Using Science and Technology to Pioneer a New Society: Mercari R4D Encourages Co-Innovation as a Hub for Research and Development
Established in 2017, Mercari R4D (R4D) was created as a research and development organization that aims to implement its findings practically as part of the world at large. R4D stands for Research and 4 D’s: Development, Design, Deployment, and Disruption. Over the years, we have reached across the boundaries separating communities and applied various approaches in order to pioneer new value.
At the end of 2022, which marked five years since the establishment of R4D, we formulated our new mission, “Pioneering the path toward undiscovered value.” We are now in a phase of more ambitious challenges, seeking to become a hub that connects communities around the world and give back to society through our activities going forward.
In this series, we are looking at the past, present, and future of R4D over the course of three articles. In the first article of the series, team managers Makoto Tago (@tago) and Mari Inoue (@inomari) talk about the significance of R4D’s efforts and how the organization has evolved. What has R4D been able to create because of the nature of the organization?
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Makoto TagoMakoto is a manager at Mercari Inc.’s research and development organization R4D. She is also a certified patent attorney. After graduating from Kyoto University, Makoto joined Fujitsu Limited in a development role. In 2013, she qualified for certification as a patent attorney and joined TMI Associates, where she worked in areas ranging from patent rights to disputes. Makoto joined Mercari in 2018 as one of the first members of the Intellectual Property Team, and she contributed significantly to the development of Mercari’s intellectual property activities. In 2019, she took on an additional role at R4D and helped establish the organization’s governance structure. She has been in her current position since 2022.
Mari InoueMari is a manager at Mercari Inc.’s research and development organization R4D. She completed her pre-doctoral course (master’s degree) at the Graduate School of Science and Engineering from Keio University Graduate School. Later, as part of Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST), she worked on observing trends and proposing strategies in the field of IT, and also supported various research and development projects. Mari joined Mercari in October 2021. At Mercari, she has been involved in promoting collaborative research with ELSI centers, establishing R4D’s PhD support program, providing Mercari data to outside parties, and more.
Rather than contributing directly to the company’s business, we’re building the future society that Mercari is aiming to create
──How long have you two been part of R4D?
@tago：I came on board in the winter of 2019, so it’s been over four years for me.
@inomari： I joined in October 2021, so I’m about to hit a year and a half.
──How is R4D now compared to when you first joined the organization?
@tago：When I joined, R4D had only been established for about a year, so the rules and governance of the organization were still not sufficiently established. On one hand, we had a lot of freedom, but on the other hand, it was chaos. From there we built the organization a little at a time, inviting university professors to join as outside experts, establishing an advisory board as a forum for reviewing research and development, and appointing Dr. Yoshihiro Kawahara, a professor at The University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Engineering, to the post of head of R4D. With that, our organization finally took shape.
@inomari：I joined the company just as R4D was growing as an organization, which I think is right around the time we started spreading the seeds that would grow into our organization’s current activities. Looking back on it, it was pretty bold that a startup company launched a research and development organization five years after opening its doors for business. I think this has to do with the independence that Mercari has, but I feel that the tolerance for trial and error at this company is really high. To date, we’ve used a lot of trial and error, but both the company’s leadership and our members have a mindset that says, “this might fail, but let’s give it a shot first,” which is what makes R4D strong.
──I think that one of the characteristics of R4D is the breadth of your organization’s research topics, but there are also aspects that make it hard to define what kind of organization R4D is, correct?
@tago：This might be typical of private sector research and development organizations, but I get the impression that there are a lot of people who don’t know what these organizations do. That was also the case for R4D. In the early days, before people understood our initiatives, it was hard to be recognized within the company.
──So what changed? What was the turning point?
@tago：There were three major developments for us: In 2020, we established a collaborative research division known as “Value Exchange Engineering” at The University of Tokyo Research Institute for an Inclusive Society through Engineering (RIISE). Then, one of R4D’s research projects, Poimo/a>, was covered by various media outlets. Finally, as recently as February 2022, when we introduced an employee program that allows our members to work toward a PhD, the news made waves on social media. It had what you might call a mirror effect on the company; suddenly, R4D was in the news, and a lot of members found out about us as a result.
──What did people make of the uniqueness of R4D as an organization?
@tago：Generally speaking, I think a lot of private sector research and development organizations have the goals of developing new products and services for the company they belong to, making improvements to existing products and services, and contributing to their company’s business. In my opinion, what makes R4D unique is not any such type of contribution to the company’s business, but rather that we are urged to figure out how to pioneer the scientific and technological know-how to build the future world that Mercari is striving to create.
Mercari Group is aiming to create a world that uses the power of technology to connect people all over the globe, circulate all forms of value, and allow anyone to unleash their potential. To create such a society, R4D is now working on a lot of research topics that do not necessarily link with Mercari’s current business. Plus, it’s not like we have an example of what we are aiming for, so we have to choose the approach that we think will be the most efficient way of reaching our goals without being fettered by precedent. Sometimes when we take a step back and question the meaning of what we’re actually doing, we find it necessary to define that ourselves. This is what makes our work both difficult and interesting.
@inomari：At my previous job, I worked for a research and development foundation under the control of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), and I feel like R4D has a level of awareness that is very similar to that organization. I have the sense that I’m on a mission, and I give serious thought to the new ideal world we want to create. We each think about the issues yet to be uncovered and how to resolve them. I feel that transcending the lines separating academia, industry, and government is crucial, and so we are taking action, aiming to become a hub that will bring together communities all over the world. We are still a small organization, but I feel like no matter how you view us, this sort of “big-picture” awareness that we have is incredible.
