There are many issues in the world for which there are no right answers. As the members of society become increasingly diverse, it is difficult to find an answer that is satisfactory to everyone, and in an era of rapid change, the right answer today may not be the right answer tomorrow.
In order to address vexing issues like these, some came to believe that a new science was needed—a science that aims to realize goals and values, rather than just taking the conventional approach of recognizing and understanding "things," such as natural and social phenomena. This is the approach of design science, which explores the “the way things should be”
In 2013, Ritsumeikan University established the Research Center for Design Science to serve as a hub for the discipline of design science. We spoke with the center's director, Dr. Satoshi Goto (Associate Professor, Department of Business Administration, College of Business Administration), about its objectives, activities, and vision.
What shape should society take? A discipline guided by goals and values
Dr. Goto began by explaining what design science is.
“In order to solve problems in the community, we need to discuss how we want things to be and how they should be, even if we don't know the right answer, and then define our own answers by reaching a consensus. Design science is a discipline that deals with these kinds of issues.”
In conventional disciplines, as typified by the natural sciences, the methodology is generally to identify the facts, pose a hypothesis, verify that hypothesis, and establish a theory. In contrast, the research methodology of design science is a loop of value-proposition-optimization-realization-verification that brings us closer to the overall optimum. Since not everyone has the same ideas about the way things should be and where value should be placed, mutual understanding and collaboration are necessary to reconcile the interests of people with different ideas. In addition, in order to move toward overall optimization without ending up with partial optimization that only benefits some people, it is absolutely necessary to discuss issues from an interdisciplinary perspective that transcends the boundaries of conventional academic disciplines. All activities taken to solve a problem, including these kinds of processes and methodologies, are design activities, and design science is the discipline that aims to uncover the universal knowledge in these activities.
“This is why we emphasize not only research and analysis, but also the creation of ways to form new communities and solve social issues in collaboration with businesses and local governments. Our mission is to solve problems from an academic viewpoint while at the same time building new academic knowledge by testing theories, in other words, to engage in both practical applications and academic work.”
In March 2022, the Center published the inaugural issue of its research bulletin,Journal of Design Science, and it uses the journal to publish the outcomes of its design science research. Aside from this journal, there are few other publications in Japan with "design science” in the title; it is still a nascent discipline. As a pioneering presence, the Center is "chasing the mystery of design science and thinking about design science on the go,” explains Dr. Goto. Dr. Goto and his colleagues know what needs to be done, and they continue to make innovative and challenging attempts to build the discipline in real time without knowing what the final result will be.
A massive research lab for creating the society of the future
Every member of the Center has established distinctive research groups based around their respective topics of interest.
For example, the Future Mobility (FM) Research Group explores the future of mobility systems, looking not only at modes of transportation like automobiles and trains, but also robots and mobile devices. By conducting research and analysis of the current state of cutting-edge technologies related to mobility, the group identifies issues that are difficult for the private sector to address alone. Issues that need to be addressed systematically are being resolved through joint research and commissioned research projects with industry, by offering seminars and study groups, and by engaging in project-based learning (PBL) with university students.
The FM Research Group is playing a central role in a project entitled “Research and Development of Digital Infrastructure and Governance Methods for Balancing the Safety, Reliability, and Innovation of Systems in the SoS Era” which was selected by the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) for its Digital Infrastructure Development Project for the Digital Transformation of Industries (Research and Development of Mechanisms to Ensure Safety and Reliability in Complex Systems). The Osaka Ibaraki Campus (OIC) is the stage for this project, which aims to validate the system technology and operations required for the coexistence of autonomous robots and people.
Dr. Goto elaborates as follows: “OIC is a space where students, faculty, and staff come and go, as do members of the general public. The goal of this project is to establish OIC as a ‘living laboratory,’ that is, a laboratory for research and development near where people live, and to experiment with both technology and laws and social systems." The project team is working to develop a system for collecting, managing, and sharing data to ensure human safety as well as to demonstrate its effectiveness by operating it on campus. They will also conduct technical verification of the System of Systems (SoS), which integrates multiple robots and different control systems.
“Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS) are now being pursued around the world. CPS is a concept that aims to solve social problems and develop industries by analyzing diverse real-world data collected by sensor networks in cyberspace and feeding it back into the real world.
Multiple systems run in a CPS, and they are integrated as an SoS. In a world where various systems and devices operate, for example, systems and laws are not yet in place to determine who is legally responsible if something goes wrong or an accident occurs.
This raises the question of what society and people need to do to practically apply these kinds of technologies going forward. We will explore how stakeholders in a wide range of positions, including governments, companies, individuals, and communities, should respond to a diverse array of social issues, including systems, laws, markets, and infrastructure. This is much more than something that a single discipline can be handled on its own. This is why the Center involves researchers from various colleges, including the College of Information Science and Engineering and the College of Law.”
