We spoke with the Co-Creation Program Director of Expo 2025 and President of the Good Design Award: who will bring a new awareness of the social role of design to Osaka

Seiichi Saito is a true powerhouse in Japan: architect and multi-media artist he is the Co-Creation Program Director of Expo 2025 Osaka and President of the Good Design Award as well as lupus in fabula or, as he prefers, spider at the center of the Japanese creative, entrepreneurial and governmental web.
In short, man is capable of creating connections that matter.

The important tasks he has today are the result of a journey that began almost two decades ago.

The collective that Seiichi Saito co-founded with other artists, programmers, engineers, musicians in 2006, Rhizomatiks, had to his credit the creative direction of the closing performance of the Rio Olympics in 2016 (the one in which Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe appeared dressed as SuperMario), of the "Live Performance Theatre” in the Japanese Pavilion of Expo 2015 in Milan, of the first live streaming performance on YouTube in virtual reality with Björk, in 2016.

In 2016, Seiichi Saito detached the architecture division of Rhizomatiks from the collective and founded Panoramatiks with the aim of "carrying out creative actions by creating mechanisms that connect various fields in the fields of urban development, regional revitalization, implementation of ICT and smart cities".

After having curated the Japanese pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai as creative director, his latest creation is the Tokyo Creative Salon: created in 2020 as a fashion event, for the first time under his guidance it included the design and the promotion of craftsmanship among young people with the aim of safeguarding its survival threatened by the lack of vocations in the new generations.

Read also: Tokyo Creative Salon 2024, fashion and design in the Japanese capital

We met him in Tokyo.

How did you become Co-creation Program Director of Expo 2025 Osaka?

Seiichi Saito: “The Japanese pavilion at Expo2015 Milan, on which I worked with Rhizomatiks, was awarded as best installation. The one for Expo2020 Dubai - of which I was creative director - won the Gold Award in the Exhibition category. I started thinking about the new Expo already in 2018, even before Japan won it.

I have always been concerned with giving a social edge to my work, harmonizing apparently opposite elements such as nature and innovation, craftsmanship and industry, creativity and business. Beyond the international pull effect and the entertainment and commercial role, for me Expo represents a unique opportunity to study and try new ways of living, to test sustainable solutions.

Since 2018 I have therefore created a People Living Lab, of which I was the director: a creative action that engaged institutions and companies on how to give a realistic image of a future society not only through thought, but also through action. The theme - Designing Future Society for Our Lives, "Designing the future society for our lives" is a spin off of that co-creation exercise. Hence, the task of director of the co-creation programs of Expo 2025 Osaka".

Planning for the future is always the center of Expos. What is the focus of the one in Osaka?

Seiichi Saito: "The sustainability of society also has a lot to do with the intelligent use of resources and the management of social problems of the various countries.

In Japan we are among the first countries to have to deal with issues such as the aging of the population and the consequent lack of workforce, the poor management of natural resources, the disappearance of ancient knowledge (such as craftsmanship) , the fragmentation of the economy (with 97% of business turnover generated by a negligible percentage of giants and the remainder of the mini-companies dividing the crumbs).
These are issues that arise here but will reach the whole world: Japan is a laboratory in which to experiment with possible solutions from which other countries can draw information and knowledge".

What types of solutions are you talking about?

Seiichi Saito: “A differentiation of services, the digitalization of society, the intelligent use of robots. A transformation in terms of optimization which, however, is carried out with tact, with empathy. We must not become a dystopian world but a better world: more human but supported by a technology that helps but does not invade."

What is the Co-Design Challenge that you direct and that we will see at Expo 2025 Osaka?

Seiichi Saito: “The Co-Design Challenge of Expo 2025 Osaka is a program that invited institutions and small businesses to create a new concept that focuses on the project understood as an activity with a positive social impact, to be carried out in co-creation (therefore associating different people and realities, working as a collective) and requiring a minimum capital investment.
The aim was to allow small companies and artisan businesses, local institutions, designers, engineers and inventors to exploit Expo as an opportunity to carry out real projects, to be put to the ground, also involving partners international.

Among the selected projects there will be a system to produce helmets from waste, to reuse waste water, to separate waste. And also preparation plans to deal with environmental disasters, to push consumers to recycle technological devices. Among the various initiatives, to give space to the many companies that produce seating, instead of choosing just one supplier I asked each of them to provide us with two chairs, to give visibility to as many companies as possible. The idea is to network."

I notice that when you talk about the future you put society at the center, rather than the environment. The opposite is often done...

Seiichi Saito: “I think it's a mistake. To live better we must start from the problems, even the macro ones, that impact people. The environment is one of these but not the only one. For example, restoring tone and importance to craftsmanship, bringing it back to having an economic and social role, is a priority for Japan. Which would also have an impact on the environment, encouraging local and manual production and giving new life to rural areas. These are themes that I have also dealt with with my artistic installations."

Is this why your installations are site-related?

Seiichi Saito: “Exactly. I'm not a museum person: I like to bring art to people and use it to say something. With the “Jiku” project (which means access, ed.) I created a series of installations that use light to reveal what is no longer there due to urban development: ancient streets that have disappeared, trade routes that were fundamental, forgotten places of worship. The aim is to express an axis that gives perspective to history, connect the past with the present and also think about rediscovering value in the territory while planning the future. Maybe we got rid of too many things that could be useful to us today."

What do you mean by social design, an often misunderstood discipline?

Seiichi Saito: “In Japan, for me social design means using the skills of the discipline to revitalize local economies. An example: in the Yoshino area, in the Nara region, there were 14 hotels before Covid and now only 4. And this means enormous losses in terms of tourism. Here I worked with an art installation – which brings visitors from all over the country twice a year – and at the same time convinced the owner of Muji to buy a room in each of the hotels and manage it in a contemporary perspective, with a design designed for a younger clientele. In this way, traditional hoteliers experience first-hand the competitive advantage of design and are more open to getting help. Because the main obstacle is precisely making the power of a well-thought-out project tangible".

At an international level, Japan is always thought of as a land where design reigns supreme. Isn't that right?

Seiichi Saito: “No. The word design was used by institutions only in terms of the product in its aesthetic and functional manifestation. Since 2023 I have been leading the Good Design Award as President and I am working to ensure that projects are considered in their entire life cycle and above all for the potential they have in terms of social impact. In my vision, the Good Design Award should become a sort of think tank, as virtuous examples I look to Nesta in the UK.

So certainly there is a lot of design in Japan but there is no awareness of the potential that design has to positively impact the social developments we need. And that's where I'd like to get to.

I am also working for the Ministry of Economy to create a Design Report which clearly states how it intends to use design for change. It would be the second in the history of Japan because the first was made 50 years ago. This report, Expo 2025 Osaka and the Good Design Award are all steps in the same direction which I call social design."