We spent a lot of time working, living, and producing in China before deciding to start again in Japan in 2018.
After spending the better part of a decade traveling back and forth between China and Japan, we finally settled on the latter as the location where we would begin anew.
I left France a long time ago and spent half of my life abroad. Instead of choosing to go back to what I already knew, I needed the challenges that Japanese society presented. It was far more appealing to me intellectually and business-wise than getting back to a society I knew and where I already built businesses in.
Of course, although I had years of entrepreneurship experience from three previous “immigrations” (I built in each country) while still keeping my hopes high to succeed in Japan, I was not that proud or confident in any way. The country does not care about me (why should she?) and there was no free pass in any way, shape, or form.
I realized I needed to make a concrete contribution to society and assist in some type of transition, development, advancement, or growth. I needed to prove to myself and my surroundings, first and foremost, that in some intriguing ways: “Foreigners Got Talents.” I realize that may sound foolish coming from an experienced senior, but why should I benefit from Japan society and contribute nothing in return? “Finding an appropriate, acceptable, and scalable manner to contribute” was the preliminary stage of my new immigration process.
So it took me two flights and several visits, as well as the survey research (more on that below), discussions with CEOs, consultants, and officials, and experienced foreigners, to decide on which project I would absolutely work on, and launch, in a step-by-step manner.
Project-15 is the culmination of all of this preparatory work as an overarching endeavor that resulted in a series of spinoff initiatives such as Product House Academy, SJ Fund, and JAD-X. Product House Academy is already in launch mode.
But, of course, let’s get back to the survey I mentioned as a starting point to my empirical research.
I – Digital context and the case for a “Project-15 Initiative”
A Japan digital future at risk
When we began our investigation in 2018, Japan’s need for IT talents was already old news. It was already common knowledge within the MITI [MITI: The Ministry of International Trade and Industry (通商産業省, Tsūshō-sangyō-shō, or MITI). [The ministry changed its name, and the surface of responsibilities might have also evolved, but the survey conclusions are still relevant and the situation is even more problematic.]
But more information was needed before a strategic plan could be made with details about how to fix a problem of this size and importance to a country’s survival.
The IT impact survey that was conducted is enormous (800 pages long) and contains countless data points, interviews, and estimates.
The MITI impact survey
The Mizuho Information and Research Institute undertook this assessment and evaluated its effects. (平成 28 年 3 月 みずほ情報総研株式会社):
- Disasters caused by a lack of human resources were addressed,
- It foresaw potential figures related to human resources in the coming years,
- It extrapolated and estimated the number of IT professionals needed to ensure the steady expansion of the country’s information technology and innovation industries,
- It attempted to assess the situation in four key areas of the IT business and came up with five primary suggestions.
The 5 recommendations
Those five recommendations are:
- Create an adequate environment for women (25% of the IT workforce),
- Create an adequate environment for seniors,
- Recruit more foreign, seniors, and women IT talents,
- Create better policies to retain key top talents in IT Security, IoT, AI, and Big Data,
- Reinforce IT entrepreneurship.
The 4 key industries
The four key IT industry sectors targeted are:
- IT security,
- Internet of Things (M2M),
- Artificial Intelligence,
- Big Data.
Further, threatening difficulties
Besides the challenges already mentioned above, the following issues make the future of Japan’s digital future even more challenging:
- The aging population is more and more prevalent,
- Japan’s global population decline (started in 2011). In 2014, Japan’s population was estimated at 127 million. This figure is expected to shrink to 107 million by 2040. We expect the number to reach 97 million by 2050 (different sources provide different numbers but the momentum remains identical: a plunge). [Note: we didn’t take into account any natural disaster that could make the situation untenable],
- The birth rate in free fall,
- Tight immigration policies. They are still very tightly knitted preventing IT talents from coming, working, and feeling truly welcome in Japan (although many dispositions are going in the right direction and the immigration approach is evolving fast),
- Heavy culturally negative judgments on entrepreneurship, startup founders, and individually chosen perceptions of success.
