Championing an Alternative Creative Society with Different Traditions, Systems, and Ideas

The 12th Topos Conference was held at Academyhills (Roppongi Hills Mori Tower),Tokyo, on May 31, 2018. Under the theme of "Championing an Alternative Creative Society - Towards Greater Social Inclusion and Happiness," this conference discussed the dynamism of a society in which many alternatives are created.

The Topos Conference is a series of international conferences where researchers and people from industry gather to discuss solutions to global challenges. It is hosted by the World Wise Web Initiative (w3i), a research organization. Topos means "place" in Greek. The 12th Topos Conference consisted of three sessions.

  • Topos 1: Alternative Society
  • Topos 2: Alternative Ways of Living
  • Topos 3: Alternative Companies
Noboru Konno, Professor, Tama University Graduate School

In the opening keynote, conference moderator and w3i Founder Noboru Konno, Professor of Tama Graduate School, explained the purpose of the twelfth conference. In his words, the conference's theme, namely the term "alternative," refers to "options or alternatives to traditional or established systems and ideas."

He stated, "Here, alternative does not mean a dualism, like 'A or B' or 'right or left.' Rather, it refers to generating a third option beyond the binary. Today, things that have thus far been on the periphery have begun to create the next majorities. How to step into this new era is this conference's major theme."

He cited a survey by the Future Center Alliance Japan (FCAJ) that showed 76% of respondents were "not satisfied with Japanese society" (only 1.7% were "satisfied"), while the majority were satisfied to some extent with their daily lives.

"Given such circumstances and a lack of big pictures for society, there are even possibilities of totalitarianism. There is a distrust of politics, economics, and enterprises all over the world," he said. Dr. Konno then presented a hypothesis for discussion: "As we become more open to alternative ideas, change and progress will accelerate, and greater diversity and open-mindedness will be realized."

Topos 1: Alternative Society

In Topos 1, the first session, Mr. Hiroyuki Kurimoto (Executive Director, Supporting Association for Student Council Activity JAPAN), Ms. Audrey Tang (Digital Minister, Taiwan), and Prof. Yasuo Baba (Professor, Faculty of Sociology, Daito Bunka University) took the podium to speak on the theme of "Alternative Society."

Aiming for an Alternative Political Platform

The session began with a video message from Mr. Uffe Elbæk (Co-founder of 'The Alternative') that introduced the activities of The Alternative, a political party founded in 2013 in Denmark.
He explained that he began new political activities in Denmark because he identified three major challenges facing the country, all of which were global in nature.

First is the climate crisis. According to him, "The climate crisis is a challenge that requires us to completely rethink how we understand society as well as how we organize ourselves and the economic system under which we live."

Second is the empathy crisis. "In the world today, there is a growing lack of sympathy and capacity to understand others, and this trend is particularly prominent in young people. The intelligence, skills, and capacity to understand others and to accept others' views have been weakening. This is not only in Denmark; it is a global phenomenon."

Third is the system crisis. According to him, society consists of three pillars: the private sector, the public sector, and NGOs. The problems that Denmark and other European countries now face cannot be solved by a single country. In his view, "hybrid solutions" must be developed to address these challenges.

Mr. Elbæk continued, "The Alternative strives to create a new political platform, not just to position itself as a political party." Going forward, The Alternative will strive to create new political media, new educational institutions, new think tanks, and so forth on top of this platform.

Encouraging Young People to Participate in Politics

Hiroyuki Kurimoto, Executive Director, Supporting Association for Student Council Activity JAPAN

Next, Mr. Hiroyuki Kurimoto spoke of his experience and practice of "promoting political participation by young people." He is a university student who carries out activities under the themes of "promoting youth participation in politics and society," "promoting international exchanges," and "developing citizenship education." The Cabinet Office's White Paper on Children and Young People defines "youths" as people aged up to 34. This age group has a low participation rate in politics.

"It is uncertain how long the current social system can continue. Young people, who should give the most serious thought to politics, do not actively participate politically, which I think is a problem. My activities primarily focus on how to empower young people to affect political and social discussions and decisions as well as how to create places for them to do so." (Mr. Kurimoto)

He currently focuses on two themes: promoting youth participation in policy decision-making processes and continuing citizenship education.

"The Diet and local assemblies have many elderly lawmakers but few young ones - this is not a normal situation in terms of the balance between generations. I believe we can promote a healthier balance by widening the age range." (Mr. Kurimoto)

In May 2016, the Public Offices Election Law was revised, and the voting age was reduced to 18 from 20. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC) and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) have started to provide citizenship education (so-called "election education") at high schools. However, he noted, "This education stops at how to choose one of the parties or candidates when voting in elections; it does not touch on how students can affect society and how students can express their opinions and change society."

He is researching various literature and advanced case studies in foreign countries to promote young people's political participation. In February 2018, he surveyed Sweden and Estonia to investigate how young local people can influence their societies.

Meanwhile, he provides suggestions to and exchanges frank opinions with lawmakers at various levels, including in local and national governments. Mr. Kurimoto also describes in various media the current situation and proposes models for encouraging young people's political participation.

Sharing Values through Open Communities

Audrey Tang, Digital Minister, Taiwan

Next, Ms. Audrey Tang introduced the current state of citizens' participation in innovation and public policy making in Taiwan. Ms. Tang, known as a civic hacker and excellent programmer, founded her own business in California's Silicon Valley at age 19.

In 2016, she was appointed as a cabinet member by the Taiwanese government (Premier Lin-Chuan), and she actively contributes to Taiwan's g0v (gov-zero), a non-profit organization focused on creating open source tools for civil society. With the call to "fork the government," she energetically works on g0v community activities.

