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The coronavirus lesson. The case of Japan. Interview with Ludovico Ciferri

The coronavirus lesson. The case of Japan. Interview with Ludovico Ciferri

13/03/2020

 

Is a more efficient world one also more resilient to sudden catastrophes like pandemics? Probably not, so the spread of the coronavirus is going to force us in the future to think about balancing resilience with efficiency, as well as technology and individual freedoms. Such is the opinion of Ludovico Ciferri, professor at the International University of Japan and president of Advanet, a Japanese firm specialized in the development and production of miniature computers.
 
How is Japan dealing with the coronavirus epidemic? 
We have a rather unusual situation here in Japan. My impression is that the local authorities have decided for various reasons to keep a low profile on the spread of the virus. One of the factors in play is surely the Olympic Games. By now, it seems obvious that it is not going to be possible for them to be held on the original dates, but the Japanese government is still doing everything possible to avoid having to cancel the event.  
Another aspect is the difficulty in performing swab tests on a broad scale. Japan is a country that can be proud of its technological peaks in various medical fields, but in this case, there is a scarcity of equipment on a national scale to respond rapidly to the need for coronavirus testing. I experienced this personally with the case of several colleagues returning from China a month and a half ago. There were no testing kits to be had in the entire prefecture of Yokohama at the end of January. The health authorities told us that it was possible to be tested in Tokyo, a distance of three and a half hours by high-speed train. Japan still has very loose measures in place, a low number of contagions and very few deaths, and statistics continue to show a very slow progression in the number of cases.  
 
How do you explain such a situation?
That is the big question at the moment, and various theories are being offered: from a lifestyle involving less physical contact between people, to the population’s habit of wearing masks and almost constant hand washing, to a high level of medical readiness for confronting respiratory diseases resulting from a high rate of smoking-related pathologies. There are also those who point out the diffusion in Japan of a particular flu last autumn that could have stimulated the production of antibodies that, even though a-specific, could have contributed to making the Japanese less vulnerable to the virus. We should also point out however that, in the meantime, businesses and citizens have been adopting much more stringent behaviors than those imposed by the government. Many firms are encouraging teleworking, so that the people normally present in offices and on public transportation amount to a third of the normal number.
 
What role has technology played in preventing and containing the spread of the virus?
As I said before, the measures enacted in Japan so far have not been very strict (apart from the closure of all schools for one month), and no particular technologies have been used to prevent or contain the virus’s spread. The case of South Korea, on the other hand, is different, where there have been many cases and technology has been a decisive factor in various settings, even at the expense of privacy; first of all, in diagnosis, with a massive “drive-through” system that allowed patients to be diagnosed without getting out of their cars, along the lines of an American fast-food outlet.
Another aspect was the monitoring on a website open to the public – and without consideration of personal freedoms – of the movements (cell phones, credit cards) of the earliest patients. This made data accessible to all and informed the persons who had been in contact with those who were contagious. This was a case of the concrete application of Big Data that has been extremely effective; another example is Singapore, where the same technology was used to disseminate information to all citizens by means of mobile devices.
In any case, the application of technologies at the expense of privacy in these countries, including China, is not particularly controversial; moreover, the coronavirus has been an opportunity to demonstrate the usefulness of these instruments for the public welfare. If individual freedoms are sacred in Europe and “negotiable” in the Anglo-Saxon world, in Asia they do not have particular value when weighed against the greater good of the community. That is why there hasn’t been much hesitation in choosing between citizen privacy and the public health. 
 
Why is efficiency not enough without resilience?
Considerations regarding productivity need to be joined by one on balancing efficiency with resilience, two essentially opposing concepts: resilience is the stuff of redundancies that no business wants. Japan has developed and disseminated a highly efficient “just-in-time” system that, nevertheless, goes on tilt with the first snag. To make an example: reducing warehouse stocks to a minimum eliminates those margins needed to weather unforeseen calamities, and activity grinds to a halt.
Readying a firm for teleworking calls, first and foremost, for the adoption of costly systems in which Japan – and I believe also Italy – has not invested much. The problem is not one solely of infrastructure, however, but also one of a cultural predisposition for interpersonal relations, which is one of Italy and its businesses’ strongpoints. Japan too, albeit under very different technical and cultural conditions, considers interpersonal relations in business irreplaceable, especially in building trust. The shift toward teleworking, therefore, spells change and new challenges for the future. Business managers are necessarily going to wonder about the need for having large offices and many people working at tasks that are possibly not all that essential to the firm’s activity. 
The lesson that the situation of recent years seems to teach us, in a world where climate change is triggering increasingly extreme events and epidemics are growing in frequency and extension, we need to stay a bit more resilient and give up that relentless quest for efficiency we have grown so accustomed to.
(Interview made on March 13th)
  
   
Ludovico Ciferri is president of Advanet, a Japanese firm specialized in the development and production of high performance miniature computers. He also teaches Mobile Business Strategy and Private Equity & Venture Capital at the Graduate School of Management of the International University of Japan.