By Rosalyn Kutsch (FCRH ’19/IPE). A Fordham University sophomore writes about her exciting social innovation experience in Japan this summer. The opportunity was made available to AshokaU Changemaker Campuses through a generous grant from the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine.
The little island of Osakikamijima can be found amongst the cluster of islands in the Seto Inland Sea. The island is a short ferry boat ride off the coast of Hiroshima, one of Japan’s major cities. Many call it a representation of the “ideal Japan” as it is a place brimming with history and natural resources and enjoys minimal contact with the world beyond Japan. However, despite the lush forests and colorful waters, the island is struggling. Almost half of the island’s population is considered elderly, and for years it has been facing an economic decline. It is in dire need of rejuvenation or it faces the possibility of gradual depopulation and deterioration.
With this in mind, I found myself on Osakikamijima with 23 other university students from around the world. For the next 10 days, this oasis would be the place of design, discovery and imagination. We were given the task of “redesigning Japanese higher education”–later learning that this meant we were helping design a college for the island. A college, with the students and employment that it would bring to the island, is the best way to address the economic and cultural problems faced by the population.
To put this in better perspective, take The College of the Atlantic as an example. The College of the Atlantic is a little alternative college nestled on Bar Harbor Island in Maine. It was created by a businessman in the 1970s with the intent of reinvigorating the declining economic landscape of the area. Today, the island serves a significant tourist population every year and the college stands as a testament to the linkage between education and economic prosperity. Just months ago, COA was commissioned by Japanese education advisers and concerned islanders to help see if it was again possible to revitalize a dying island with a college.
Each of the students on the trip was from an ASHOKA University Changemaker Campus. The ASHOKA network supports students and universities with a focus in social entrepreneurship. Because of this, the programs we were developing used human-centered design–a technique of problem-solving that places great emphasis on the perspectives of those the solution is geared towards. For example, as we developed projects that we thought the college should incorporate, we connected with community members in an effort to understand their specific needs and desires. We spoke to a Buddhist monk whose family had been protecting the local temple for 15 generations. We listened to a blueberry farmer describe his hope for a better future for the island. We heard the plight of young students who felt there wasn’t enough to do on the island. We heard from teachers, local government officials, businessmen and immigrants to the island–all with unique problems and desires to improve their way of life.
At the end of the field research, we designed projects in specific areas–such as community development, sustainable energy, or business. In my own experience working with the community development group, I saw that the major needs and desires of the islanders came down to a few main things: an exchange of culture and ideas, increased entertainment, and community involvement and transparency. To address these, we brain-stormed with both educational programs and physical design. For example, we knew that a large fence bordering the buildings was common in traditional Japanese schools. While the fence was a cultural norm and helped to promote safety, it would inhibit the cultural exchange and transparency the community members so desired. The wish for a space or cafeteria where community members and students could come together was also mentioned frequently. It could be a place to host lectures and presentations that would both address the lack of entertainment on the island and facilitate the desire for exchange of knowledge between cultures and generations. Ultimately, my group designed a host family/sponsor matching database where students and community members could connect based on specific needs. A student could be connected with a family for dinner or local festival or a community member could find a tutor for their children. Projects like these were then presented to the mayor and to potential supporters and investors of the college.
From what I observed, even if our specific programs are not implemented, our presence on the island was vital to the future success of the college. Having 24 young, energetic foreign students showed the island what could be possible with the establishment of a school. It demonstrated that it was a serious project, not just the empty dreams of a faraway entity. Above all else, this project demonstrated the importance of including the community in the process to ensure a sustainable, feasible and robust solution. See video