Since she assumed the office of Digital Minister, all statements at Taiwanese government internal meetings that she chaired have been documented and published. "This is a major innovation in government officials' work. If officials' work goes well, politicians instead get all the credit, but if officials' work does not go well, the officials get the blame-- no one wants to do such unrewarding work. Clarifying 'who developed the idea' to raise transparency on the web causes officials to generate excellent ideas." (Ms. Tang)

She described the advantages of digital tools: "The Internet brings many people together. People who have the same values can empathize with each other, and those with things in common can aggregate their opinions. In such a world, social media and other destructive technologies that differ from conventional ones help us better understand the will of the people."

She has more than a few goals-- in particular, she aims to achieve the SDGs (sustainable development goals): "The SDGs can be achieved through partnerships across domestic sectors and national borders. These relationships are important."

According to her, this is exactly the shift from binary opposition to binary oneness. Ms. Tang concluded her presentation with these words: "I want to have an 'Internet of Beings' that links human beings, not an 'Internet of Things.' I want to change 'user experience' to 'human experience.' When we hear 'the singularity is near,' let us remember: the Plurality is here."

In response to Ms. Tang's presentation, Dr. Konno commented: "The waves of digitization are amazing. In Japan there is still an imbalance between the human and societal system and the digital technology. Ms. Tang has spoken about directly applying the concepts of open source software to politics."

There Is No Such Thing as Failure

Yasuo Baba, Professor, Faculty of Sociology, Daito Bunka University

Next, Prof. Yasuo Baba explained the theory of Niklas Luhmann, a German sociologist who emphasized the importance of alternatives.

Prof. Baba explained that today, there is a common perception that our world and society are changing very rapidly. Alongside worsening problems such as the declining birthrate and aging population, the spread of terrorism and guerrilla warfare, and global environmental problems, many people have come to think that "the state of humanity has reached a limit and will undergo a major change," and they use the term "alternative" to express this premonition.

Luhmann is known as a scholar who aimed to expand the General Systems Theory (GST) advocated by biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy.

One key concept of the GST is "changing from closed to open systems." Thus far, it has been sufficient to consider only a system's internal order. "However, in the future, it will not be possible to correctly understand systems (in particular, social systems) without considering their constant changes due to interactions with their environments," and this is one point of the argument.

Meanwhile, Luhmann advocates that functionally differentiated systems like politics, the economy, law, and art should be identified as closed systems from a self-reproducing (autopoietic) perspective. Prof. Baba noted that systems must always consider their environments; however, each system's environment is configured by the system itself, and the environment is given form and filtered beforehand according to the system's internal logic. Therefore, how we encounter events that occur "outside" what we normally consider to be the "environment" is a challenge for us.

Lastly, he cited an episode from the novella "Worst Contact" by Yasutaka Tsutsui. In this story, an alien named Kelala behaves in a hard-to-understand way. The protagonist who comes to live with Kelala is confused by Kelala's behavior.

To understand Kelala, we should assume that Kelala always does something incomprehensible. For the time being, it would be good to assume that we always fail to understand Kelala's behavior. However, with this "assumption," our common sense filters Kelala's behavior. The same is true of the phrase, "Failure is the key to success." This magic phrase makes failures harmless and blinds us from seeing that "true destructive force = creativity." Posing this question to the audience, Prof. Baba concluded his presentation.

Plural Sector: A Third Leg of Society

Next was a video message by Dr. Henry Mintzberg, Professor at McGill University in Montreal. He advocated the concept of a new social framework called the "Plural Sector." Here, "plural" refers to NPOs and communities.

According to him, for over 200 years, the West has had the problem of a political pendulum. In this state, politics unstably swings between left and right; at present, there is political paralysis in the center, where no movement takes place. He explained, "What we need is not a linear distinction between two objects on both ends of a straight line, such as left and right, government and market, or public sector and private sector. Instead, we need a circle that includes the public sector, private sector, and plural sector. Society needs three legs, and I think that the third leg is the plural sector."

He also stated that, in order for the plural sector to promote change, it must take its rightful place alongside the private and public sectors; the three sectors must reach the point where they can cooperate and balance each other.

Recently, he has been doing research to investigate the four basic types of organizations: "programmed organizations," "individual organizations," "expert groups," and "adhocracies." An adhocracy refers to an attitude or structure of responding flexibly to each situation.

Discussions about the plural sector often mention "projects" and "initiatives." Most initiatives that promote change--whether demonstration marches or Greenpeace programs--are projects.

According to Dr. Mintzberg, projects are adhocracies. In other words, they are individual production activities rather than cases of mass production or mass services performed by mechanical organizations. Therefore, adhocracies are close to project-based organizations; they differ from bureaucracy, machinery, and programmed organizations.

To Realize an Alternative Society

The session ended with a free discussion among the speakers.

"The significance of the plural sector's existence is not recognized in Japanese society; however, there is a social need for this sector and a necessity for the sector to exist." (Mr. Kurimoto)

"When defining the term 'failure,' Silicon Valley does not have a concept of personal failure. Rather, failure is considered to be an opportunity." (Ms. Tang)

"We must think about how we encounter failures. In complicated and ever-changing modern society, failures inevitably occur in any attempt and failures are also necessary. But at the same time, we should not consider failures to be good things because intended failures are no longer failures." (Prof. Baba)

In response, Dr. Konno concluded Topos 1 with the following message: "I hope this Topos Conference provides an opportunity for individuals to consider how to understand alternative without one-sidedly defining the word's meaning."