People have long loathed inconvenience. But isn’t it possible that a certain kind of joy can be obtained from inconvenience itself, from the fact that something requires a little extra effort? What do humans have to offer as a result of their pursuit of efficiency? This conversation between Hiroshi Kawakami and Toshihiro Hiraoka, researchers in the “benefit of inconvenience,” or Fuben-Eki, attempts to reaffirm the appeal behind the benefits surrounding inconvenience.

Left : Toshihiro Hiraoka
Assistant Professor, Department of System Science, Graduate School of Informatics, Kyoto University
Born 1970. Completed a master’s degree in precision engineering at Kyoto University Graduate School of Engineering, then worked for Matsushita Electric Industries (now Panasonic) before assuming his current position. Specializes in human-machine systems, with research focusing particularly on driver assistance systems. Holds a Ph.D. in Information Science.

Right : Hiroshi Kawakami
Professor, Unit of Design, Kyoto University
Born 1964. After completing a master’s degree in precision engineering at Kyoto University’s Graduate School of Engineering, went on to work as an associate professor at Okayama University, then an assistant professor at Kyoto University before assuming his current position. Research focuses on system design theory. Holds a Ph.D. in Engineering.

Hiraoka: Professor Kawakami, your specialty is artificial intelligence, isn’t it? How did that lead you to explore the subject of inconvenience?
Kawakami: It all began when I first started as a (then) assistant professor at Kyoto University, and Professor Katai, who ran the lab at the time, told me that the benefit of inconvenience, or what we call Fuben-Eki, was a subject whose time was coming. H: So you gave up artificial intelligence?
K: No, no. I haven’t exactly given it up, but the benefit of inconvenience just seems so much more interesting than trying to replicate human intelligence with machines, don’t you think? H: When I was a student, I also did research in artificial intelligence under Professor Katai, so I kind of had a sense of the benefit of inconvenience even before there was a term for it. Later, though, I moved on to studying controls.
K: When you first came back to the university after having worked at a company, weren’t you studying controls for automated driving systems for cars? H: That’s right.
K: How did you end up shifting to your current field of research?
H: I gradually moved from studying automated driving to researching driver assistance systems. I guess for a car enthusiast like me, a car that drives itself just isn’t a real car! (Laughs) As I pursued that research, I thought it would be a waste if all the system did was send out information. At the same time, I also wondered if, with a little creativity, we could get the system to send out the right information that would allow drivers to drive better by thinking for themselves and putting in a little effort.
K: That’s exactly what we mean by Fuben-Eki.
H: I think there must be some way to use driver assistance systems to encourage drivers to feel that driving safely or more ecologically can be fun. To do that, we need some kind of hook to get them to try the system, and then a way to keep them using it without turning drivers off.
K: So the important thing is to get the driver to feel some attachment to the system, even if it’s a little more trouble to use.

This is not just nostalgia for the “good old days.”

H: Fuben-Eki research starts by asking “Are we seeing more things in the world that are convenient, but which may also be harmful?” What I’d like to emphasize is that this not simply nostalgia, a call to return to a more inconvenient past. Our aim is strictly to regain certain benefits by adding new inconvenience. We don’t reject out of hand things that are both convenient and positive.
K: No, no. That kind of thinking is what we call the “Fuben-Eki right wing.” Those of us on the left would actually prefer to use something inconvenient, and then try to find some benefit in it.
H: Well I guess that’s where we differ—I actually enjoy convenience. (Laughs) K: Our goal is to build a system design theory that addresses the question of where and how we can make existing systems less convenient, while gaining benefit from them. Recently, we’ve been trying to codify Fuben-Eki using symbolic logic. The effort is still underway, but things have gotten interesting.

A talented group comes together to study Fuben-Eki

H: It seems pople from a wide variety of fields have gotten interested in Fuben-Eki lately.
K: Not just engineering, but architecture, psychology and even Buddhists.
H: And all of those fields rely on having a user—the involvement of people.
K: That said, I’d hate for people to think Fuben-Eki is the same as ergonomics. Many of the “EKI” (benefits) in Fuben-Eki aren’t something that can be expressed in numbers.
H: That’s because the “EKI” in Fuben-Eki represents things we gain in taking the trouble to use an object—a sense of happiness, or fun—and for the most part, they’re subjective.
K: In other words, you only get out of it what you put in, an idea that has much in common with learning situations. For example, the vocabulary you worked hardest to memorize stays with you the longest.
H: You stop thinking of things as convenient; I suppose that’s the whole point of something being convenient, but it really weakens a person’s ability to think.
K: If something’s inconvenient, it forces you to actively think about what you’re doing. The process of trial and error turns out to be a good stimuli for the brain.
K: That said, it’s not easy coming up with a new Fuben-Eki system. That’s why one of our students devised these Fuben-Eki cards. They consist of two types: 12 Fuben-Eki Principle cards and eight Benefit cards. The Fuben-Eki Principle cards indicate what should be done to make a system inconvenient. The Benefit cards, meanwhile, show what kind of benefit might be gained in doing so.
H: The pictograms on the cards are really evocative. I always found it frustrating to try to describe Fuben-Eki to someone who knows nothing about it. These cards are great because you can get a general understanding of Fuben-Eki with just a glance.
K: The way these are used is first you use a Fuben-Eki Principle card to try to make an existing system inconvenient. Next, you use the cards to consider what kind of benefit could be gained from using that now-inconvenient system. Try using them in that order and you’ll see what I mean.

