These past few months have gone by far quicker than they should. It's included trips to Denmark, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Germany and next week UAE (the good staff at British Airways now know me by name). A more eclectic mix of destinations is hard to imagine. But it was without a doubt the trip to Japan which has been the highlight.
Whilst writing my many thank you letters to our various hosts it is immediately obvious how hospitable the Japanese are. Also, how genuinely important and ever-present the Japanese culture is, and therefore how key it is to be aware of your surroundings; something that equally applies in each of the countries I've visited. Japan is a beautiful country. It has wonderfully simplistic and pragmatic approaches to many things (buildings for example) and at the same time hugely complex approaches to others (just try and master breakfast buffet etiquette!).
But what did we learn? There is nothing quite like taking a close look at the planning and development challenges of another country to really highlight the issues and expertise of your adopted own.
Japan (unlike the UK) is very good at big picture - I'm talking national scale stuff. Take the Shikansen, the country’s ultra-high speed rail network. It's happened and it will continue to grow until you can travel at 300+km/hr from tip to tail. But ask someone what's happening around the station, and watch for the quizzical look! When they commit to something - you can trust it will be done, sometimes in the absence of the answer to "what comes next?" - this isn't necessarily a bad thing. At some point you have to jump in and start swimming. We can hardly hold the third runway at Heathrow up as an example of expedience. If anything, sometimes the UK overthinks things in the hope of getting it exactly right. It may horrify people if they knew how many decisions hadn't been made when London bid for the 2012 Olympics, and its worked out just fine, both on the day of the big show and now five years later.
This suck-it-and-see approach is often the only approach when it comes to wholesale change. Vision 2030 here in Saudi (I'm boarding a plane home right now - see photo) is an example. No one will challenge that it is needed, and for many the shock of the past few months was a necessary part of the wake-up process. But if they don't have a what's next (steps 2 through 10) then hello Arab Spring!!
Back to Japan, like Saudi, decrees (and money) are handed down from central government. Just when you think you've got a grip they zag when you've geared up for zigging. So regional and local planning tends to wait, in some cases until it's too late. This can provide a great space for the private sector to move into when motivated.
But that's not the reason for the issue of weak local strategy. It's failure or more specifically fear thereof. As an Australian I'm rarely embarrassed, and perhaps that's why an old colleague (and good mate) is doing so well in Japan. He jumped in. Over dinner he told us of the not insignificant number of cultural faux pas he's made since moving there with his happy wife and daughter. He also told us of the initiatives he's introduced. In the U.K none of these would be seen as risks, but in Japan he hasn't just got his head over the proverbial parapet, he is dancing on top of it, in a clown suit, with a neon sign saying "look at me!!"
And guess what? People are looking and it's working. And then it struck me, in the U.K we do (most of the time) town planning and masterplanning well. Yeah the regulations have a habit of changing now and then, but the framework is there and we work within it. And sometimes, a big idea comes along. It gets batted around, we work out that "it kind of fits" so we run with it. And that's it. We, unlike the proud Japanese people, are prepared to fail. That's not saying we aim to fail, or even that we don't discount dumb ideas, but we are as my old boss and secret mentor Lawrie would often say, prepared to "put up a straw man!"
So Dorothy, grab the straw man, were heading to Japan! I may even follow Boris's lead and go on a zip wire waving flags.
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Where's Adam, Travel Blog, International, Japan