Event report

November 7, 2021

What Does Design for Non-human Creatures and Environmental Challenges Call for? GGJ Tokyo Bay 2021: GGJ’s first student designathon

Saori Matsuo



The Global Goals Jam (“GGJ”) is a designathon that seeks to use design thinking to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, adopted by the UN in 2015. 

GGJ began in 2016 as a joint project between Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and was held in 17 cities in its first year. It has received much recognition since and is now held concurrently in over 90 cities around the world, with over 5,000 participants in 2020.  

In Tokyo, Japan, the project began in 2017 as GGJ Tokyo, and has been held five times to date. GGJ Tokyo Bay, held in 2021, was the first experiment with an event targeted towards middle and high school students. 

GGJ Tokyo Bay was focused on students, who worked with creative teams to engage in “beyond-human-centered design.” This corresponds to SDG goals 13 (Climate Action), 14 (Life Below Water), and 15 (Life On Land).

Source: unpacking DESGINUX collective

We know from the ample research available that human activity is behind the increasing gravity of environmental issues. Beyond-human-centered design moves away from the human-centered designs of the past toward environment-centered designs, whose scope includes non-human creatures, including flora and fauna, and the environment.

Key Design Questions

  • How can we create designs that resemble ecosystems found in nature?
  • What kind of designs can we create if we make nature and the environment the focus of our designs? 

On September 25-26, the 27 student participants spent two days using the design thinking tool kit known as the GGJ Jamkit* to create and share ideas with their teams. 

Facilitators and staff working online, held at AkeruE, Panasonic Center Tokyo

Day one began with an explanation of the entire workshop and self-introductions to help the team members get to know one another. Participants mentioned topics such as discovering the purpose of the SDGs and creating a society that would not be so impacted by natural disasters as motivations for participating.

After the team icebreakers and goal setting, assistant professor Tokushu Inamura from Kyushu University Institute of Design, ecological artist and originator of Give Space urban design methodology Naho Iguchi, and associate professor Takeshi Ise from the Kyoto University Field Science Education and Research Center gave guest talks to encourage participant insights and inspiration. 

Professor Inamura spoke on design basics and designs that create empathy, discussing topics such as how more than half of the human body consists of bacteria, meaning that our body is formed by coexisting with other organisms, and how we must envision a version of happiness that includes organisms besides ourselves. He also spoke about how we use design to express concepts such as circulating societies and ideas we wish to implement in the future while feeling with our body, and how not only things but also services and rules can be designed. 

Ms. Iguchi posed a question, asking if it is perhaps the role of humans to think of land-related designs that give thought to spaces for creatures besides human beings, considering the fact that we are also animals and part of the ecosystem. She also introduced the Give Space project, which seeks to return space to other organisms in the context of urban environments. 

This project focuses on expanding habitats for creatures besides human beings, examining how these habitats can meld with those of humans, and is based on key concepts such as regenerative thinking, biophilic design, and communication process design.

The project seeks ways to design the following three spaces: “physical spaces,” which consist of public spaces and architecture, “mental spaces,” formed from spaces for communicating, and “spiritual spaces,” our inner spaces for ourselves.

Professor Ise spoke about how living selfishly is encoded into organisms’ genes, and how we are able to think about consequences, yet despite this, we can be aware but unable to stop as our desires create problems for the environment. He also discussed how we can see environmental issues from a biologist’s perspective.

The facts presented and questions posed suggested that we should not be limited to an optimistic view for saving the earth, nor to a pessimistic one that argues it would be best for humanity to die out, and that therefore “optimistic pessimism,” a thought process combining both sides, is precisely what we need.

He also presented “IKEBANA of Alien Species” as a case study, which features non-native plants that need to be exterminated to prevent them from encroaching on indigenous species. In the past, many non-native species came to Japan, with some of them being absorbed into Japanese culture. This content encouraged participants to recognize the existence of non-native species and to see coexistence between species in a new light.

After listening to the talks, the students posed their questions to the guests.

When asked how to protect species from non-native species, Professor Ise provided an example, discussing how mongooses were imported because they eat habu snakes, but then increased in number and became a threat to the existence of other species. He also stressed the importance of envisioning human intervention and its future impact. 

Ms. Iguchi was asked what creating a non-human-centric world would require, and she responded that we must bring back a variety of habitats, even in a roundabout way, and that humans must step away from being involved in these habitats.

She spoke on the need for thinking about why humans want to possess things, why this creates a sense of stability and how this can form our identities, and how cyclical of a world we can create without objectifying spaces.

Professor Inamura was asked about having awareness for unseen communicators, and he answered that we can begin by picturing where things are connected. He suggested that when thinking about the history of ketchup for example, you could begin with when tomatoes came from South America. In this way, you can exercise your power of imagination by thinking about the people, things, and natural environments involved in a given example.