Where do we go from now?
MIZUHO-MITI suggestions are helpful and give some insights; but, they do not present us with definite answers, solutions, programs, or practical initiatives. Despite the fact that those recommendations are worded in a very simple and understandable manner, we are still far from any form of actionable policies, financial support, or policy redirections (but we’ll go more in-depth about what has drastically improved in 2022 in another article), and direct national strategic plan support for SMI/SMEs in their development challenges (again, more data on this will be required later).
We need more than a checklist if we’re going to create long-term, effective initiatives, plans, and policies that can work for us at a very local scale. Our first step should be to examine the assumptions behind our current approaches to learning, innovation, and entrepreneurship.
A local answer for the rest of us
Now let’s imagine for the sake of argument that I am a mayor or local economic development official of a traditional and dying local economic area. Like many, I face tremendous pressure to make something happen, to build some entrepreneurial momentum, and to attract able and willing workers.
But people leave, and few entrepreneurs envisage any form of local company acquisition. With the pandemic, taking a heavy toll on the local budget, and adding all the issues mentioned above, I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel.
I know that we can find bright people everywhere but something does not add up.
Now, I know, I know. I am aware of all the digital transformation policies, I can hear all the buzzwords, and I can even think of reusing them in some form of a local slogan or promotion. I understand that “going digital” is what will make a difference since these related industries still hire while traditional ones are either dying, not able to be “digitally transformed” for lack of enough talented workforce, or just not willing to commit to it. I also know that judging, blaming, or taking names is inappropriate, and will not help in any way.
A need for a different set of thinking frameworks
Here are the important keywords, I suggest we focus on and dive into. Because as a mayor, I know that these are key issues I will have to tackle, the sooner the better. They are all related to each other, and by addressing all of them in a structured way, I can transform my little local society:
- Reinforcing Entrepreneurship,
- Recruiting and retaining IT Talents,
- Creating adequate learning environments,
- Women and senior demographics,
- Hire and retain foreign talents.
I want to avoid partitioned, compartmentalized, and dispersed measures and broken policies. I want to choose the appropriate structure for programs and projects that depend on each other in a very rational and strategic way. Meaning: Prior to any policymaking band-aid, I know I must act on data and within a team.
- We’ll need to define what is or is not appropriate to build… Now,
- What type of projects should we build in the first place,
- Which policies should we prioritize,
- How to train and retain such IT talent demographics.
For a different way to read the situation
Now that I know the stakes, let’s try to read the situation differently. Before I build any program, let’s figure out which way of thinking will help us see our problems in a new, fresh, and inclusive way.
I think the following are the most important questions that my colleagues, local/usual stakeholders involved in traditional industries, and I will have to answer appropriately:
- What does economic development really mean in the digital industry world today?
- What makes it different from our current traditional way of developing local economies?
- How to read the situation and the above-mentioned issues data appropriately for us locally?
- From where and with what should we start, in order to build a digital-first economy?
- How to help traditional failing industries get into the digital era?
- How to help the digitization/digitalization processes without breaking hopes, and destroying traditional systems that have been in place for a long time and that are still totally relevant today?
- How will we imagine, build, and harmonize digital-ecosystem-friendly policies?
- But most importantly: What relevant structuring frameworks must be in place to ensure a clear, smooth, actionable, and rational transition to a Digital Age?
Fundamental, complementary, and structuring frameworks & a roadmap
I need to begin with some kind of procedure. I need to use some kind of framework that will help me make sense of all and provide tools to structure projects in a roadmapping way.
First, let’s collect data on our local situation. Where are we “good, bad, and or ugly”?
A. Let’s use a “Startup Readiness Assessment Approach,” a comprehensive and digitally-focused framework, in order to answer our specific concerns.
Then, let’s compare ourselves to a benchmarked EU-based digital model list (i.e., a list of digitally transformed cities) to evaluate where we stand globally in terms of a startup climate and digital readiness.
I can easily predict what, where, and how we might improve based on this list of 60 cities throughout the world with varying degrees of success in building exceptional tech-based enterprises.
