Symposium report: Tackling the SDGs with Design Thinking

Jan. 17, 2019
  • Events
  • CSR

Public and private-sector thought leaders gather to discuss efforts toward the Sustainable Development Goals

From right: Kotaro Katsuki (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan), Toshio Arima (GCNJ), Kaoru Nemoto (UNIC Tokyo), Paul Bennett (IDEO), Jocelyn Wyatt ( and Masahiro Kawatei (Hakuhodo DY Holdings Inc.)

With support from Global Compact Network Japan (GCNJ) and the United Nations Information Centre, Tokyo (UNIC Tokyo), Hakuhodo DY Holdings hosted a symposium on December 5, 2018 entitled “Tackling the SDGs with Design Thinking” at the Kanze Noh Theater in Ginza, Tokyo. At the symposium, which drew 400 visitors,, a non-profit spinoff from IDEO, a global design consulting firm affiliated with Hakuhodo DY Group and pioneer of design thinking, provided ideas for initiating innovations to solve social issues by showcasing examples of their efforts toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted at the United Nations. is a non-profit organization whose mission is to solve a broad range of social challenges with the power of human-centered design. Its special focus is on poverty, a problem now affecting developed and developing countries alike. In 2011, it was spun off from IDEO, which subsequently became a member of kyu, Hakuhodo DY Group’s strategic operating unit formed in 2014 to lead the Group’s continuous drive toward specialization and innovation. has offices in New York, San Francisco and Nairobi.

In his opening remarks, Masahiro Kawatei of Hakuhodo DY Holdings’ CSR Department, acting as moderator, explained the purpose of the symposium: “With a history of more than 600 years, Noh plays are one of the most beloved performing arts in Japan, nurtured by the diversity of our regional cultures. Indeed, they are a cultural heritage of which Japanese people can be rightly proud. While the SDGs are to be realized by 2030, Japan is fast moving into an era when people routinely live for 100 years. Today we will not only take stock of the current situation of the SDGs but also envision a world in which every newborn baby can hope to live a happy life to 100.”

First at the podium in the opening session was Kaoru Nemoto, Director of UNIC Tokyo. “The SDGs were adopted at a UN summit, but it is up to the governments and individual citizens of Member States to achieve them. I encourage all of you to take ownership of the Goals as agents of change. It is important that you feel excited about tackling the issues.

“Climate change is a serious challenge that cannot be met by governments and companies alone. Let us all get involved as actors and change our lifestyles. We are custodians of this earth for future generations. It is incumbent on us to pass it on in the best possible condition, or at least as we have inherited it. The SDGs are intended for this purpose. We are counting on you to join in this effort,” she stressed.

Next up was Toshio Arima, Chairman of the Board of GCNJ and Senior Advisor at Fuji Xerox Co., Ltd., who discussed the significance of addressing the SDGs from a business management perspective.

“For many years, Japanese companies have followed a business process of kaizen for steadily improving products. Now that this philosophy has lost its effectiveness, we need new solutions and creations to meet new challenges. What is required is an outside-in, rather than inside-out process. The 17 Global Goals represent universal challenges for the whole world, to which an outside-in approach is relevant,” he said, noting that companies must now leverage the leadership of their senior management to create business plans that incorporate the SDGs.

To conclude the opening session, Kotaro Katsuki, Director of the Global Issues Cooperation Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, evaluated the current status of the SDGs: “Three years since their adoption, it appears that progress is being made.”

He presented three reasons for the progress: the traditional Japanese lifestyle incorporating sustainability; the traditional government policy since the Meiji Restoration in the late 1860s of investing in people; and investment in the SDGs, particularly by major companies, to sustain corporate value. He also mentioned the Japan SDGs Award, which recognizes outstanding efforts toward sustainable development, and stressed that action at all levels of society is needed to achieve the Goals, referring to government efforts as a cornerstone.

The symposium keynote followed, with Paul Bennett, Chief Creative Officer of IDEO and Jocelyn Wyatt, Chief Executive Officer of taking the stage.

From left: Paul Bennett and Jocelyn Wyatt

Paul set the tone for the session by introducing IDEO’s business. “I learned at a certain conference in 2001 that a plastic toothbrush we had designed was washed up years later in Mexico, polluting the beach. That was when a new word entered our lexicon. Impact. What impact was our design company having on society in the long and short term? In some cases, the impact was positive, while in others, it was not. From that point on, we’ve been designing things carefully, constantly considering their impact.”