Two topics left a particularly strong impression on the students – the possibility of empathizing even without using language and thinking from the perspective of humans as animals. Students also shared their belief in the necessity of a relationship where humans and nature can live in mutual respect.

Next, each participant selected an animal with a problem that they wanted to solve based on the viewpoints shared in the talks. They then looked at things from this creature’s perspective, digging deeper into the issues by using the 5W1H question process. The next step was for teams to hold a vote to decide which animal to focus on. Homework to research the animal and the issue it faces was assigned, and this concluded the first day. 

On the second day, participants shared with their teams what they had researched. Worksheets detailing the entire life cycles of these spotlighted creatures were used to further analyze and discuss the issues, and a solution-oriented question was agreed upon: “What can we do to achieve our goals?”

Presentations were held midway through, followed by a discussion about things taken for granted and assumptions about the issue at hand. The next step was to create questions that would challenge these notions. An individual trapped in fixed ideas will struggle to generate innovation, so the facilitators encouraged unrestricted conceptualization by visualizing and taking note of these fixed ideas.

One interesting and complex topic discussed was how much we can preserve our human culture versus the habitats and ecosystems of other organisms while still coexisting. Our human traditions and cultures are undoubtedly the reason behind why our history of coexistence with other organisms ground to a halt. Group discussions also touched on the need for rethinking these cultural assumptions while providing an update suited to our current times.

Then, after receiving feedback from other participants and facilitators on their idea sketches based on these questions, participants used images, illustrations, and words to prototype their ideas.

Finally, the event concluded with each team presenting in front of all the participants on the ideas that they had produced over the course of the two days.

Creations included the My Spider App, an app for empathizing with and getting closer to spiders; the Soil Cafe, which seeks to achieve a coexistence that both preserves culture and avoids interfering with the earth; and JellyFilm, an Edible Wrapping & Package brand that aims to combat plastic pollution in the ocean and protect sea turtles. 

The participants shared many other unique ideas, such the Re:Starting from Zero: Snow Leopard Protection project, which aims to create an ecosystem design and preservation program for protecting the endangered snow leopard, as well as an “Day of the Ox” Advent Calendar for engaging in rethinking culture and customs and creating new practices with the dual aims of preserving human culture while also protecting the ecosystem and habitat of the Japanese eel.

The Soil Cafe team’s presentation used slides featuring illustrations of the cafe interior, and the members acted as staff and customers to bring the cafe to life while explaining their idea and presenting offerings such as sweets and a soil facial mask experience. Their presentation made us feel like we had really visited the café!

Participants commented that the experience was fun and that there was a sense of accomplishment. They felt that progress had been made during the two days, and that they wanted to attend next year’s GGJ as well. It really sounded like they were able to connect with their peers and experience the fun of giving shape to ideas.

This was our first student designathon, but students have flexible imaginations and use digital tools without a second thought, so we saw both the possibility and necessity of taking the next step with their opinions and ideas in society as a whole.

Additionally, engaging with the theme of environment-centered design by looking at the world from the perspectives of other organisms presented an opportunity for reexamining our history and culture of coexistence, something which purely human-centered designs tend to obscure. Another interesting discovery for the participants was that questioning the meaning of human existence enabled them to examine humans objectively.

There was also discussion about using design approaches to break down hierarchies in ecosystems. What changes and impacts will human society see in the future? While this is exciting to think about, it is clear that we must also be aware of the subsequent negative impacts and the kinds of support that will be required.

* What is the “Jamkit”? The Jamkit is a unique design methods kit developed by the Digital Society School.

In 2016, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) approached the Digital Society School to create a link between the design community and the Sustainable Development Goals. The Digital Society School has created and open-sourced The Design Method Toolkit to help people solve international and local challenges in their own contexts, using design method expertise and cross-cultural collaboration. Global Goals Jam teams around the world use these tools as a roadmap to move from problem to idea and idea to solution.



  • Saori Matsuo


    Following Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami natural disasters, Saori Matsuo began to question the sustainability of society. Influenced by these natural disasters, Saori now works as a freelance writer, writing articles about the SDGs and sustainability for various media. She is also the founder of the online community “ACT SDGs”, and speaks for and coordinates SDGs courses. She also founded the ‘Powershift Ambassadors’ project to spread the word about climate change and energy issues.

    Following Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami natural disasters, Saori Matsuo began to question the sustainability of society. Influenced by these natural disasters, Saori now works as a freelance writer, writing articles about the SDGs and sustainability for various media. She is also the founder of the online community “ACT SDGs”, and speaks for and coordinates SDGs courses. She also founded the ‘Powershift Ambassadors’ project to spread the word about climate change and energy issues.

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