The University of Tokyo

Education and Innovation

Two Famous Classes Held at the University of Tokyo

The two primary missions of universities are research and education. In the context of innovation in particular, these two missions are closely interlinked. Scholars engaged in remarkable research in the field of innovation also make significant contributions to innovation-related education. Here we introduce the cases of two professors whose creativity education initiatives are proving popular on campus.

Playing Gives Rise to New Ideas with the Innovators’ Marketplace® Game

1: An Innovators’ Marketplace gameboard (post-game snapshot). The gameboard is cluttered with an abundance of sticky notes.
2: The unit of the play money used in Professor Ohsawa’s research lab is called “monkey.” The portrait on the notes is Professor Ohsawa himself!

Professor Ohsawa began advocating the new concept of “chance discoveries” in 2000 and has been promoting research on methods for discovering important opportunities hidden in vast collections of data. Meanwhile, the professor has also developed idea generation support tools based on his findings from research, and he is putting these tools to good use in the fields of creativity education and systems innovation. One case in point is his innovation game called “Innovators’ Marketplace.” He developed the game based on his idea that to discover chances you need to be in a playful frame of mind, and he has registered the game’s name as a trademark. Even so, he aims to let people play “Innovators’ Marketplace” at little cost, promoting the idea that innovation and education are not for rich people only.

Professor Ohsawa explains to us how the game is played. “Six to ten players can play the game, among whom three to four play the role of inventors. The rest of the players act as consumers. To play the game one needs to prepare a large sheet of paper to use as the gameboard, some play money, and sticky notes. For making the board, the organizer selects several dozen pieces of existing knowledge, calculates the strength of the relationships between these pieces, and prints the resulting correlative diagram onto the large sheet of paper. The inventors combine the ideas printed on the gameboard to come up with new ideas, and then write those ideas on sticky notes and attach them to the gameboard. When a consumer finds an idea they are interested in, they negotiate with the inventor and buy the idea using the play money.”

The inventor who finally receives the largest income, and the consumer who makes the best-received presentation about what can be achieved with the combined ideas they purchased, are the winners of the game. Although it may sound difficult to create the necessary correlative diagram of existing ideas, there is no need to worry; if you input the ideas into a software application called KeyGraph ― which Professor Ohsawa created for data mining 18 years ago and has fine-tuned several times since ― the various relationships between the individual ideas can be visually represented quickly.


When, for example, supermarket products are used as existing knowledge for the gameboard (see diagram), the common aspects of natto (fermented soybeans) and sake can evoke the new product-related idea of “leading a healthy life thanks to fermented products.” In an actual game, when the research topics of various School of Engineering faculty members were used as ideas for the gameboard, the new research topics of “developing tools to visually represent the flow of economies and resources” and “real-time simulation of material resources aimed at enabling sustainable utilization of the Earth’s resources” came into being by combining the existing research content of the faculty members.

“Even if someone orders you to think freely,” Professor Ohsawa says, “it’s difficult to do so, isn’t it? I am inclined to believe that high-quality constraints breed high-quality ideas. If students were to begin this kind of creativity training from early on and develop research-oriented mindsets, in the future they might be able to combine parts of their specialized knowledge and to solve societal issues. That’s why I’m also using Innovators’ Marketplace in postgraduate classes and in undergraduate classes on the Komaba Campus.”

Decades ago, Japan’s manufacturers were adept at combining overseas and domestic technologies to create new innovations of value. Nowadays however, Professor Ohsawa says that instead of making sincere efforts to combine the abundant amount of technologies that are already available, Japanese manufacturers are turning to work on enhancing technologies separately.

“It is said, for example, that Osamu Tezuka created Astro Boy by combining Pinocchio and Japanese superhero Ogon (Golden) Bat. And I, as many others do, believe Steve Jobs created the iPad by enlarging the display of the iPhone to five by eight inches, close to the mock-up computer created by Alan Kay in the 1960s. As in this example, a lot of what we refer to as innovation comes about through combining extant knowledge and technologies to create new products of value.”

New things aren’t suddenly created out of thin air; they are created by combining things that already exist. The importance of a liberal arts education in which students learn widely from the knowledge of scholars of yesteryear now appears to be also backed up by the requirements of innovation.

Yukio Ohsawa

Yukio Ohsawa

Professor, Department of Systems Innovation, Graduate School of Engineering