Jocelyn followed with her presentation. Since its inception in 2011, has tackled various social issues, including climate change, refugees and rapid urbanization, with the aim of improving the lives of the poor through design thinking. She introduced examples of collaboration with businesses, some of which were relevant to the SDGs.

“In Nairobi, Kenya, we worked with Unilever and NGOs on Smart Life, an enterprise that sells clean water in slum areas.

“Through various prototypes, we considered what water, and to whom and how we should deliver it, in order to turn it into a sustainable business. Building water infrastructure in impoverished areas in this way will help the enterprise enter services and sales networks in various other areas related to sanitation, grooming and lifestyles.

Head office of Smart Life / By establishing a business selling water, is not simply solving a problem, but supporting sustainable employment and economic growth in Kenya.
Meeting memo of a project member. At meetings, ideas for brainstorming and research findings are not just expressed in words, but also using illustrations etc., to clarify ideas.

“In addition, in the US we developed a tool called ROO with JPMorgan Chase that provides financial coaching, guidance and information to many mid- to low-income Americans.

“By understanding and researching their environment, we hope to develop new markets and ultimately provide more valuable services,” said Jocelyn.

The program ended with a panel discussion among all the speakers. Asked by moderator Kawatei about how IDEO and view the SDGs, Jocelyn responded: “ is putting much effort into the SDGs, with particular focus on health, including sex education and family planning.” Paul explained: “The SDGs are like a creative brief*—something at which everyone involved in creative will, I believe, want to work on. Our team, too, is highly intrigued by work related to education, equality, food, the environment and more.”

*In advertising work, a creative brief is a summary of the goals, insights, targets, core ideas and other information on which the creative will be based.

In response to Jocelyn and Paul’s comments, Nemoto said, “Simply having fun is essential if you are to rally as many people to the cause as possible. Your remarks remind me of the importance of human-centered design and thinking in this sense. Using the universal language of the SDGs helps connect like-minded people across the globe.”

Paul added, “The same is true of the Cool Biz initiative by the Ministry of the Environment of Japan. Turning the simple practice of taking off the tie, something we all do in the summer, into a social movement was a great contribution to the cause from Hakuhodo.” Kawatei agreed. “It’s a typical example of a game-changing social action. Indeed, the SDGs are challenging us to do another Cool Biz.”

A 2018 Ministry of the Environment poster for Cool Biz promoting light clothing and not having the air-conditioner set too low. Hakuhodo was in charge of the creative.

The discussion proceeded with the topic “How might Japanese companies address design thinking?” “Leadership is changing,” said Paul. “To achieve the SDGs, we need to shift to a new type of leadership that can get people involved, recognize every step they can take, and eventually build a wave of change. To that end, we need to change the definition of KPI from Key Performance Indicator to Keep People Involved, and ensure that all work together to design change and work toward it.” Jocelyn’s view was no different: “Japanese companies are highly advanced in their efforts toward realizing the SDGs. They should use this advantage to think about how they might connect with emerging economies and other actors. This will, I think, also lead them to new business opportunities and markets,” she said, stressing that Japanese companies are in a good place. Nemoto agreed, saying “Japan’s efforts are highly appreciated by the United Nations, too.”

“The SDGs are universal goals for the entire world. I am sure that we can find like-minded people somewhere around the globe,” pointed out Katsuki. “Business success depends on whether companies are able to build on this assumption.” Arima summed up the panel discussion as follows: “First Japanese companies need to think about the SDGs using design approaches, and then weave them into their business model. If they can do this, they will, I believe, be able to play a leading role.”

Jocelyn Wyatt
Chief Executive Officer,
Paul Bennett
Chief Creative Officer, IDEO
Kaoru Nemoto
Director, United Nations Information Centre, Tokyo (UNIC Tokyo)
Kotaro Katsuki
Director, Global Issues Cooperation Division, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan
Toshio Arima
Chairman of the Board, Global Compact Network Japan (GCNJ); Senior Advisor, Fuji Xerox Co., Ltd.
Masahiro Kawatei
Executive Manager, CSR Department, Group PR & IR Division, Hakuhodo DY Holdings Inc.
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