Nuturing Innovation

Dear Friends,

I’m on my way home to Kyoto for a brief visit before returning for a for five final days of work in Fukushima.  Deep learning continues for me and for all of us as we discover how to support communities in Tohoku in creating a new future.

We’ve found the person who will be the regional director for this work.  He’s a perfect choice.  I’ve known Iwai-san for almost three years.  When I met him he was a senior executive of a medium sized firm in Tokyo who was one of the first in Japan to embrace Future Centers as a way to bring innovation into business.  After the triple disasters he was pulled by his heart to Ishinomaki where he joined hundreds of others in shoveling out the rubble, serving soup and listening to people’s stories.  He kept going there and eventually decided to leave his job and devote himself to the restoration of the region.  What a wonderful partner!

I’ve been quoting an old African proverb recently:  if you want to go fast, go alone.  If you want to go far, go together. We’re going together in Tohoku.  Much of my time in October and November has been spent listening to people.  Sometimes in one-to-one, sometimes in small groups, sometimes in FutureSessions I have hosted in different parts of the region.  Listening people into relationship with each other.  Looking for the patterns.  Sensing the story under the story.  This is not logical, linear work.  It does not fit on a spreadsheet.  It doesn’t, in these formative stages, lend itself to project planning.  It is listening.  Here are some of the parts.

1.  Partners.  I’m finding partners, connecting them with each other, and the Tohoku Future Center network.  We see four partner roles:

  • Some are advisors — people in positions of influence who are aligned with our way of working in community and who occasionally enter the playfield in various ways.
  • Others are “members” of Future Center work.  They are the people who are or will direct and coordinate this work in their various communities.  They are the people who want to learn how to design and host FutureSessions. “Members” is an English word that has special meaning in Japan.  Basically it means those who are committed to being in relationship with each other around a particular purpose.
  • Some are “themeholders” for work in their communities or the region.  Another special English word, “themeholders” are people who are committed to a particular purpose — decontaminating, supporting children, helping residents of temporary housing, building new community businesses — who believe that FutureSessions will help them further their work.
  • Finally, there are supporters and friends, people inside and outside the region who believe in this work and who want to be connected to it.

First stage of the work is finding these people and connecting them.  Listening and sensing.  Not doing a dramatic launch.  Working with the energy present.

2.  Places.  Intimately connected to the partners are places.  Our work is first and foremost local.  We know that nothing happens unless it happens in a place.  Nothing lasts unless the people in that place co-create and own what happens.  Where are the places where people are ready to come together to create a new future?  What are the themes which engage them?  With our partners, we are identifying these places.  There are many.  We’re beginning in about nine:

3.  Just Do It.  We’re starting.  Building the airplane while flying it.  Looking for places with people who  want to hold FutureSessions for almost any purpose.  I remember a conversation ten or so years ago with Wink Franklin, then President of Institute of Noetic Sciences who had led IONS to its home on a mountain south of Petaluma.  Wink talked about how they were letting almost anyone who the facilities who wanted to.  He paused and said that the only users they had turned down was a nudist colony.  That image has stuck with me. When beginning, cast your net wide – you can narrow it down later. So those of us who can are hosting FutureSessions wherever we can.

4.  Create Infrastructure.  We’re building our own website, finding “co-located” space for Future Sessions in different communities, and finding partners whose virtual infrastructures will support our work.  One new company — FutureSessions, Inc. — is developing an website which will support people in designing FutureSessions, inviting and registering people, sharing designs with each other, and reporting results.  Another virtual publishing company is creating a virtual Tohoku journal in Japanese and English.  Another virtual publisher is committed to sharing stories from the region.

5.  Establish and Train a Community of Practice.  I still dislike the word training, but I don’t yet have a better one.  There are things people need to learn if they are to support communities in creating innovation and they don’t have to learn it all from the ground up.  We’re working with others in Japan to develop a curriculum for what we are calling “Innovation Facilitators.”  They are the folks who will design and host future sessions and who will support “themeholders” as they work to create innovative action.  We will connect them in the partners networks described above and we will create a monthly rhythm of gathering for learning.  The foundation of the community will be sharing their learning from their own context and design and hosting of spaces for innovation.  The pillars of the community will include systems being and thinking, expanding consciousness and world view, design thinking, transformative scenario planning. project management, forming locally grounded partnerships with outsiders, bringing knowledge in from the outside on with local control, Theory “U” and methodologies to sense, shape, act, learn, reflect and measure.  The larger plan is to invite and support learning groups in three parts of Japan and to connect them.  The Tohoku plan is to have the monthly sessions hosted in different communities and to do work in the hosting community after the training.

