Prototyping ideas for small city revitalization in Tajimi, Japan

From September 27 to 29, Tongali, the Tokai Network for Global Leading Innovators, an organization supporting entrepreneurship, hosted a workshop in Tajimi, a small city near Nagoya. The workshop focused on learning about the city and came up with new project ideas in collaboration with Tajimi city.


 Ceramic tiles are everywhere in the city, giving off a cozy, artistic vibe.


Tajimi is a city located 30 min from Nagoya. It is famous for pottery and ceramic tiles. Traditionally, people believe the city to be home to kappa. These fictional creatures appear in Japanese folklore, often portrayed as green, humanoid creatures with webbed feet, webbed hands, and a turtle shell on their back. Despite a rich culture and history, however, the city's population has declined since 2006. It went from 117,00 people to just over 106,000. To counteract these demographic changes, the city is trying urban renewal. It started an annual competition called Tajicon ( for business plans and ideas that would attract more people to Tajimi.


This year, Tajimi city contacted the Nagoya University Office. "We were looking for more innovative and unconventional ideas that local residents would not come up with", said Koki Asano from the Tajimi City Hall. "Especially we were excited to hear ideas from international students".



Sawako Tanaka (left) from Tongali, the organizer of the event. Furuta Noriko (middle) and Koki Asano (right) from Tajimi City Hall helped at the workshop by driving students around the city and answering questions.

Tongali is an organization of 18 universities in the Tokai region of Japan. It offers entrepreneurship training to university students. "Nagoya University is in a big city. For international students, there are limited opportunities to interact with locals in small non-touristic cities in Japan", said Tanaka Sawako from Tongali and organizer of the event. "This workshop would be a great chance for that." Tongali brought 14 students to Tajimi for the workshop, many from different fields of study, such as informatics, engineering and cinema studies. Of the 14 participants, 12 were international students.


Simona Maschi, a founder of the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design, remotely instructed the workshop. Throughout the event, she gave lectures on different topics in design thinking, such as ideation and creating blueprints. On the first two days of the workshop, the students visited different places in Tajimi, including the Mosaic tile museum, a ceramic tile factory, and a local supermarket, to learn about the culture and lifestyle of Tajimi. 


Fieldwork in Tajimi. Students visited different locations around the city to find problems Fieldwork in Tajimi. Students visited different locations around the city to find problems and asked residents their opinions (Photo credit: Masaya Ise) 

 Fieldwork in Tajimi. Students visited different locations around the city to find problems and asked residents their opinions in interviews. (Photo credit: Masaya Ise)

In addition, students formed small teams to find problems in the city, with the goal of prototyping solutions. "I teamed up students so that each team is diverse in terms of field of study, language, and gender", said Sawako, the organizer. Each team visited various locations, like bus stops, taxi pickup areas, cafes, museums, and even Izakaya (Japanese bars). They interviewed several Tajimi residents, including elderly people, a transportation officer, and small shop owners. The students asked residents about the city's issues and received feedback on their ideas about how to solve them.



 On the final day, students made short videos and drawings to explain their prototypes. 

On the last day, each group presented their prototypes. A few teams identified the lack of public transportation as a problem. This is unsurprising given that Tajimi has been called a "car society". Other teams discussed the difficulties of attracting young people to the city, the remnants of ceramic tiles, and the lack of leisure activities. Students proposed innovative ideas for these issues, such as building a hot spring (Onsen) facility for families and young tourists; having an annual design competition on a Kappa statue; and introducing interactive tiles that play music. The students used hand-drawn, posters, and videos to explain their prototypes. As part of the workshop, five staff from the city hall attended the presentations. After each presentation, they provided feedback on students' ideas.



Simon Maschi gave lectures on design thinking throughout the workshop and supervised student projects (left). Students presented their prototypes to Tajimi city. Staff from the city hall provided feedback onthe proposed ideas (right). 

Instead of just asking people their opinion, Simona, the instructor, emphasized the value of bringing something visible to them.  "[Compared to when you go with empty hands,] if you go to people with your prototype, people will react more and give more insightful feedback."  It is difficult to propose a new idea and introduce it into the existing ecosystem. However, by demonstrating a prototype, the audience is more likely to engage with your idea and even feel belonging. "People will have a sense of ownership and you would feel like co-creating it [the prototype] with them".




The intense three-day workshop was energetic. Students explored the city, interacted with locals, and had opportunities to propose their ideas to the city hall. "By interacting with people in the city, I gained the invaluable skill of striking up a conversation with strangers ", said Tumul Kumar, one participant.     

"International students brought unique and exciting ideas," said Koki from Tajimi city hall. He continued, "We think the important part of the workshop was the participants experiencing and learning about the city. That's what we really wanted".

"I hope things continue after proposing their new ideas", said Sawako from Tongali. Hopefully, some students continue developing their ideas for the next Tajicon. It would be a great result if this experience triggered new and innovative ideas in the students' entrepreneurial minds of the students.


The workshop was part of a series called Tongali Overseas Entre Training ( This series invites instructors and lecturers across the world and provides opportunities for students to participate in entrepreneurship training.



At an izakaya in Tajimi with locals. Students from different backgrounds participated in the workshop. Experiencing lifestyle was an important part of the workshop. (Photo credit: Tumul Kumar)