Curiosity about “undiscovered value” spurs co-innovation with various communities
──So far, R4D has taken part in industry-academia collaboration with a variety of universities and realized co-innovation that has transcended the lines between communities. Why is your organization working so hard to form bonds with outside partners in the first place?
@tago：When R4D was established, the organization’s philosophy was to implement our research findings speedily in order to give back to society.
If we were a research and development organization created in order to improve Mercari’s services and products, it would allow us to narrow down our areas of activity and to create an organization with a mandate limited to internal considerations. However, because we are aiming to give back to society, limiting ourselves to only cover internal considerations is not possible. In addition, trends in the tech industry change very quickly, so this is not really compatible with long-term activities like research and development. With this in mind, we believe that aiming to become a hub that connects various industry-academia-government communities will encourage co-innovation and allow us to seed substantial value.
When the organization was first established, we weren’t able to verbalize this all that clearly, but looking back now I think we’ve had a lot of encounters that showed us other elements we needed in order to succeed. Engaging in co-innovation gives you the sense that you are filling in the pieces of a puzzle.
──What are some of the communities you have become involved with over the course of your activities?
@tago：Maybe this is because of the type of organization that R4D is, but we have a lot of contact with people working in the humanities and social sciences communities. One of our most representative partnerships would be our collaborative research with the Osaka University Research Center for Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues (ELSI). Through this partnership we have worked together to formulate unique ethics principles for research and development.
As technology, including AI, changes at dizzying speeds, the ethical, legal, and social obligations for business research and development are going to gain even more importance going forward. In the face of such obligations, the number of situations that will require academic backing are likely to increase more than ever before. When that becomes the case, we believe that knowledge of the humanities and social sciences will be very useful.
──What do you think are the factors that make co-innovation with these academic fields possible?
@tago：One possible factor is the fact that we are not a product-driven research and development organization. We don’t perform research for Mercari’s services and products, and we are instead aiming for the wider perspective of giving back to society. I think this is why there is also value in academia venturing to work with Mercari.
@inomari：We recently started providing Mercari listing data to universities and other institutions for free, which has received a huge response internally and externally. A really large number of researchers and research institutes took an interest in this, and some of them approached us with concrete proposals and questions about what we could do.
@tago：Research and development is an investment, and there are no guarantees of results. This is precisely why I think it’s necessary for businesses not to confine themselves to a single company and to engage in co-innovation with academia. If things continue as they have to date, there is a very real risk that Japan could decline as a country. In that sense, I think that as Mercari aims to become a social institution, we should set an example by taking the lead on co-innovation and communicate externally about what we are doing. Luckily, our executives have placed their expectations and trust in our hands, and we must work hard in order not to betray that trust; this thought keeps us on our toes.
@inomari：There is of course pressure to produce results, but the strength of R4D members’ curiosity toward uncovering “still undiscovered value” also helps, and I think that having a perspective that is open externally is a feature of the organization as well.
For example the quantum computing area is still in its very early stages of research, but all of the researchers involved are constantly thinking about how their work will impact society and how it will change the way we live. I get the feeling that thinking about having a contact point with society, even when the research is still in its early stages, is unique.
If the research and development is for an area that is nearly ready for implementation in society, I think it only makes sense to think about how it will have an impact. Even if the technology is still a long way from being implemented in society, we know to grasp the community’s perspective about the impact that our research will have on society.
@tago：For one thing, Mercari is a company that actively works to connect with society, so as a result, people who share that mindset tend to congregate here.
Genuine confidence about R4D’s ability to pioneer value
──Finally, I would like to ask both of you about the sorts of expectations you have about the future of R4D as an organization.
@inomari：Whenever people feel there is a gap between their ideal situation and reality, they tend to give up, thinking that what they want to do is impossible; however, at R4D we can take on all manner of challenges. A lot of things are permitted in the name of our mission, “Pioneering the path toward undiscovered value.” We can take on all manner of challenges, and in fact, there is a strong expectation that we will take on spontaneous action.
@tago：確It has definitely been the case that R4D has not been swayed by convention or common knowledge on how things should be; it is an environment where we can make the best choices. We take pride in that having been our approach.
@inomari：The presence of our fellow colleagues is also a big factor. It is rare for an organization to be so rich in diversity. R4D has brought together members with vastly different backgrounds. Even just looking at the wide range of our research topics is enough to make anyone question whether we’re even all in the same research and development organization. Our research topics include such things as quantum information technology, Poimo, communication on the Mercari marketplace app, D&I (diversity and inclusion) and accessibility, and value exchange engineering. Plus, we have a variety of members with backgrounds that involve stimulating research activities and building foundations, such as project management and community outreach. I think that the potential that R4D has as an organization makes it possible for us to aim in the same direction while complementing each other and leveraging our individual strengths at the same time.
@tago：The diversity of our operations members is an immense strength. I think it’s rare for the manager of a research and development organization to be a patent lawyer, an expert in intellectual property, like I am. We also have people like @inomari, who came to us from a government research fund, and there are other members who are active in the role of “community outreach specialist,” a role unique to R4D that our members define and fulfill themselves. It’s precisely because of the rich diversity of our organization that we can validate ideas from multiple perspectives and take on Go Bold challenges without being constrained by notions of what is common knowledge or a convention.
At R4D, we are still looking for new colleagues interested in exploring research topics with us, but the most important part of finding people to join us is to find individuals who empathize with R4D’s mission, “Pioneering the path toward undiscovered value.” We want to work with people who will get excited about the research we are working on.
@inomari：I joined R4D a year and a half ago, and I still feel like it’s an interesting place to work. In spite of being such a young and small organization, we’re serious about changing society. There aren’t many places out there that can share this sort of feeling. If you love Mercari and you love research, come join R4D!