May 13 ~ Bob Stilger’s Notes from Japan #15: Future Center Week

I was born 62 years ago on Friday the 13th, so today has been a “double” birthday for me.  And it has been the concluding day of Future Center Week.

Five weeks ago a small group of us gathered at the KEEP at Kiyosato.  Among other things, the KEEP is a lovely venue for personal and collective retreats.  It is where we held two major Art of Hosting events in Japan last year.  We gathered to sense in to what is needed in Japan since the disasters of 3.11.  During the weekend, one of the things we kept coming back to was “Future Centers.”

The concept of Future Centers began to develop in Europe a little more than ten years ago.  In many places, spaces were created and dedicated to exploration of innovative ideas and possibilities.  Do a google search and you’ll quickly see the scope of this activity.  A couple of years ago, my colleagues at the Knowledge Dynamics Institute at Fuji/Xerox began to look closely at Future Centers.  They had been bringing knowledge management practices to Japanese corporations for a decade and had come to a point where they were seeing that knowledge management itself was helpful, but it did not necessarily lead to innovation.  When I met people at KDI a little more than a year ago, I felt an immediate resonance.  A Future Center is a special place where different rules apply.  People are invited to leave their roles and positions at the door and enter into a space of authentic dialogue.  There’s a close correlation between the space or BA that is present in a good Future Center and the BA created in Art of Hosting.  A Future Center’s core purpose is searching for a new future.

Five weeks ago at the KEEP, we kept coming back to Future Centers as one possible key to re-creation of the Tohoku.  Before I came to Japan in early April, I was already thinking about Future Centers as a possible bridge, linking people in the Tohoku with people, ideas and resources from outside the region.  At the KEEP this idea began to explode.  Should we be thinking about 500 Future Centers, we asked?  Would an ecology of Future Centers be helpful?  What if there were a hundred or more intensely locally based Future Centers in Tohoku?  What would we do to support the local creation of such centers where people of the Tohoku might gather with trust and support to create the kind of communities they want in the future?

Quickly the idea of doing a Future Center week to introduce more people to the experience of Future Centers began to form.  We would begin in Shikoku, where I would already be doing some work with a local television station.  And then we would continue on in Tokyo.  In five days we did five Future Centers.  We were engaging in rapid prototyping to see how we might swiftly introduce and use Future Centers.

Monday afternoon more than 70 people gathered in Takamatsu Castle to begin Future Center week.  The organizing question was how would we begin to talk about the future we want? Organizers invited in key people from their networks – businesses, municipalities, innovators, students, NPOs.  Few of the people knew each other and the afternoon’s atmosphere was charged with the energy of engagement.

Tuesday about 70 people gathered in a new “Catalyst BA” in a shopping center being revitalized in Futagotamagawa on the outskirts of Tokyo.  The eighth floor view of Tokyo’s edge was completely different from the view of gardens from tatami mats at Takamatsu Castle.  But the energy in the room was the same.  The organizing question was what are new indicators of success?

Wednesday 60 people came to the Inforium of NTT Data to talk about what new work-life balance might be called for and possible as we move into a summer where 30% less electricity will make it impossible to cool buildings whose windows can’t open.  How will work life change?  By the end of the afternoon the atmosphere was festive.  In my closing remarks, I suggested that Japanese were becoming Brazilians – the only way to really deal with the situation is to have more festivals, have more fun, do only the work that is really necessary – and use the extra time to have fun with our families or to go volunteer in the Tohoku.

Thursday 60 people came back to the Catalyst BA to talk about the changing nature of community.  What sorts of communities do we want , they asked, and how will we get them.  I had some corporate work on Thursday, hosting a Future Center session for a company which has been using Future Centers for a year now to help them reflect on their experience.  I’m told that at the end of the afternoon, the room was filled with energy and people saying – we’ve just begun. When will we meet again?

Friday about 50 people came to Catalyst BA for the final session.  The calling question was what is the purpose of business in this time of change?  The dialogue that emerged was about how perhaps, just perhaps, the central purpose of business is to build community.  I couldn’t help but think of one of the concluding questions from last weekend’s work at KSB Television in Shikoku:  what if the main purpose of this television was to release the creativity of the people of our region?  One of the things interesting about this question for me is that in Japan business is much more a part of community rather than apart from community.  It is a powerful image to consider what might be possible if the main purpose of business was to build community.

All in all, a powerful week.  We’ve not digested it yet – that will happen when I return to Tokyo in a little more than a week.  The session concluded with my receiving a lovely little bouquet of flowers and people singing “happy birthday.” Quite a treat.  Some of my KDI friends and I went off to an early dinner before I got on the last train back to Kyoto for the weekend.

It has been a demanding week.  Perhaps a bit crazy.  But we wanted to generate a lot of experience with public future centers, quickly.  One thing for sure – we know they work.  We know the principles which ground future centers help to create a good public BA where a different kind of dialogue occurs.  We sense that an ecology of BA of this sort could be a quick and powerful way to generate and work with different ideas.  At some point I’ll write more about the principles and guidelines of Future Centers which we made explicit as we went into this week.

I’ll just share one more image which came to me at the beginning of the week in Shikoku.  Onsen, or hot springs bath, are very popular in this country of many volcanoes.  When one enters an onsen, one immediately begins to behave in ways uncommon outside the onsen.  It is a comfortable space where one lets go of many of the worries of the outside world.  Being naked helps – there is nothing to hide.  When one enters an onsen, one immediately knows that different rules and different ways of being together are present.

Perhaps part of our work in the coming months is to begin a Future Center movement where people know that they are entering the special space of a Future Center where different rules and standards apply. Perhaps the space, overtime, will become as familiar and treasured as that of an onsen.



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