Innovation Studio Fukuoka

Innovation Studio Fukuoka (ISF) is an initiative with big ambitions. On meeting Esben Grøndal, a Danish Intern with the ISF, currently studying for a Masters in Service Design back in Denmark, and Takeshi Okahashi, Director of Re:public, the company responsible for the ISF, this quickly becomes clear. Established in 2014 and co-founded by Hiroshi Tamura, former director of the Innovation School (iSchool) at the University of Tokyo, the ISF is a type of Entrepreneurship Class which aims to generate new businesses in Fukuoka.

Hiroshi Tamura, the co-founder of Re:public offers research guidance to participants of ISF's very first workshop during the 'Uncover' phase.

Hiroshi Tamura, the co-founder of Re:public offers research guidance to participants of ISF’s very first workshop during the ‘Uncover’ phase.

Put simply, the pair describes the Innovation Studio Fukuoka as an organisation which promotes Citizen Innovation. It brings together dynamic individuals with a diverse range of skills to create new companies, startups and business developments. Believed by Takeshi to be the first initiative of its kind in Japan, the ISF offers free, sixth-month workshops-cum-courses which are designed to encourage current business owners and budding entrepreneurs to pursue their ideas. Through a hands-on, practical programme, participants explore chosen project-themes and think-up new businesses which would thrive in Fukuoka. So far the ISF has run four projects on a variety of topics, including ‘Design for Children with Disabilities’ and ‘Designing Sports in Daily Activities.’

Fukuoka District Council conceived of the ISF in a bid to support the sustainable growth of Fukuoka as a globally competitive city. In turn, they hired the company Re:public, a ‘Think and Do Tank’, to develop and manage the Innovation Studio. The primary aim of the ISF is education, and Takeshi highlights that regardless of the outcome or end result of the workshop, an insight into the business world is something which all participants can be sure to take away. Half of each programme is funded by Fukuoka District Council, with the remaining half funded by several big-name sponsors including Docomo Ventures, Toyota Western Japan and Nishitetsu. Some of these companies then send their own employees to participate in the projects in order to broaden their education and allow them additional insights into areas of potential entrepreneurship in Fukuoka.
As far as the ISF is concerned, a kinesthetic approach is the name of the game. Takeshi, who joined the ISF just after its pilot project, explains that is rare to find such a workshop in Japan, where a business education is traditionally more book-focused. The ISF is thus designed to provide real-life experience specifically relevant to Fukuoka. Esben, who is visiting Japan for his seventh time, describes Fukuoka as a dynamic and vibrant city, believing it to be the ideal location for exploring a business venture. Fukuoka is large without being huge, and busy without being overwhelming. Indeed two programme participants have moved from Tokyo to Fukuoka to further their business idea, seeing the huge potential for success in this region.

Conducting research: participants are encouraged to interview stakeholders in their research ideas, and observing people's lives is one way in which to gain stronger, more relevant interviews.

Conducting research: participants are encouraged to interview stakeholders in their research ideas, and observing people’s lives is one way in which to gain stronger, more relevant interviews.

Approximately thirty participants are chosen from online applications, and motivation and passion for the project theme are key to being selected. Participants typically range from 20 – 40 years old, comprising students, business owners, and people looking to turn their hand to business. The vast majority are Japanese, which Esben suggests may be a result of a language barrier, however, with the aid of Takeshi’s perfect English, the ISF has seen some Danes participate in its projects over the past two years.

In phase one of the programme, participants are shown how to effectively conduct and structure research into the chosen theme. The onus is very much on participants to form sub-groups based on their interests and ideas and to commit as much time as they can to exploring them further over the next two months. During this time the ISF offers lectures on interviewing techniques to enable the participants to make full use of the research period.

Participants then regroup for the second phase of the process, ‘Ideation.’ Teams are taught to evaluate and develop ideas and have the constant support of relevant industry leaders. A prototyping period then ensues, during which participants test the viability of their ideas. This phase concludes two months later with a grand presentation where the ideas are pitched to a panel of experts. Thought Leaders, professionals and investors all offer advice on how to move ideas forward and bring businesses to life.

Taken at an 'Inspire Workshop': here, research is presented, and 'Ideation' begins, with discussion as to where a business opportunity might lie.

Taken at an ‘Inspire Workshop’: here, research is presented, and ‘Ideation’ begins, with discussion as to where a business opportunity might lie.

Participants are mentored by Re:public employees, all of whom have moved to Fukuoka from elsewhere in Japan. Like Takeshi, who has a great deal of experience working and studying abroad, including at the University of Warwick in the UK and the Copenhagen Institute of Interactive Design in Denmark, they each bring with them a wealth of international experience acquired from travelling around Japan and further afield. Indeed throughout the programme’s two year existence, the ISF has been keen to broaden its horizons and experiment with international partnerships. In March 2014, they organised an Idea Exchange with the Danish Design Centre, with participants in Denmark and Japan both working on the same theme and meeting to discuss ideas. However, although global partnerships are the ISF’s long-term aim, for the moment they are concentrating their efforts on Japan.

With all participants juggling participation in this programme with their existing jobs, connection is key. Throughout the duration of a project all participants are linked through the online messaging programme Chat Work. Participants graduate the programme having found new contacts in their peers, an Alumni network of previous participants and industry experts. Importantly, Esben stresses that this diverse pool of contacts contains many newly successful entrepreneurs who still have ‘dirt under their nails’: entrepreneurs who understand the difficulties associated with creating a new business and who can offer advice and support on a grassroots level.

November 15 2015 saw the official conclusion of ISF’s forth project, ‘Design of Hidden Resources’. This project concentrates on making use of otherwise redundant entities – be that wasted space, or wasted materials – with teams exploring a range of ideas, including up-cycling leftover quality materials and restoring vacant houses to revitalise neighborhoods. However, Esben explains that despite the final presentation marking the end of the course, it is very much the beginning for the participants. They will now use their newly acquired skills and take their ideas further, hopefully bringing them to fruition over the coming year. On completion of the programme, participants are encouraged to make use of Tenjin’s Startup Café for additional guidance and support. To-date, around 30% of ideas grown in the ISF have become real businesses and expectations are high for the forth project, which the ISF hopes will see a higher than average turn around.

Day two of an 'Inspire Workshop': groups form around popular ideas.

Day two of an ‘Inspire Workshop’: groups form around popular ideas.

The future of the ISF is currently uncertain, however, with no concrete plan for a fifth project to take place. Both Esben and Takeshi hope to see the ISF continue and thrive, gradually becoming ever more innovative and international. As Esben explains, there is a guaranteed, strong support-network in place and Re:public are constantly available to offer any kind of guidance or contacts required, but it is up to the participants to drive their ideas to success.

Although the task of building a new business is no mean feat, business is all about passion, and with the passion for the ISF which oozes from Esben, Takeshi and the other creative minds behind the initiative, participants in this programme could not ask for better support or encouragement. It’s now over to them to continue to grow and further their ideas, embracing Fukuoka’s potential and contributing to its vibrancy.

Text: Hannah Smith, for Fukuoka Now

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