When I wrote about creating a Future Center Network a year ago, I saw glimmers of this possibility.  I held the intention.  We’ve continued to make this path by walking on it.  Holding the intention while looking for the ways in which it might unfold.  A year ago I had a few relationships with people in Tohoku, now I have hundreds.  This work comes alive in a different way through their faces and voices and stories.

We have far to go, but I know we have begun.

At many levels, none of this is complex.  It’s just doing the work.  Finding the partners.  Building the connections.  Holding true to principles and beliefs.  Continually sensing for patterns and connections.  Operating with clear intention.  Being open to surprise after surprise after surprise.  Trusting in original blessings and human kindness.  Practicing generosity, curiosity and respect.  We’re also following the learning developed over the last decade at The Berkana Institute where we learned that if we paid attention to naming, connecting, nourishing and illuminating, we created the conditions for self-organizing systems to emerge.

With gratitude,


Between Stories –Bob Stilger’s Notes from Japan #40 ~ November 24th

I’ve spent the last few days in Iwate Province, the most rural and most northern of the three provinces devastated last year on March 11th.  I’ve been in to coastal communities — Yamada Town and Otsuchi.  Each had a population of around 20,000 before 3.11.  Both were partially destroyed — fishing industry, agriculture, commerce and housing.  In each two around 2,000 people are living in temporary housing with no permanent housing expected until sometime in early 2014.  Temporary housing, while better than the emergency shelters, is small, cramped, and cold.  Most neighbors are strangers.  Most people don’t want to make community there because they don’t want to be there.  It is not home.

I’ve been in a small dialog in Yamada Town and in a Future Session in Otsuchi.   In Yamada, an energetic entrepreneur in his fifties called together some of his friends for a dialog.  In Otsuchi, an NPO charged with community development work invited people to a Future Session.  The two sessions were very different, and very much the same.  My primary role in both cases was mostly to listen.

How do these communities build a future?  What is important?  What must be attended to?  What must be allowed to fade away?  What became clear to me is how much both of these communities are between stories.  The old story is gone.  The new story is still invisible.

For the most part, people don’t want to go back to the past.  It wasn’t working out so well.  Shrinking and aging population, listless economies, diminished collective will:  living a slow decline.  But the way forward is still invisible.  Until now, people haven’t even had breath to talk about the future.  There have been too many pressing things to attend to — at least getting everyone in temporary housing, getting roads repaired and public transit running again, having at least a few stores and shops and restaurants open again.  That’s done.  People have survived.  But what’s next?  Where do they go.

Coming together, they notice the little and important things — buses still stop at the bus stop outside the destroyed hospital, but they don’t stop at convenience stores where people could wait and be warm; there’s still few safe spaces for children to play; the second floor of a partially destroyed building is where volunteers gather — and the city is talking about tearing it down.  What’s clear, as I listen, is that they need a place where it is possible to have these conversations regularly — a place where they will connect with each other.

There’s a sense of urgency to get something done.  But, they don’t just want to talk.  They want to make things better.  However, as one small group described, the level of consciousness is still low.  Said another way, people are unable to see very much or very far.

The dilemma is that community improvement work that comes out of conversations like these is often anemic.  It lacks power.  Either nothing seems to happen, or what seems to happen isn’t all that impressive.  People get discouraged and move back into isolation.  There’s not much of an understanding that when one works with new people to try new things, at first the results are unimpressive.  People don’t know this is normal.  They’ve never heard the word “prototype.”  They ask, at least to themselves, what the hell do you mean “action-learning?”  They get tired and discouraged.

