In recent years there has been much talk about SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) in the media. SDGs are “universal goals for the realization of a sustainable society that leaves no one behind.” They are a list of goals that were adopted at the Sustainable Development Summit held at the United Nations Headquarters in New York in 2015. The summit set 17 goals and 169 targets to be reached by 2030.

持続可能な開発目標 - Wikipedia

We interviewed Toshihiro Nakamura, co-founder and CEO of Kopernik, a foundation that has been working to solve social issues. We asked him about the use cases of RICOH THETA and the value of its 360-degree eye.

Toshihiro Nakamura grew up mainly in Osaka and Kyoto. During the first half of his career, he gained experience in the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), working at the UN offices for East Timor, Indonesia, and Sierra Leone, as well as the UN headquarters in New York. He co-founded Kopernik in 2010, aiming to solve the problems of developing countries more effectively and innovatively. He is also a visiting professor at the CO Design Center of Osaka University. His hobby these days is flamenco guitar on weekends.

Women sewing in Sumatra, Indonesia

First of all, could you tell us what kind of activities Kopernik does?

In the early days of Kopernik, we were mainly involved in delivering technology developed and manufactured by venture companies for developing countries. We provided them to last-mile villages in need by using crowdfunding and funds from corporations and other sources. Since then, over the last five years, we have shifted our focus from direct service delivery to systemic changes in order to have a bigger impact. Currently we are engaged in an R&D project for solving problems in developing countries. We are testing approaches that are likely to be solutions to common problems in developing countries and broadly sharing the results. Specifically, we are trying out solar dryers that streamline the process of drying crops, and we are helping companies test new products locally and finally bring them to market.

Experiment drying coffee beans

I see. You are working with various partners to solve social issues while incorporating many technologies and products. So what made you want to work on solving social issues, and how did you decide to establish Kopernik?

I think my family had a big influence on my interest in social issues. My father worked as a judge, a prosecutor, and a lawyer, so he was regularly exposed to the harsh realities of life, not just as abstract events somewhere on the other side of the world. So it seems it was inevitable that I would also work on solving social issues. On the other hand, his work area was limited to his prefecture, so to me the scale was small. Of course, nowadays, I understand that what matters is your impact on society, not the scale, but when I was a high school student, I still didn’t understand that. Meanwhile, Japanese people became active in the world, like Sadako Ogata at the United Nations, and gradually I began to think that I also want to work at the UN.

When I was a high school student, I decided to work at the UN in the future, and fortunately I had the opportunity to work there as an intern and got a full time position immediately after finishing graduate school in the UK. However, I thought that experience in the private sector would be useful for working in the UN, so I decided to work for a private company and then work for the UN afterward.

In NY with his colleagues from the United Nations, around 2005

After being assigned to East Timor in 2002, the Sumatra earthquake struck in 2004, and I was stationed in Indonesia for about two years as a UN member to support the reconstruction.  After that I worked in Sierra Leone in Africa. But gradually I thought that it would be possible to carry out new international cooperation activities outside the UN, so I launched Kopernik.

In order to solve social issues, it is important to utilize the strengths of each of the various stakeholders involved in the issue, but the United Nations, as a public organization, was still searching for ways to partner with the private sector. At the same time, technologies and products that would contribute to solving social issues in developing countries were beginning to emerge from the private sector, especially venture companies. If organizations that provide support to developing countries can build diverse partnerships that include private companies, they can be better equipped to solve social issues. I decided to leave the United Nations and start my own business because I wanted to use what I had learned at the UN while also doing something that was not possible in the confines of a public institution. In 2009, Kopernik was first incorporated in the U.S., and we began full-scale activities in 2010.

With kids at East Timor when I work for the United Nations.

Speaking of Ricoh’s relationship with you, you gave a lecture on ‘Technology and Business to Solve Social Issues’ at Ricoh’s new employee training program around 2011. So that was just after Kopernik’s establishment. Other than that, one of Ricoh’s business units was involved in a project to ‘Search for businesses that solve social issues,’ and you also helped them conduct fieldwork in developing countries to build new businesses. Recently, we hear more and more about the UN’s SDGs. Do you feel that the world is becoming more aware of SDGs even in your work?

Although there have been companies and organizations working on the SDGs before, I certainly feel that interest in it has increased in recent years. Many companies and universities are increasing their efforts to understand social issues and examine ways to solve them. Creating businesses that solve social issues is a way for companies to develop new markets and fulfill their social responsibilities. So, there is an increasing number of requests for workshops and lectures on social issues for this purpose.

