How Charles Lindbergh Can Save Japan (Part 2)

Read Part 1

Why Do We Need a J PRIZE?

Aside from the obvious shortcomings of research funding in Japan, why can’t we just rely on domestic organizations to come up with intelligent, workable solutions to these problems? After all, Japan has produced several Nobel laureates in both physics and chemistry in just the past decade. Surely domestic research is up to the task of tackling any problems on the horizon?

The short answer is: If the U.S., with more researchers, more labs, bigger budgets, and, frankly, higher-ranked research facilities than Japan, could achieve the goals of the X PRIZE, the X PRIZE would not exist. The fact that it exists proves that traditional approaches cannot achieve such ambitious targets with tight deadlines. I see no reason to believe that Japan could outperform the U.S. in this regard, and ample reason to believe the opposite: that Japan would actually face far greater difficulties in meeting these challenges.

The purpose of the X PRIZE is to do what no ordinary research institution can do — bring together the best minds from academic, corporate, and public-sector organizations, not just in America (where research is already far more international than it is in Japan), but by actively reaching out to individuals and teams from all over the planet to find internationally-inspired solutions.

Although no one disputes that there is much leading-edge research being done here, even Japanese researchers admit that their facilities are extremely provincial. There are token visiting researchers from overseas, sometimes well-known professors from foreign academic or research institutions, but that is a far cry from creating a truly international working environment. Why is that so important? Because diversity is one of the keys to creativity, and creativity is the ultimate necessary condition for success.

Imagine, for example, that America’s most creative firms, such as Apple, Google, and Microsoft, started out in business by hiring only white, male graduates of Ivy League universities. While those engineers might all be among the smartest people in the country, they could not have created Apple or Google or Microsoft. Successful high-tech companies all understand that people with similar backgrounds and similar ideas will inevitably produce similar, quite predictable results. That just isn’t good enough. What is needed in today’s world is the unpredictable, the spark of genius that comes from dramatically different perspectives and brilliantly unorthodox approaches to a problem. Silicon Valley is full of Indians and Vietnamese and Chinese and other nationalities, both men and women, young and old, Ph.D.s and college dropouts, because those people have something just as valuable as high IQs to offer their employers — they embody a diversity of opinion and perspective that is essential to creative thinking. Furthermore, the diversity and cross-pollination between different scientific disciplines like physics, chemistry, biology, etc. is even more important than the cultural diversity in finding better solutions.

People often ask me about the “magic” that makes Silicon Valley such a hotbed for growing mega-successful companies. I tell them that the magic has much less to do with money and a lot more to do with leveraging a constantly changing melting pot of international brainpower in an open environment that encourages dissension, argument, and personal challenge. Without the productive give-and-take of ideas that comes from people having different perspectives, and especially from people respecting each other’s opinions, creative problem-solving is handcuffed.

Needless to say, Japan has long prided itself on the strength of its homogeneous culture, and I will be the first to admit that there are many significant social advantages to that homogeneity. But when it comes to imagining a radical, unprecedented approach to containing a runaway nuclear facility with time running out, my first choice for a creative solution team would not be people who all studied in the same national school system, grew up reading the same books and watching the same TV programs, went to the same or nearly identical universities (none of which, by the way, is ranked in the top 15 in the world), and were promoted to their current posts largely because they have learned to subordinate their own ideas to those of their superiors. If given excellent guidance and lots of time and money, such people are capable of developing workable solutions to almost any problem. Unfortunately, there is no time and there are no leaders to guide them toward pre-determined solutions. We need action; we need results; we need excellent, not just workable solutions — and we needed them yesterday.

Not Just Hard Work, Teamwork

Another critical point that the X PRIZE people understand and that we in Japan should emulate is that teamwork trumps individual brilliance every time. The X PRIZE approach emphasizes not only a diversity of individuals, but the importance of their interaction as part of a team. Competitors come from all over the world and from every type of organization, but they work together towards a common goal. Individual egos must be left behind if a team is going to succeed. This may seem obvious, and yet it is quite different from the normal situation here in Japan.
From what I have seen in my years working with some of this country’s best-known research organizations, teamwork in Japan is all too often a matter of hard-working staff members supporting the research (or the reputation) of some prominent sensei. Teams here are rigidly hierarchical and governed by equally rigid, unwritten rules of order. Try to imagine a junior researcher saying to his superior, “Sensei, that’s a really dumb idea, and we’ll waste six months proving it’s a dumb idea. Here, take a look at this plan I’ve sketched out for a short-path to a workable solution, and tell me how to improve it …” You can’t imagine it because it is virtually unthinkable in the Japanese context.

But that is precisely the kind of thinking that is necessary to solve “impossible” problems. One of the underlying assumptions of the X PRIZE is that the only way for competitors to succeed is to throw away old norms, question scientific “common sense”, and challenge anyone who says that something can’t be done.

In addition to team-building, it is also important for researchers to work together with private industry to tackle real-world problems. The hojokin system today supports research in a vacuum, which often leads to technological developments that are interesting for their own sake but of no practical or commercial use. Of course, that does not mean we should ignore basic research, only that when you have a ticking time bomb in your back yard, you need to look for practical solutions in a hurry. Private industry is much better at focusing on what is practical and is also accustomed to pushing development projects to meet a deadline. Yet they, too, can benefit from outside input, such as that of independent researchers from academic or other public institutions. In other words, the J PRIZE needs to reach out to all creative people, regardless of their status or the organization, and combine their efforts. One of the best outcomes of a J PRIZE attempt would be to cross-pollinate apparently unrelated fields of research to see if unexpected synergies between ideas might achieve breakthrough solutions.

Team Japan

I hope it is clear by now that I am not in any way attacking Japan or belittling its research prowess. On the contrary, my single-minded goal is to bring together the latent power and creativity that I have seen here, and unite it with the same kind of energy and innovative thinking from around the world. The J PRIZE is an international effort whose first and foremost goal is to help Japan. Thus, the Prize needs to be coordinated here in Japan. Foreign participation is not merely welcome, but must be actively solicited, for reasons that I have already explained. However, I see nothing wrong with requiring all foreign teams to work together with at least one Japanese partner so as to guarantee some Japanese input in each approach.
Like everyone in this country today, I am concerned about the future. Not 20 or 30 years down the road, but next year, and the year after that. How much more radiation will leak into our environment? How many more people will be affected? And if we shrink in fear from nuclear power in general, what will we use to replace it? How will we prevent nationwide power shortages in the years to come? The answers to these problems do not lie with any one research institution, nor with any university, nor with any political party. The answers — and I believe there are good answers — lie waiting to be discovered by a competitive, nonpartisan, globally coordinated effort.

I feel enormous pride when I watch Japan’s national teams compete at the Olympics or the World Cup. I am overwhelmed with emotion when I see how Japanese fans rally behind them. And not just sports fans — politicians, scholars, corporate rivals, even foreigners who care about this country all come together to root for Nadeshiko Japan or Samurai Blue. Now the time has come to build a new Team Japan (perhaps even several of them) composed of our best and brightest researchers and engineers, and combine them with the best and brightest minds from around the world to solve our biggest crises while there is still time. I see the J PRIZE as a catalyst that can propel us quickly toward that goal. Even more, I believe the J PRIZE effort will give us a better chance to succeed than any other strategy, and in the current situation, winning is the only option.

Posted by jeffrey

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William H. Saito