I’m heterosexual, so I have the option of getting married. If I happened to be born homosexual, or transgender, then the family register system would not allow the option of getting married with someone of the same gender in Japan” he stressed.  “So, I believe that we can call this lack of choice a social barrier.”

Ototake ran as an independent candidate in the Japanese House of Councilors elections in 2022. With his slogan, “Let’s have more choices,” inclusion formed the focus of his campaign. Despite not being elected, his 320,000 votes showed there is a high degree of interest in inclusion among some of the Japanese electorate.

Hirotada Ototake wrote “No One’s Perfect” in 1998, which became a bestseller and sold more than 6 million copies.
Hirotada Ototake wrote “No One’s Perfect” in 1998, which became a bestseller and sold more than 6 million copies.

The power of speech is one weapon that can be used to increase choices. Comedian Daimao Kosaka, facilitating the session, highlighted the positive effect of the term “cool biz” in Japan. The phrase has helped to remove the expectation that company employees wear a jacket and tie to work, even during the sweltering summer months. Since the two words – popularized by Tokyo Governor Koike – became mainstream, Japan’s summer dress code loosened up, giving employees more choice.

Blending creativity and technology

One solution to the problem of the zero-sum game is technology. Ototake gives the example of tactile paving: a type of ground surface that assists visually impaired people. In the past, the bumpy surface could cause problems for wheel-chair users. But with the introduction of special textured materials, the paving can still be felt by visually impaired pedestrians, while causing no issues for people on wheels.

Tactile paving was first introduced in Japan in the 1960s.
Tactile paving was first introduced in Japan in the 1960s.

Ototake suggests that technological advancements can be especially effective when changing people’s attitudes towards inclusivity can be time-consuming.

“Of course, it is important to try to change everyone’s mindset. But that takes time. Therefore, my philosophy is to proactively use technology to achieve win-win results for everyone in the areas where it can be applied.”

Using creativity to devise inclusive solutions though, is just as crucial as the technology itself. Ototake references Kentaro Yoshifuji, co-founder of OriHime, a company that developed a remote-controlled robot for combatting loneliness. “Yoshifuji said that the important thing is not to create the most high-tech solution you can, but to have the ideas and imagination to be inclusive for people, using existing technology.”

Finding a place where we all belong

As companies, governments and NGOs step up their efforts on inclusive services, Ototake says he feels positive change has been made. “It’s become a different world with all-gender bathrooms installed, most buses wheelchair compatible, and elevators in almost all train stations.”

Progress has also been spurred on in Japan by a steady increase in the number of employed people with disabilities. The figure reached a record high of approximately 614,000 in 2022*1. This was thanks to legislation requiring companies to ensure their workforces meet a set ratio of people with disabilities.

Government action can only achieve so much though.

To create an environment where designing inclusive services becomes the norm, everyone needs to be able to feel the value that comes from eliminating barriers – and accept the compromise that entails. Not just the people most directly affected by a lack of choice.

“Of course, it is the people who are being held back by those barriers and disabilities who are motivated to overcome them.” Sari concluded. “But If society doesn’t see an incentive there, then it’s difficult to change.”

Kobayashi believes that if more people can feel this value, it will lead to a more welcoming society, where people can find a true sense of belonging. 

“It’s important for each and every one of us to change our thinking, and to think about others” he said. “We each need a place we can be. A place where we want to be. A place where we’re allowed to be. And we at Rakuten will put all our effort into creating services that provide different places to be in society.”

You can view this session and others from Rakuten Optimism 2023 here.

*1 Source: “Aggregate result of employment status of persons with disabilities.” Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, December 23, 2022. (Japanese page)

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