Yellow cards are the 12 kinds of inconvenience that can easily provide benefits.
Green cards are the eight kinds of benefits obtainable from those inconveniences.
These Fuben-Eki cards use pictograms to express over 100 examples that were generalized and carefully studied.

Roads disappear with each use.
How the “fading navigation” works.

K: Have you noticed how more and more people can’t go anywhere without a car navigation system? H: Even if you’re going somewhere for the first time, they make sure you get to your destination—essential for people with no sense of direction. But once people started using these navigation systems, they definitely stopped learning the roads for themselves. They simply don’t need to. And that ability to memorize roads has gradually weakened. K: And one approach that introduces the idea of inconvenience to these convenient navigation systems is… H: This “Fading Navigation” system. At first, it looks just like a regular map, but the roads you go over begin fading from view. The more you travel a road, the fainter its image becomes, until finally there’s nothing left but white space. Not only that, the more slowly you travel, the greater the rate at which the road fades away. K: In other words, the roads we travel most frequently, or most slowly, are the ones we keep in our heads. With this navigation system, the way the roads fade from view is an expression of the user’s driving history, and in that sense it creates a kind personalized map. H: The user is led to think “Hey! Maybe I’ll try a route that isn’t faded yet!” which in turn could lead the user to new discoveries. K: We’re hoping that people might use it for walking around a tourist destination, for example, or for changing the look of their everyday routes. That said, we certainly have no intention of forcing people to use this “fading navigation” system when they need to be on time and travel directly to their destination. (Laughs)

Introducing Fuben-Eki to the schools
How the “fading navigation” works.

H: Kids today grow up surrounded by useful tools, and know surprisingly little about inconvenience. In fact, the current state of things is so normal for them that they fail to how convenient life is.
K: Once convenience becomes the norm, no one needs to bother with being creative. As a result, when people take on an effort, they fall into this sense that it’s not worth going to so much trouble for. In fact, the real joy lies in making that extra effort.
H: They can’t feel the joy that comes with effort. Clearly, children need to experience Fuben-Eki at an early age. In reality, though, more and more playthings are disappearing because they’re considered “too dangerous,” and even the educational materials used in schools have in many cases been trimmed back. Toys are so perfect they’ve become unobtainable. When summer vacation comes around, bookstores are piled with books and kits for summer independent research projects, but projects that rely on these aren’t really “independent” research at all, are they? (Laughs)
K: I’ve always thought that Fuben-Eki would be a good match for education, so that’s definitely something I’d like to pursue more -- “Fuben-Eki educational materials,” or “Fuben-Eki toys.”
H: And I think the problem is not just with the kids—if anything, parents are the ones with the problem. Leaving their kids to their “independent” research books is actually easier on the parents. Do these parents even really know the joy of raising children in the first place, the joy that only comes from taking the trouble, experiencing the hardships? They may think their children are adorable, but maybe they think even more highly of themselves. (Laughs)
K: “Fuben-Eki for child-rearing!”
H: I think in general, parents are trying to give their children the skills to do everything in the most efficient way possible. Nobody uses words like “work your butt off” anymore. K: Unless we learn the joy of working hard and accomplishing something, the Japanese will turn into a people who have no dreams.
H: Even the greatest effort is not necessarily rewarded. That’s why it’s not just a matter of making an effort…
K: Hopefully, kids can learn that lesson through the kind of basic experiences we had in the old days, like the first time we were able to ride a bike, or stand on our heads.

Inconvenient, yes, but you’ll want one:
The “Prime Number Ruler”

A prime number is a natural number, aside from 1, that has no positive divisor except one and itself. This 18-cm bamboo ruler is marked only with the numbers 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13 and 17. All of these are prime numbers, and indicate length in centimeters. It’s been a big hit at Kyoto University’s Co-op store.

Photography / Shingo Shiokawa Text / JQR