Minami Ashigara Innovation Summer College

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The Minami Ashigara Innovation Summer College is a multi-stakeholder collaboration between BOUNDLESS, Fuji Xerox, Yokohama National University and Minami Ashigara city government. The purpose of this college is to inject fresh perspectives to the revitalization movement of the local regions of Minami Ashigara and Odawara. This program involves a wide range of participants- Japanese university students from Yokohama National University, international students, local high school students, as well as local residents and stakeholders.

Prior to the four-day program, we did pre-trip fieldworks to engage in conversations with the locals in order to find out the local needs, resources available and the long-term vision for the local regions.

As in the rest of rural areas of the country, the main problem in the region is depopulation: an increasing number of inhabitants choose to migrate to large cities, where job opportunities are larger. This leads to a rapid aging of the population, and to a progressive lack of social cohesion. The cities of the region have some festivals and attractive places for tourists, but the difficulty of arriving by public transport means that the number of them is not as high as one would wish. All this can be seen in the almost empty streets, and in the large number of abandoned farming areas.

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To carry out this project we focused on studying two districts: Yagurasawa and Kataura. Yagurasawa is a district dedicated above all to agricultural production, with rice, tea and other crops. Several rivers supply these fields, some of them abandoned to a different extent. In the area there are many empty buildings, which is a municipal problem: these buildings are in privileged locations near the farms, but their owners now live in other places, so the city cannot offer them for rent to new tenants. In addition, current regulations make it very difficult to build new homes, as new constructions are prevented in the narrow streets that currently make up this city, until they are adequate. These two factors mean that, despite suffering serious depopulation problems, it is difficult to allocate housing for rent or tourism.

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During the first two and a half day, we got to know more about this area, because most of us couldn’t even locate it on a map before enrolling the program. We did some inside workshops to learn about the current situation of the region, and the challenges it faces, which are mainly the ageing population and lack of sustainable attractiveness, which is threatening the area of disappear in the future if nothing changes. We also went see the surroundings ourselves, and were amazed by the beauty and relaxing atmosphere of the area. But despite walking around for few hours, we couldn’t see anyone. That’s when we realized the truth of declining population, this blurred concept became very much tangible to us. 

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After understanding the stakes of the program, we got to know the tools we could use to tackle with it, which were the initiatives started by locals and outsiders to help the region. 

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There was one in Odawara, where Kiyama-san started various projects to empower the locals with self-sustainability skills. Some highlights of her activities are the local production and selling of small solar panels, and the introduction of permaculture and ecofriendly kitchen in an abandoned high school. She took us to various different places to illustrate her explanations, and we could have a very interesting Q&A with her afterwards.

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The problems she faces are the lack of local involvement in these activities, which come from weak bonds she has with the local community, as she herself is not from the area. We also noticed the inexistence of any communication plan, and the lack of visible connection between all her projects. 

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We also met Kishi-san, who was born and bred in Minami Ashigara, but did his undergraduate in the University of Tokyo and MBA in Oxford University in England. He discovered agriculture during a gap year, and realized it was his thing. From then on he developed a business back to his hometown, with the idea of letting the new generation from all over the world to get to know about farming. He came up with an interactive mobile app which enables people to rent a small plot of land, where people can virtually grow real vegetables. One basically decides what to do, sends the information via the app, and Kishi-san carries out the instructions. This way, people living in the city have the opportunity and tools to get closer to the countryside, and it encourages them to come to see their own little piece of land time to time, bringing recurrent visitors in the area. This business has been going for 3 years now and has about 20 renters now.

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With all this information, we came up with a concrete and practical plan for each city, to present on the last day to the program organizers, local government workers and other involved stakeholders. We were split in two groups, one for Minami Ashigara and Onagawa. 

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For the Odawara team, we created a sample of prospectus to gather basic information about all her projects, which we considered could help to get more locals involved. We proposed creating a website using Peraichi, an easy tool which anyone can use for a professional result. While the prospectus is for immediate and precise use, the idea around the website is to gather not only information about Miss Kiyama’s activities, but also touristic information in the long term, such as accommodation and transportation information, and maybe other activities who would bloom as a response to the local involvement triggered by the prospectus.

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For the Minami Ashigara team, the main problem we could detect was the lack of social cohesion: the progressive emigration of the neighbors and the lack of public space projects led to an absence of community feeling, which makes even fewer people choose to stay, and the people from outside do not see inducements to live in these areas.

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To answer, we decided to propose a community garden in one of the areas of abandoned farms closest to the main river. These gardens encourage the participation of the neighbors in their maintenance, and the space not dedicated to cultivation is used for other community activities such as film screenings, debates, etc. Cultivated products would be sold at the local store, in the center of the district, and advertised so that they would be visible from the highway built soon. In this way, we would try to revive the feeling of community, while at the same time attracting the attention of the outside public. For the process we take as reference other projects carried out in Italy and Spain.

Three things that participants learnt through this program:

1. Problem solving skills

In order to solve real problems, participants have to have a good grasp of the situation, problems, resources available and the goal in mind. Participants also have to work in a team, where everyone has a slightly different perception or opinion. The process of brainstorming brings out ideas from various perspectives and this diversity is what creates possible solutions to the problems. One lesson a participant learnt was: Never assume that the majority is always right; every single voice counts and is worth self-questioning.

2. Communication skills:

Given a wide diversity of nationalities and cultural backgrounds of the participants, communication can sometimes be difficult and requires patience and extra effort. However, there are interpreters and bilingual participants present who will serve as a bridge for communication. Communication is not merely a language issue. The ability of conveying a message or one's thoughts is a useful skillset that can be applied in our lives.

3. Friendships

Throughout this program, participants stayed in the same hostel, exploring the areas, brainstorming ideas and tackling problems together. Friendships are forged in the process as participants overcome the barriers of communication issues and opposing opinion.

Conclusion

As with all projects, results are usually only visible after a prolonged period of time. This program is a 3-year long project starting from 2018. Our primary aim for this year was to visualize the local resources and come up with ideas to utilize them efficiently and innovatively. We will pass this on to the next batch of participants in the subsequent years.