Facilitating of a workshop in Yangon

Recently, Kopernik has created a website called ‘VR for SDGs,’ which uses 360-degree videos taken with RICOH THETA to provide updates on current social issues. Please tell us about the background and purpose of VR for SDGs.

I have been working with Ricoh for some time, and I knew about THETA, so I always wondered if I could use it for something in my work.

Around 2017, I had an opportunity to give a presentation at an international conference for the social sector, and I showed everyone a 360-degree image taken with THETA. The response was very positive, and I realized that it was a great tool for helping people understand social issues.

Panel discussion at an international event

In order to understand social issues, it is important to not only look at pictures that focus on the issues themselves, but also to feel the atmosphere of the place to deepen our understanding. Of course it is best to go to the site and experience it in person, but the pandemic has made it difficult to do fieldwork. In the midst of this situation, the University of Melbourne in Australia asked me if I could teach a class using content on social issues captured in 360-degree video instead of going in the field. As a trial, I gave a class using some 360-degree videos from the Kopernik Project. I received positive feedback, with people commenting that the 360 videos would lead to a deeper understanding and better learning. This encouraged me to launch VR for SDGs, a platform to understand the SDGs through 360-degree videos.

For example, in this 360-degree video on VR for SDGs, under the 11th goal, ‘Create a city where people can continue to live,’ there is a part that deals with the issue of waste.

What are the main points in this video?

In this video, you can see how garbage is thrown away in the city and how the landfill looks up close. I think the 360-degree video gives you a sense of the scale of the place, the amount of garbage, and the people picking up garbage at the site. In fact, a major landfill in Bali has already accumulated more garbage than it can handle, and an ordinance has recently been issued for each village to dispose of their own garbage.

Alright. It’s worth seeing in 360 degrees. What kind of ripple effect do you think VR for SDGs will have?

Yes, people are not only watching 360-degree videos to learn about social issues, but also using THETA to film social issues by themselves. Finding the site of a social issue that they want to film in 360 degrees, and thinking from which angle they want to film it depending on what they want to share is a learning process. It is already being practiced in several schools, and also we have new inquiries coming in.

Taking photos with THETA while monitoring the remote project at Indonesia.

We’re glad that you are using THETA in that way. Please let us know if there are any good points and improvements when using THETA to shoot social issues.

I think what makes THETA easy to use is that it can be operated via a smartphone. The design is simple and cool. THETA can capture beautiful images with only a tripod or selfie stick, though there have been a few times when I didn’t have a tripod and ended up with my hand holding THETA in the image. So, it would be great to have a mini tripod built into the THETA itself even though the design might have to be changed.

Taking photos with THETA while testing a rainwater collection and purification system in Indonesia

What other ways do you think THETA can contribute to solving social issues?

Despite being able to shoot 360-degree video, when watching the content, very few people actually have access to VR glasses or goggles. So, the immersive experience of the 360 video is diminished. If there were a place like THETA Plaza, which is equipped with goggles, sound, and other facilities where people can experience 360-degree content in an immersive way, and which can also be used for workshops, more people would be able to realize the advantages of 360 video.

Finally, please tell us about your future plans.
Kopernik conducts more than 30 demonstration experiments and projects a year. And in many cases we find that the team that worked  on solving a problem is so involved that they want to continue their activities even after the project is over. We created the “Next CEO Program” to allow such projects to spin off from Kopernik and continue their activities independently as a sister company or organization of Kopernik to make even more impact. This is what Kopernik has been doing.  

One organization and one corporation have already been spun off, and next year, one more company will be spun off under the leadership of Kopernik’s Balinese staff. This company is called Magi Farm, which was originally inspired by Kopernik’s 2019 demonstration of feeding black soldier fly larvae to ducks. The company raises black soldier flies using surplus food from restaurants and hotels as food, and provides the animal feed made from the nutritious black soldier fly larvae to poultry and duck farmers. The company aims to contribute to the establishment of a circular economy in the food production industry.

LEFT: Soma from the Next CEO program pitching the concept.  RIGHT: Black soldier fly larvae eating garbage.

Including VR for SDGs and the Next CEO Program, we would like to try a variety of things with various partners to solve social issues in developing countries in a more effective and innovative way.

It’s wonderful to see so much effort on activities that can have a greater impact on society. We hope you keep getting the most out of THETA in your work to solve social issues, and we will continue to make better products so that people can use them for a long time.

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VR for SDGs

Ricoh and Kopernik article: Ricoh and Kopernik to expand 360-degree video focusing on social issues through collaboration with UN Volunteers in the field

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