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Dialog with an Uncertain Future / Excerp (Irregular updates)

The 41st Installment“Caught in a Gap Between Imitation and Creation: a Cheer for Japanese Engineers”

by Shigeru Shimada,
Professor, Master's Program of Information Systems Architecture

Caught in a gap between imitation and creation: a cheer for Japanese engineers

These days, we very often hear through the mass media that the influence of Japan on the world is waning in almost all fields from science and technology to sports and politics. Thus Japan is beginning to be caught in a downward spiral, going beyond the state of depressed stagnation.

Looking at the engineering field where semiconductor memory and LED products made in Korea are emerging in the market and the technologies for the Shinkansen bullet trains are exported from China, we have often seen Japanese engineers criticizing those countries as not being creative but simply imitating Japanese technologies (sour grapes?). Nevertheless, the Japanese are not aggressive in claiming licensing rights by obtaining patents. Moreover, products that rely on original Japanese techniques do not have a global impact, and thus the precedence of those techniques is ignored. Communication of information from the Japanese IT industry is sluggish. This phenomenon can be seen in the fields of mobile phones and car navigation systems, which were once the most advanced in the world and are now mocked as Galapagos.

Originally, technological development in the Japanese mobile phone industry resulted in a wide variety of advanced techniques before other countries, including the establishment of high-speed mobile data networks, Internet interfaces like i-mode, mobile game interfaces, broadcast interfaces for terrestrial digital broadcasting, and functional wallet phones-the industry achieved almost all possible kinds of information services. However, none of the techniques just described created a global trend. In fact, the emerging technologies of the smartphone have had a rather strong impact and are becoming established as a new trend.

In the field of car navigation systems, Japan has led the world in the development of advanced technologies from the world's first introduction of GPS to consumer products to the map matching, sophisticated route searches, traffic prediction, and real-time map updates. However, the present trend in car navigation systems in the West is not Japanese but simple PND (personal navigation devices), which are easily removable and specialized in the function of navigation.

The sluggish state of Japanese technologies as mentioned above can be considered a downward spiral between imitation and creation, and breaking the cycle may be the primary challenge for Japanese engineers in the future. How can we find an effective drug for overcoming such a downward spiral? Let me offer my humble opinion on the question: "don't stick to creation from which imitation is eliminated."

Of course, it would be ideal if we could achieve creative technology with an impact on the world soon after starting development; however, creation is affected by the knowledge and environment of the engineer inspired to achieve the creation, and the inspiration is not always evaluated as leading to achievement in the first stage. Thus many ideas are dismissed. This process of creation repeats the cycle of inspiration and evaluation until the creation receives a positive evaluation. Therefore, maintaining enthusiasm for the creation is likely to be a key factor in the achievement.

I think that an allergic attitude toward imitation should be never allowed and would likely exhaust engineers. The imitative way of thinking as in "catch up and overtake," which is dominant in emerging countries like the current China, produces the dramatic effect of concentrating the energy toward development since options are limited, so the engineers are not likely to become exhausted from an allergy to imitation.

In industrialized countries, business operations from the use of imitated technologies are criticized severely, which puts a barrier against the business itself. But, I think that new creation gained through a combination of imitated factors might be less criticized.

Jules Henri Poincar?, a French mathematician and philosopher of science said, "Invention consists in avoiding the constructing of useless contraptions and in constructing useful combinations that are infinitely in the minority. To invent is to discern, to choose." I think the factors in that combination are not necessarily creative; imitation should be allowed. In the fields of smartphones and PNDs, which are being established as a new global trend, for example, Japanese technologies are not always ignored; in fact, they seem to be imitated in a progressive form. As examples, the function of Japanese wallet phones has just been added to smartphones, and the prediction of traffic congestion from Japanese car navigation systems has finally been added to PND as well. In particular, the concept of smartphones was born through many years of trial-and-error approaches by Apple Inc. CEO Steven Jobs, who invented the iPhone, which is recognized as the result of Jobs' efforts to find a breakthrough in the U.S. handheld device sector, where Apple had been a latecomer to the mobile phone market. Though I don't mention the details about the birth of the iPhone's concept, it resulted from the studies of i-mode provided in Japanese mobile phones and Blackberry, which was a big hit in U.S. mobile phones, and not completely original. It seems that many aspects of the iPhone are based on the imitation of existing technologies.

Though the advancement of Japanese technologies is valued and adopted as factors in the said combination, Japanese engineers who have ever played an active role in those fields are not always valued highly. In fact, criticism is increasingly targeted to self-flattering engineering development such as so-called Galapagos technologies, and thus Japanese engineers seem to be less and less energetic.

It is probably true that the preparation period for the development of new technologies may look like stagnation in business with the result that a new target has not been clearly identified in the fields of mobile phones and car navigation systems where immediate goals have been achieved. Furthermore, mass media makes fun of the stagnation. Only those who are in charge of technological development are to blame.

Consequently, I think that the current trend in the world should be reviewed and what we should imitate should be identified for the purpose of technological development for the future of Japan. I want to request the mass media reporting on the stagnated situation to know that it is a milestone in the course of technological development and be more broad-minded and not object to the imitation by Japanese engineers. Otherwise, Japanese engineers will be put under heavy pressure to be creative and original. I am afraid that such pressure may dampen their spirits further.

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  • The 42nd Installment

    “Is It Hot or Cold? Which Is It?”

    by Yoshinori Kanno,
    Professor, Master's Program of Innovation for Design and Engineering
  • The 41st Installment

    “Caught in a Gap Between Imitation and Creation: a Cheer for Japanese Engineers”

    by Shigeru Shimada,
    Professor, Master's Program of Information Systems Architecture
  • The 40th Installment

    “Essence of Information”

    by Hiroshi Koyama,
    Professor, Master's Program of Information Systems Architecture