Part of the problem is that there is no commonly held story for the future.  There aren’t even explicit alternative stories for the future.  Use the word “vision” if you like.  Or use the word “scenario.”  Whatever the word, there is nothing around which possibilities can cohere.  Even when there is clarity of purpose (like do things which will encourage younger people to stay in our rural community), it’s hard to find traction because there is little common clarity about which direction is forward.

So it seems, often, that we need many things, at once.  We need places where people can have meaningful dialog that does lead to effective collaborative action.  We need to work in ways which invite people to see more of the whole system.  We need design thinking.  We need scenario planning.  We need to learn how to use knowledge from the outside.  We need insight and inspiration from the inside.

One of the conversations we’ve been having in Japan is about a role we’re calling “Innovation Facilitator.”  It comes out of this diagram:

An Innovation Facilitator develops a broader view of the whole system.  S/he has a number of tools which help others see further — scenario planning, design thinking, reflection/action processes like Theory “U.” The Innovation Facilitator is able to design and host gracious space where people create both relationship and action.

We’re working to develop a learning program for Innovation Facilitators.  One that would happen with separate but connected cohorts in Tohoku, the Kanto area around Tokyo, and the Kansai area around Kyoto.  These last couple of days I’ve been thinking about how important some version of scenario planning is in this learning.

As always, good to be here.  I missed my family on Thanksgiving — my daughter came home from NY and she and my spouse followed an annual tradition of joining good friends for Thanksgiving.  I sat in a small restaurant/bar having a bowl of curried tofu and rice, responding to the questions of a curious banker in Yamada.  I feel like I am where I am supposed to be, staying present and curious to what wants to be born here.



Decontaminating Minamisoma: A Community Co-Cleaning Itself

Dear Friends,

I spent yesterday in the new FutureCenter in Minamisoma, a community 25km south of the reactors in Fukushima that had a population of 70,000 before 3.11.  The FutureCenter is in a former small corner convenience store, started earlier this year by Toda-san who knew the community needed some place to talk about the future.  In early December we’ll do a workshop bringing together 20 community leaders to share vision for what the FutureCenter needs to focus on in 2013.

One of the people in our meeting was Hakozaki-san, he wanted to tell me more about why he thinks a FutureCenter is essential.  Hakozaki-san comes from Itakemura, a village near Minamisoma that used to have a population of 6,000 and was known throughout Japan for its clean air, clean water and fertile soil.  Hakozaki-san’s family has worked the forest for many generations and also had a lumber mill.  Today Itakemura is deserted.  All residents required to leave because of the radiation.  A ghost town.  Hakozaki-san’s forest is toxic and can no longer be harvested, even if he had a lumber mill he could use.  He does not.

Immediately after the shock and emergency of 3.11 passed, Hakozaki-san began to think about what to do.  I want to share a bit of his story.

He knew nothing about radiation.  Yes, there was a nuclear reactor nearby, but it was safe.  No worries.  After 3.11 he moved to Minamisoma while 50,000 were being evacuated.  His clarity was that THIS IS HOME.  It is risky to live here, but it is home and we must deal with radiation. We don’t know the truth of the accident. Don’t know when things can start again. Don’t know what is true. Don’t know if we really have human rights.

Finally many people are coming back here, not just because this is the only place for them to live, but because want to live here. They have come back for many reasons — but mostly because this is home. and we need to start figuring out how to live at home in as safe a way as possible.  Time to learn about decontamination — removing accumulated radiation from ground and walls and roofs and leaves.

Hakozaki-san started talking with others in Minamisoma.  In the beginning, they didn’t know how to talk to each other about something they knew nothing about.  But they had to learn to do both.  Government’s hands were full — but they needed to start working NOW.

From the very beginning, they knew that they were doing work not only for their children, they were doing work for the world.  First experience for a town to reconstruct after radiation. We have to start here. No place elsewhere in the world has been done. This will happen again, somewhere, they knew.  From the very beginning they have kept meticulous records of their work — what they did, how they did it, and what the radiation was before, immediately after, and in the coming weeks and months.  They knew this information would be important to others.