Turning the entire campus into a lab is a grand endeavor. Globally, there are still no universities promoting this kind of initiative, and the fact that it can be verified from a human perspective is particularly noteworthy, according to Dr. Goto.
“In the process of collecting data from people on campus, we are exploring governance that allows people to enjoy the maximum benefit while still protecting their privacy. In the future, I think it is possible that cutting-edge technology will accumulate at Ritsumeikan University as we develop the campus into a place where various phenomena can be tested. For the students, I expect the campus to become a space teeming with learning stimuli—a place where they can feel that their data is helping to change society.”
Practical application of knowledge made possible by design science
Active industry-government-academia collaboration and collaboration with the community are also hallmarks of the Center. Among these initiatives, each research group is pursuing distinctive efforts to apply the findings of design science.
The Manufacturing Solutions Research Group aims to design and create business models of manufacturing skills from a total business standpoint, not just as a technical theory of engineering. Its current focus is i-Construction, which incorporates ICT into every process at a construction site. The group is collaborating with companies to explore issues in the area of construction production system innovation.
Meanwhile, the Design Management Lab (DML) conducts design management research on the utilization of design knowledge in organizational management strategy and innovation. The process of defining issues from the needs of users and clients and incorporating these into design is known as design thinking, and in recent years, efforts to apply this approach to business have become increasingly proactive. DML is moving forward with the systematization of this design thinking approach as well as various other types of design knowledge that have been developed overseas, and it is promoting activities to introduce this to companies in Japan. As part of its joint research with local governments, DML is also conducting a project to support management innovation with design management practices for small and medium-sized companies.
The Innovation Meaning Creation Research Group aims to establish a methodology to search for "value," which is the essence of design. Research is underway that leverages the ability of researchers in the humanities and social sciences to uncover value. In recent years, ethnographic methods, in which cultural anthropologists observe behaviors and interact with subjects through fieldwork to record culture and behavioral patterns, have come to be used in design and marketing research. According to Dr. Goto, the Center is focusing on an even broader range of research methods from the humanities and social sciences.
“Literary scholars, for example, employ a research methodology that allows them to interpret a great deal from a text—not just the meaning of the words, but also the background. The research skills of these researchers in the humanities and social sciences are an asset that can be utilized for design research, which is not about researching a predetermined market, but rather about studying people and society at large,” emphasizes Dr. Goto. Currently, the Center is also pursuing research into how archaeological research methods can be used in the business arena.
It is precisely because design science seeks to create a society with outstanding value that people can recognize that knowledge from the humanities and social sciences, fields where scholars explore the nature of people and society, can be utilized. Dr. Goto says he hopes to establish and spread the use of design research methods by creating as many use cases as possible.
“I want more people to know where exactly research in the humanities and social sciences can help society. I think we need to work with researchers to show people specifically what it is the we can do. In this sense, we have a vision that this Center will function as a platform to connect society with researchers in the humanities. We would like to accumulate research methodologies and case studies as we work to create a system that will lead to solutions to issues through collaboration, such as sending our people to a wide range of companies in response to their consultation requests.”
A bold attempt to learn design thinking in the metaverse
The Center has also come up with a new approach to training talent. Dr. Goto has been leading the EDGE+R entrepreneurship education program, in which teams of diverse participants engage in project-based learning (PBL) to practically acquire the mindset and skills necessary for problem-solving and value creation. In AY2023, the Center established a new metaverse course and launched a program where a wide range of people, from high school students to adult learners in the doctoral program, can learn about design thinking.
Dr. Goto describes the significance of learning about design thinking in the metaverse as follows.
“Traditional craftsmanship required that the quality be the same no matter who made the product, in other words, attributes unique to each individuals had to be eliminated. However, design is all about subjectivity. Value is created through a process that begins with the subjectivity of the user and the subjectivity of the designer, and from there, you see how you can get as many people as possible to identify with that subjectivity.
While your own subjectivity is important, flexible ideas cannot be generated unless you are freed from entrenched subjectivity. We thought that if we could adopt new identities in the metaverse, a place free from the constraints of everyday life both in terms of age and location, it would lead to a positive impact, including the generation of ideas that are different from the norm. This is the first initiative of its kind in Japan, so we don't know if it will work, but I'm hopeful that something interesting will come out of it.”
Design has come to be seen as a means of creating societies and communities that go beyond activities involving the two-dimensional and three-dimensional objects around us. How can we build a sustainable society where people can feel enriched? There are high expectations from society for the activities of this Center, which explores the frontiers of design science and fosters talent who can envision "the way things should be.”
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