How can rural Japan conquer the challenges of an aging population, low birth rates and a mass exodus of young people to big cities?
That’s exactly what students from 10 rural Japanese schools set out to address with the second annual Rakuten IT School NEXT. Volunteer Rakuten employees made the journey out to the 10 locations around the country in mid-2019, holding three-day summer workshops to kick off a five-month collaboration that culminated in creative solutions for local issues.
Last month, a team from each school was carefully selected to be invited to Tokyo to present their solutions at IDO (Impact Days of Optimists) 2019, an event run by Rakuten’s Sustainability Department.
Working toward “an ideal 2030”
The theme of the project was “An Ideal 2030,” and students were encouraged to apply modern technology to problems currently facing their communities. Each presentation was judged by a supportive audience and a panel of judges, including Rakuten co-founder and Chief Wellbeing Officer Masatada “Seichu” Kobayashi and Rakuten Group Executive Vice President, CIO and CISO Yasufumi Hirai.
Hirai reminisced about the pre-internet days of his youth to the students in Tokyo. “What on earth was I doing at your age? It was 1978. I was probably down in the arcade playing Space Invaders instead of studying, listening to UFO by Pink Lady on repeat. Back then, we didn’t have email. We didn’t even have the internet. No smartphones!”
He highlighted the importance of using the technology at our disposal today to make a positive impact for tomorrow.
“The internet really has become the fourth major pillar of social infrastructure, after electricity, gas and water. And it’s still evolving ― AI, big data, AR/VR, IoT ― all sorts of new tech are emerging. But in reality, this technology is nothing more than an enabler,” he stressed. “The technology will keep on evolving. The question is, how are we going to use it? We need ideas and innovation from people to truly realize technology’s value. That’s what you are all doing here today: You’re applying this new technology in a sustainable way with a completely fresh perspective.”
Local issues require local solutions
Each of the schools presented technology-driven solutions to issues facing their own communities. Kamaishi High School in Iwate Prefecture was commended for building a system using interactive video games to keep their town’s aging population active and healthy.
“We originally started this project because we wanted to play video games,” admitted one student after receiving the prize. “But we ended up building some great relationships and coming all the way to Tokyo to win an award.”
Yuge Island in Ehime Prefecture is only accessible by ferry and also struggles with age demographics. The students of Yuge High School won a prize for creating a YouTube series and using social media to market the island’s potential as a great place for young people to live and work.
“We wanted to build a future in which even our generation could live and work on the island,” the students explained. “People on the island tend to have quite a negative outlook on life, but we realized that all you need to do is try.”
The remote island of Kumejima, Okinawa, has traditions that date back centuries ― including the three-stringed sanshin lute, a precursor to the well-known shamisen. The students designed a framework of community events to keep the sanshin musical tradition alive on the island in a sustainable way that overcomes generational divide.
Common sense: It’s a trap!
“There is nothing you can’t do. You just need to try.” Rakuten co-founder Kobayashi closed out the event with a rousing speech. “You could fail, but even that’s a learning experience. But if you don’t even try, you’ll never get anywhere.”
Kobayashi left the students with a piece of Rakuten wisdom: “There are a lot of traps you need to take care of growing up. One of those is called ‘common sense.’ Humans have spent hundreds of years building up this idea of common sense, and as a result, the world is full of people who use common sense as an excuse for why they can’t do something,” he told the crowd. “If some adult ever tells you your idea is ridiculous ― that it’ll never work ― ignore them! Try it anyway. Giving it a try is the first step toward the future.”