February 23, 2009


Contributing to Sustainable Community Development: The Story of Soken Inc.

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.77 (January 2009)
"Towards a Sustainable Japan -- Corporations at Work" (No. 75) (in Japanese only)

Soken Inc. is a construction consulting company headquartered in Nagoya, the capital city of Aichi Prefecture, which hosted the World Exposition in 2005. The company has a think-tank department and operates under the principle of sustainable community development.

Soken calls the "software" aspects of its business operations "soft Soken," which includes study, planning, and visioning on how city, transportation, forests, "satoyama" woodlands ("satoyama" being a Japanese traditional term representing areas of rich biodiversity near human settlements in the countryside), metropolitan areas, and the community should or could be ideally. The "hard Soken" business operations focus on the planning and design of civil engineering and landscape projects such as bridges, streets, parks, and rivers. About 100 employees work in the company's wide range of "soft" and "hard" business operations.

After the global financial crises at the end of 2008, Japan quickly fell into an economic slowdown and a growing feeling of insecurity about employment due to job losses, and the future of the Japanese economy is still uncertain. Against this backdrop, Shiro Kawai, executive director and manager of Soken's Social Capital Design Department, whose job is to use ingenuity to create sustainable communities, believes that the company itself must be sustainable.

Unique Philosophy and System for Generating Creativity

Soken created its own unique concept and methodology, dubbed "Gakuso," to offer high-quality services that impress and please clients, while also maintaining the health and motivation of employees, so that the company can survive in a rapidly changing society and economy. When written, "Gakuso" is a "play on words" with two characters that incorporate the concepts of "music" and "fun" (gaku) and "create" or "build" and the company name Soken (so).

The philosophy of Gakuso is the idea of Nobuyuki Tsutsui, president of the company. The company's brochure says, "Many versatile workers passionately devote themselves to creating original and new values by demonstrating their wisdom and techniques together as if playing a symphony." In the company, when someone says, "Let's Gakuso," experts from many different fields get together on a project basis and start discussions.

In the consulting industry, a company's profitability depends on the value of its knowledge and expertise. Through the Gakuso system, the company can draw out creativity from each employee and continue to present new values and ideas to its clients. Only then can it contribute to society and make a profit. This is one of the main reasons for the company's ongoing survival.

It also holds seminars on corporate social responsibility (CSR) as part of its CSR activities. This has become a communication platform among clients that includes civic governments, businesses, and non-profit organizations (NPOs). The company compiles the outcomes and publishes CSR reports to share the information as widely as possible.

Citizens, Businesses, and Governments Working Together

Philosophy, methodology, and information sharing have become a central part of the company's corporate culture as it increasingly works on consulting and think-tank projects to establish sustainable communities with less environmental impacts. Kawai says that the causes of current environmental issues are very complex.

"For example, in the past, it was easy to determine how to tackle pollution problems because the polluters and victims in each case were identified clearly. But these days, it is unclear who the polluters and victims are regarding environmental issues, or in modern society, we should say. Take the heat-island effect, for example. Even those who suffer from the problem contribute to it themselves by using cars and air conditioners," says Kawai.

As one approach to such environmental issues, they study "social integrated policy." Kawai explains, "When temperatures rise in cities because of the heat island effect, most people who work outside feel distressed. But we have not found a panacea to solve the problem so far.

Moreover, we do not know who should do what and how effective any actions might be. Still, as citizens, we surely feel that it is getting hotter and that something is wrong. The base of social integrated policy is to share such feelings and enhance cooperation among citizens, businesses, and governments to do something good for the environment, starting with what they can do."

It is difficult to predict how effective using greenery is for mitigating the heat island effect. On the other hand, as an approach of social integrated policy, planting trees for lush greenery in cities leads to beautiful cityscapes, helps absorb carbon dioxide that causes global warming, and plays a role in maintaining biodiversity. Therefore, from the point of achieving a sustainable environment, it is recognized as something meaningful to tackle. It is also important as a future undertaking to link urban greenery with "satoyama" woodlands.