B. Then, having spotted the issues, discrepancies, and handicaps toward developing a digital economy, I will almost automatically be provided with the necessary projects and programs to achieve our digital transformation objectives. However, some detailed explanations will be required to act upon them.
This is the beauty of this type of assessment tool:
- it helps me to identify ecosystem issues,
- it provides me with a measurement and comparison indexes against successful cities around the world,
- it helps me to point in the right direction toward the right program, projects, and indicators to start with and build upon (the priority ones),
- it helps me iterate by assessing again and again toward project completion while moving forward.
C. Then, while objectives are duly noted, and turned into concrete goals, I will need to include those in a long-term and inclusive education perspective. Meaning: Those goals will not be met in a sustainable and systemic manner unless we rethink the education of the three generations (children [6 to 12], youth [13 to 18], and adults [18 to 108]), who shall be educated and digitally prepared, ready and able to face the challenges of the twenty-first century.
D. I know that it all starts with education, especially in the fields of information technology (IT), and digital entrepreneurship. I also know that without a strong body of soft skills set I won’t be able to transform my local little society. So it appears critical to provide today’s youth with the knowledge, skills, abilities, and behaviors (KSAs) modern employers and society need. I know that I will also have to help working adults deconstruct and rebuild their own careers by incorporating digital skills (hard and soft). It’s what I understood from experts talking about mean when we talk about reskilling, cross-skilling, and upskilling employees.
The first takeaway for a local stakeholder in charge of economic development in a dying area
- that we [with all local economic area development stakeholders] feel (and “are” [if we commit and welcome accountability for it] in charge of assessing, building, launching, monitoring, and improving our goals, projects, and programs to get society digital-ready [through the Digital Readiness Assessment Framework],
- that we are in charge of helping the whole (3 generations – 3世代) society toward our understanding of our twenty-first-century education compliance [through a new IT Education Framework for the 21-st century],
- that, I’ve addressed the digital education demand, the digital entrepreneurship education requirement (in reality, I know there’s more to it, but let’s keep this piece short for now), now I’ll need the cement and the building blocks: a digital ecosystems development structure to keep the overall digital transformation house straight and the transformation scalable.
I need a framework that helps us, train, support, mentor, and coach those I want to count on to make things happen locally: the digital ecosystem power builders, my main local economic area stakeholders. This population is key in facilitating the Readiness Assessment Programs and Projects, will influence policies and ecosystem structures, and accelerate the whole digital economy’s momentum.
- we tried to initiate a digital transformation roadmap on top of (let’s say for the sake of argument) a dying local economic area,
- by acquiring relevant data points, through the use of the three key (digital society development) frameworks, which are required to build from,
- in order to create an ambitious (15-year) “Project-15 Initiative” for long-term sustainable change for a digital-first economy.
So, to get things started right, we used concurring and structuring frameworks for transformational change:
- Framework 1: an appropriate “Ecosystem-focused Readiness and Preparation/Development Analysis Framework” [ Startup Ecosystem Readiness Assessment Framework] to assess the digital readiness status of a local “potential ecosystem”,
- Framework 2: a “21st Century Education and IT Training-focused Framework” [ 21st Century Education Framework] to prepare the new generations [Kids: 6 to 12 years old; youth: 13 to 18 years old], and educate or re-educate [upskill, reskill, cross-skill] adults [18 to 108 years old] with a full and integrated KSAO skillset,
- Framework 3: an “Innovation and digital entrepreneurship ecosystem creation and development framework” Ecosystem Academy – Stakeholders Training and Support to support concretely ecosystem stakeholders in charge of local economic area development.
Based on our research on how cities set up and grow digital ecosystems, we’ve come to the conclusion that at least 15 years are needed to show proof of success in economic transformation.
Thanks for reading. I failed to make things clearer. I hope you will get something from this. Constructive criticism is very welcome.
Regarding the request to watch the slide decks, please be patient with me as I have a couple more articles to write for all of you readers to get the entire picture.