The reality is that children and pregnant women are forced to live under high levels of radiation. We have to provide a model of the decontamination 

So Hakozaki-san founded the Institute for Decontamination five months after 3.11. It was founded to treat fields, houses, nature to remove decontamination, to measure the impact of the decontamination and to document.  They started with decontaminating a school. First, the collected data on radiation from 500 places at the school.  Next they washed the roof and walls and removed the surface soil.  They then measured all 500 places again.

In August, 2011, radiation levels were reduced by the cleaning, but were back up to the starting levels within weeks.  They returned and cleaned again.  By early 2012, the increase in contamination levels several weeks after the cleaning was much, much smaller than in August.  Originally the radiation in the air was moving every quickly, and that was why the re-contamination was high. Now radiation is staying in fixed locations. There doesn’t seem to be more radiation coming from reactors.

We need effective plan to remove contamination. Need to do it safely. Need to measure it afterwards. Then design the plan again for the next site based on experience. And make report to share conclusion with others. Research very important in all areas. Worker safety, effectiveness of contamination, planning, evaluation.

Most of the decontamination work of the current work has been done by volunteers. Many experts come to help, and each have different ideas they try to give us. We have to organize the experts rather than having them direct us.

Hakosaki-san went on to say ideally the government of Japan has enough budget for decontamination. Best to give the money to Minamisoma and companies, but government pays only after the work is done, and local companies don’t have the financial capacity — so work goes to Tokyo companies. Money gets taken out at the top and knowledge stays in Tokyo.  Neither money nor knowledge finds its way to the local level. This is a really embarrassing system of public works in Japan. 

Beyond the contamination, the disaster makes us think about our lives in new ways. Living standard brought down by 3.11, it would take more than 30 years to recover our old living standard. Instead of trying to recover the old, we must find new ways, new society: we have to shift the way we measure happiness. We had many problems before; we don’t want to go back to that past. Even here, in the past, the gap between rich and poor was increasing. Is that what we want?

We need dialog about what kind of society we are going to create and how. How are our children going to become adults in this situation, we must think of new good jobs for young people. This is the way we rebuild community. 

Our work is to overcome the disaster and realize a new way to be happy. Emergency phase is over, now we need to bring people together to build a new, good society. We have to become a dreaming town so our children can have hope for the future. It will take at least 30 years.

It is difficult to change our way of valuing happiness will take a long time. Some people will leave, others will be attracted here. We will make our future together.

For me, Hakosaki-san is another ordinary hero.  Or, he’s what we are starting to call an “Innovation Facilitator.”  He does not have a position of power.  He does not have a budget.  He does not have a staff.  AND, he’s sure not applying to anyone.  He’s talking with his neighbors and figuring out how to use their own resources to do the work needed now.  And he’ll keep listening and talking with his neighbors to make a new, good society.

Before 3.11 I rarely heard people in Japan talking about happiness.  I did not hear people asking questions about what is good society.  But that is what is in the air now.  FutureCenters are one way of creating a safe space for those conversations about the future.  So good to be helping here with this work.

Fukushima: A Community Creates Its Future

This past weekend I was one of 350 people at the Fukushima Kaigi in Fukushima City.  I was amazed.  It was a weekend long Community Congress, people from Fukushima as well as other parts of Japan who came together to honestly discuss the current situation and figure out what to do next.  I don’t think […]

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Soft Launch of Transformation Institute!

Hi friends, I’m beginning the “soft launch” of something that has grown out of my work in Japan over the last several years.  The Transformation Institute:  Community, Business and Personal Transformation is coming to life at web address Robert Theobald and I used for our work from the mid-nineties until his death just before the […]

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So What Are Future Centers??

In 2011 there the earth was shaking in many places.  Revolutions in Egypt and Libya, earthquakes in New Zealand, floods in Australia, Greeks occupying Syntagma Square, the US Occupy Movement, and of course the triple disasters of Japan.  This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it gives a view of a world shaking.  Various terms can […]

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Seeding a network of 1000 Future Centers in Japan!

Wow, I’ve been back in Japan for a quick visit.  When I left in mid-December, my intuition was that I should come back for a quick visit to begin the new year.  I wanted to know what the energy would be of the new year. Incredible, overwhelming, stupendous. Those are a few of the words […]

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