Nature Is Not Free

The company is engaged in various fields of business, but among them, it is mainly construction and architectural planning and design projects that in some way place a burden on precious natural resources and the environment. This is the reason why nowadays construction consulting firms seek employees who are well informed about the relevant national laws and policies, and have comprehensive skills and know-how regarding coexistence with the environment, creating an ecological society, and developing environment-friendly infrastructure for building a low-carbon society.

What comes into focus here is the interplay between "social capital" (in this case, meaning infrastructure) and "natural capital." They are similar in that they are not "resources" per se, but rather, the capital that enables the continuous production of a variety of things. They are totally different however, in that social capital is replaceable while natural capital is not.

Kawai says, "The problem is that we use various systems deriving from the functions of nature at practically no economic cost, such as the systems involved in ecological and material cycles. In terms of natural capital, society has not yet developed enough ideas and ways, such as cost-effectiveness studies in improvement of social services and infrastructure, to calculate the economic benefits and losses associated with the changes and destruction we wreak upon those systems.

Nevertheless, everyone, including governments and citizens, must reaffirm that the future of plants and animals, including humans, depends on this non-replaceable capital."

In the past, citizens' participation in community building was based on a "top-down" approach, where municipal governments would first proclaim their stances and then ask the general public for comment. But nowadays the processes have been changed. Civic governments now tend to collect citizens' ideas first and then integrate them into the city's initiatives. Or a government provides a framework, such as "revitalizing the town," and then supports citizens' initiatives within the framework.

Addressing ways to get input from citizens has become an important task of consultants.

"We have been engaged in an urban redevelopment project of the city of Inuyama in Aichi Prefecture for more than a decade. Inuyama is famous for Inuyama Castle and its historic townscape. However, more than ten years ago, attractive historic buildings like this were being demolished and the town was on the decline. Faced with such a fate, the city established the Inuyama City Basic Urban Landscape Planning initiative.

Since then, citizens and the city government have collaborated to work on urban renewal projects, and revitalizing the old castle-town district," Kawai says.

Kawai also adds, "The city of Anjo in Aichi Prefecture -- some call it "Japan's Denmark" for its crisscrossing agricultural canals, has an 'Eco-cycling City Planning' initiative. The citizens participate in the process of planning town-building projects. For example, after first riding bikes around the town, they held a workshop where they drew up a cycling map, based on information such as road safety and comfort. The workshop eventually led to specific ideas on the design of roads and cycling paths."

Japanese City of Anjo Expanding Eco-Cycling Project

Challenges Abound Wherever People Live

On the "hardware" side of Soken's business, such as designing roads, bridges, and rivers, the company seeks sustainability, and one of its key concepts is making things last longer. The firm periodically checks, repairs, and reinforces existing structures that it has been involved in, and for new projects, starts with the idea of planning and design things to last 100 or 200 years.

"For example, in the case of bridges, a city government typically manages many bridges -- not just one. Our approach is to encourage the city to see them as assets, and we propose which bridge needs maintenance first, and if they accept our proposal, we offer recommendations on how the city can maintain its assets in the long term.

In the interest of reducing impacts on the environment as well, our consulting outputs includes recommendations on an 'asset management system' that can avoid the trap of the scrap-and-rebuild mentality," Kawai explains.

One of the challenges a city will face in building a sustainable local community in the coming years is dealing with so-called "new town" issues. Many communities in Japan were labeled "new towns" where a wave of people moved into suburban areas built at the height of the country's economic boom in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Now, many of those residents have become senior citizens. How to sustain these neighborhoods is now a key question in many cities. Soken upholds a vision of the "compact city," where environmental impacts are minimized while amenities are maximized for residents. To realize this vision, Soken has launched several planning schemes in areas such as land-use planning, land reallocation for parks and greenery, housing supply and relocation measures, and environmentally sustainable transport.

"Challenges abound wherever people live. Constrained by tighter administrative budgets, the construction consulting sector has entered into a period of competitive shakeup. But, with our "Gakuso" principles, I am confident that we will survive as a company dedicated to sustainable-community building and contributing to society," Kawai maintains.

Written by Reiko Aomame