Dream-based Social Innovation in Japan

Professor Takashi Iwamoto of Keio Business School, Keio University, Japan, shares the success story of the Everyone’s Dream Award, a model for others to follow.

On the green hills of Japan

Where there’s a WHILL, there’s a way

I have a dream” – the phrase has become legend ever since Martin Luther King inspired the world and those striving for human rights in August 1963. Imagine though, that this dream took another form, place and time. For example, ‘I have a dream that one day on the green hills of Japan, the students of universities and business schools, investors and the entrepreneurs of Japan will sit down together at the table of social innovation and in the heat of inspiration use their dreams for the good of all…

Well, fact is, this dream has come true. And it comes in the form of the Minna-no-yume Award – Everyone’s Dream Award – held annually since its inception in 2010 and sparked by the work of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus and the presence in Japan of the Grameen and Yunus Organization Network alongside organisations and universities. In a nutshell, Everyone’s Dream Award is a nation-wide competition for dream-based social innovation that sees the winners and their inventions propelled into the spotlights of the media and, more to the point, the portfolios of seed funding organisations and investment banks.

Dream deep – and especially dream deep technologies  

Astroscale takes you to the moon

The event typically attracts several hundreds of startups and organisations throughout the country, the Everyone’s Dream Award long-list selection (30 or so innovators) being made through a number of initiatives that include local pitch events, the Social Business Gran Prix run by the Social Entrepreneur School, set up in 2010, and the Global Agriculture Dream Plan Presentation, an idea first sown in October 2013 and now a fully-grown annual event in itself.

Everyone’s Dream Award targets startups that use deep technology, a term that remains to be clearly defined but which tends to differentiate between entrepreneurs who use existing technology (a “technology startup”) and those whose business is launched and developed around unique, differentiated, usually scientifically-discovered innovations (“Deep technology startups”). The problem, for many young companies, is that achieving social innovation in deep technology is tough, not least because it requires big investment. However, the Everyone’s Dream Award has clearly taken on not only a role of showcase for social innovation, but also ‘accelerator’ in the eco-system of social innovation through access to potential seed funding and investment banks.

How to judge a dream

Ory-ginal thinking

The innovations that make it to the finals of the award are assessed according to 3 criteria: sympathy – can the dream manage to excite everyone? Sociability – can the dream contribute to society? And finally, concreteness and feasibility – is the plan to achieve the dream concrete and able to be rolled out over time? The creator who presents the winning social innovation product is awarded over JPY 20m (approx. $80,000), though the potential gains can be multiplied by the would-be investors waiting in the wings and ready to spot a future hit product.

Notable winners of the Award include WHILL, a company founded in 2012 and that develops new-generation wheelchairs to reinvent the personal mobility experience for consumers with all types of disability. Its prize-winning innovation also won the 2015 ‘Technology That Improves Lives’ video contest run in Japan, as well as the Japanese Good Design Award 2015 among 1,258 other participants and their tech designs. Another example is the Ory Laboratory, developing remotely-controlled communication robots, that has gone on to gain visibility abroad in countries as diverse as Saudi Arabia, Taiwan and Norway. And Astroscale, 2015 winner, who had the foresight to propose innovative solutions to capture and render harmless the incredible amount of space debris that is accumulating above the planet.

The bigger picture

Using WHILL, Ory Laboratory and Astroscale as examples, the beneficial impact of the Everyone’s Dream event can clearly be seen: being selected as a finalist not only drastically increases public exposure, it also allows the deep tech startups to pitch directly to potential investors and grow business, build on brand image and, ultimately, speed up the process to make the dream come true and fly the social innovation flag. Now an established and recognized national event, the Everyone’s Dream Award has spurred other organisations to reinforce the eco-system for social innovation in Japan. This is good news for a bigger dream – connecting the world of business to the wider responsibility it has to its customers, communities and stakeholders: society.

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