Toshi Nakamura dreams big, but even he wouldn’t have imagined that three years after setting up his ingenious entrepreneurial venture, he’d show up on the same list as Bill Gates, the Prince of Wales, and Jimmy Carter.
That’s exactly what happened though when the Global Public Interest Design Initiative recently released its annual list of the top 100 people in the world working at the intersection of service and design.
To anyone familiar with Toshi’s work, the inclusion is unsurprising, as is his inclusion on another influential list: as one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders of 2012. In a career that seems to thrive on unpredictability, Toshi has criss-crossed disciplines – and, quite literally, the globe – the one constant being a passion for driving change.
Armed with a law degree from Kyoto University, Japan, and a master’s in comparative politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science, he jointed McKinsey as a consultant at their Tokyo office, but left soon after to join the UN. The next 10 years involved stints in East Timor, Indonesia, Sierra Leone, the US and Switzerland, dealing with both policy-making, as well as the gritty onground realities of UN work: peace-building processes, post-disaster reconstruction including the tsunami in Aceh and the Yogyakarta earthquake, and an ‘open government initiative’ to increase transparency and accountability of the government in Sierra Leone.
And yet the more he saw, the less convinced he was that this was the route to making a difference. “I really felt that there was something missing from the efforts being made by the United Nations,” he explained in an interview to Faust recently. “When it comes down to it, official development assistance loans (that the UN gives out) are basically about compromises between governments. The details of the support are worked out between diplomats who meet and talk with each other.”
For tangible change, Nakamura felt, you needed alternative systems designed to work with the realities of the poor, rather than policy initiatives designed by those removed from those realities.
Exit the UN, enter Kopernik, Toshi’s three-and-half year old venture that seeks to bring together three distinct constituencies: donors, seekers (or those who need the technology) and providers (or those who design game-changing technologies for the poor).
Using the crowdfunding model, Kopernik harnesses the power of the internet and makes technology designed for the developing world accessible to last mile users. “The problems we’re addressing appear simple but often hold millions of people back,” says Toshi’s co-founder at Kopernik, Ewa Wojkowska. “The LifeStraw for water purification, the solar powered lamp, self-adjusting eye glasses – the world has the technology and capacity to produce these items, but the people who need them can’t get hold of them.”
His UN experience is invaluable in identifying grassroots needs: Kopernik has successfully implemented projects all over his former hunting grounds of Sierra Leone, Haiti, Timor-Leste and Indonesia, where Kopernik is headquartered. But even Toshi couldn’t have anticipated that his brainchild would become a significant contributor to the relief efforts in his native Japan post the devastating 2011 earthquake. “In Japan, there is a tendency to think that only complex technologies are beneficial or ‘cutting-edge’”, he says. “In actuality, however, low-tech technologies can be even more useful. It turned out that when the time to deal with disaster actually came, what was needed was something simpler.”
“What was missing from our understanding of technology was humility,” said Toshi self-deprecatingly at a TED talk last year. “When disaster strikes, the realisation came home that the tables between developed and developing countries can be turned in an instant.”
Fortunately for both sides of the development chasm, Nakamura is at hand to bridge the gap.