SSS Team Talk: Matthew Waldman (Special Advisor) / Yoshiro Tasaka (Leader)

Shibuya Startup Support (SSS) is honored to be working with our special advisors with diverse backgrounds who provide us with insights for supporting startups. One of these advisors is Mr. Matthew Waldman, a professor at Keio University’s Graduate School of Media Design (KMD). We asked him to sit with Yoshiro Tasaka, the leader of SSS from the Shibuya City Office, to talk about how Matthew got involved in SSS, Shibuya as a city, and tips on how to create a city where startups from abroad will aspire to come.

About Matthew-san and his relationship with Shibuya

– Matthew, please introduce yourself.

Matthew Waldman: My name is Matthew. I am a professor at Keio University’s Graduate School of Media Design (KMD). I am based in Tokyo, and the main themes at my lab are “Circular Design” and “Innovation”. One class I also teach is called “Brand Driven Design,” which is the practice of creating mission and vision driven language to drive the creation of consistent design processes.
Before returning to Tokyo in 2017,  I was a designer and entrepreneur based in New York City where I started my career. In the 1990s I founded one of the first interactive design studios and in the early 2000s worked in London as the creative Director of Reuters. After that, I created a brand called “NOOKA” as an experiment to see what I can create by bringing the revolution in interface design to physical form. This product became famous and became a successful business making me a pioneer in design-oriented entrepreneurship. This product was quite popular in Japan, and sales were good, so we opened an office in Sendagaya (later in Minami Aoyama).

– Matthew-san, what kind of image do you have of Shibuya?

Matthew: I love Shibuya. In fact, I’m thinking about moving here but haven’t found a good place yet. In particular, I really like the area around Jingu and Ura-Harajuku. There are good bars there. If creators want to go out for drinks, they don’t go to Ginza, they go to Shibuya. There is also a history of design culture, such as the architecture around the time of the Tokyo Olympics in the 1960s, such as Kenzo Tange’s Yoyogi National Stadium and Metabolism architecture like Daikanyama Hillside Terrace. I was interested in Japanese design culture even before I came to Japan. That’s why Shibuya is one of my favorite areas.

About Shibuya Ward’s Startup Support Program

– In that sense, what did you think when you heard that the Shibuya City Office was going to start a startup support program last year?

Matthew: I’m all for making Shibuya a better place for foreigners to live. I can speak Japanese and don’t have any trouble living here, so it’s easy for me to live here. Still, due to language differences, legal systems, and customary barriers, people from outside seem to think it’s not easy to live here. Not only a residence visa, but it’s also challenging to get an apartment, for example.
I joined SSS because I was interested in the mission of the Shibuya City Office, which is to solve the problems faced by foreign entrepreneurs, including the barriers I just mentioned and the difficulty of raising funds for overseas [and local] startups.

Conditions for innovation to occur

– Yoshiro, what kind of expectations did you have when you approached Matthew-san?

Yoshiro Tasaka: His research theme is innovation, so I thought he could help us create a city where innovation can occur.

Matthew: The type of innovation research that I am conducting includes studying cities like New York and London and quantify what makes them so attractive to innovators. Like the painter Takashi Murakami and the performer Yoko Ono, we all can see that many talented Japanese innovators became famous in foreign countries before they were recognized in Japan. My research in this area has shown that diversity is vital for innovation to occur in a city. Japan and its cities have unique laws, customs, and cultural barriers that inhibit diversity, so even if you wanted to invite the best talent to Japan, they may not come.
Such ease of innovation can be measured and visualized by comparing different aspects of life; not the least is the frequency of events in the cities. The same goes for gender diversity and gender equality. I am researching to compare such things internationally and find out the necessary and sufficient conditions for innovative communities to be established.

Yoshiro: I lived in San Francisco, so I am aware of the impact of environments on innovation, including some barriers and the lack thereof. So my hope is to get some advice from Matthew-san, who is an expert on this subject.

Matthew: The important thing is diversity. This includes better access to art and experiences. Tokyo has many museums, but there is an access issue when compared to other international cities. The number of permanent collections is not as extensive as it could be and not readily available for everyone to appreciate. More importantly, entrance fees are very expensive and hours are not great. At the Metropolitan Museum in New York, anyone can enter as long as they pay what they can afford. This is something the local government should support.

Yoshiro: In Shibuya City, I would like to promote more art strategies as part of the diversity promotion. Recently, there has been a movement in the private sector where tech companies in Shibuya purchase art pieces and exhibit them, which is inspiring to me.

– What should a city need to have to attract overseas startups?

Matthew: In terms of diversity in Shibuya City, I think there should be more foreign startups. However, according to the latest edition of the “Ease of Doing Business Index” published annually by the World Bank which ranks countries with ease of starting a business, Japan is lagging at the 29th. I would like to see it improved. Making a city easier for foreigners to start a business will surely make it so for Japanese people as well.

– Do you see some quality in Shibuya that makes foreign entrepreneurs feel attracted?

Matthew: Tokyo by itself is a big city comparable to New York and London and is relatively diverse for Asia/Japan. Shibuya, in particular, is an exciting place where you find many good restaurants, clubs, and bars. Fashion studios are concentrated here as well. It’s a stretch, but it feels a bit like Brooklyn in New York.

Yoshiro: I didn’t expect to hear Brooklyn, but it sounds good. Personally, I didn’t think there were many cities like Shibuya elsewhere, but I agree that it has more art, DJ/club culture, and fashion than other cities in Japan.

– What kind of startups would you like to see come from overseas?

Matthew: Designers and startups with future-oriented services and products that improve society through design thinking. For example, in New York, there is a company called Modern Meadow that cultivates stem cells to produce leather materials without harming animals. In Japan, many companies have such advanced technologies and know-how. One of them is Spiber Inc., a company that manufactures fibers from spider DNA materials, and many such great ideas have not yet been commercialized.

Yoshiro: There is also an artificial meat venture in San Francisco called Meatable. I would be happy if such a company chooses Shibuya as its home. Shibuya City Office has also started issuing startup visas, so I would like to use this as an opportunity to promote diversity further. We have a lot of work to do, but with the help of Matthew-san and the other special advisors, we will work as a team.

Matthew: I look forward to working with you as we advance.