Crises have historically been catalysts for social change, and the COVID-19 crisis is no exception.
In Japan, the concept of ‘Society 5.0’ has been advocated in recent years as a policy for science, technology and innovation aiming at human-centered society by integrating cyberspace and physical space. Yet the current crisis shows how far the concept remains from the real world and real life. The crisis urges us to accelerate digital transformation, but how shall this be achieved? We need to consider individual, social, regional, and global values, and should collaborate in science, technology, and innovation activities.
“In designing this transformation, universities can function as core bases of value creation, and become places where transformation is prototyped with the cooperation of multiple stakeholders.”
Thus, they must not stay in their ivory towers with a ‘science and technology first’ mind-set. Rather they must act as hubs for the circulation of knowledge, inspiration and insights where various stakeholders from academia, industry, government, and elsewhere interact while giving due consideration to social needs.
Due to the increasing complexity of the problems of modern society, the vertically divided university department system is now obsolete. There are an increasing number of people struggling in academia that have no interface with real society, stuck inside research fields that are overly departmentalized and specialized. In order to promote social innovation that meets the needs of the real world and a truly human-centered digital society, cooperation should take place across sectors such as industry, academia, government and the local population, and between the fields of natural/social sciences and humanities. A university should be unbiased and open to all stakeholders, and a place for these stakeholders to gather and interact.
We should set a vision for a society to be realized 5-10 years from now, identify and ‘back-cast’ every element necessary for its realization, and start working towards it with the cooperation of multiple stakeholders. We have to take action. The silos must be broken down. Universities can serve as core bases for this action.
Collaboration between universities is also required. In Japan, small and medium-sized universities are scattered across all regions but are not integrated. In order to accelerate the aforementioned social innovation, it is necessary to build an integrated ecosystem of universities that complement each other and form a network that crosses regional boundaries. Universities must also serve their local communities. In light of the risk of urban overconcentration and excessive division of labor as revealed by the COVID-19 crisis, it is necessary to strengthen local universities and revitalize their regions. We must build a unique innovation ecosystem rooted in regional characteristics and contribute to the autonomous and sustainable development of local communities by fostering local production-for-local consumption industries.
As a national funding agency, we must create systems to encourage and support these actions through funding in line with policy priorities, and welcome ambitious ideas of researchers born of free curiosity. In the current crisis, forced control may appear to have had temporary successes, but in the long run, we believe that individual free thought will inspire greater creativity and innovation.
IMAGINE a university that is not only for scholars to study and do research in but allows people from broader society to get together and design our future society based on free thought, ardent spirit and unbounded creativity. A university where collaboration between a rich variety of stakeholders contributes to social transformation and human well-being.
Michinari Hamaguchi earned his PhD in medicine from Nagoya University. He was appointed Research Associate at the Nagoya University School of Medicine in 1980, and from then worked at Nagoya University except for the period 1985-1988 when he pursued his research at Rockefeller University in the U.S. He served as the President of Nagoya University from Apr. 2009 – Mar. 2015 before becoming the President of the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST) in Oct. 2015.