Nobel Prize-winning innovation in Japan includes the invention of blue light emitting diodes (LED) used in today’s energy-efficient bulbs. As the Fourth Industrial Revolution gathers pace, what can the world learn from some of the country’s 27 Nobel laureates?
- Japan’s record of innovation in the sciences, medicine, manufacturing, and process has lifted it to become the third largest economy in the world.
- Nobel Prize-winning innovation in Japan has included the creation of the first blue LED in 1989, enabling a new generation of energy-efficient white lamps.
- The strong record of innovation in Japan reflects the benefits of international cooperation, partnership and openness.
Revealing the human face of science, the Emilio Segrè Visual Archives at the American Institute of Physics are home to some 30,000 images of scientists and their work.
One such photograph taken in Kyoto in the mid-1950s shows Japanese scientist Sachio Hayakawa alongside Professor Hideki Yukawa, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1949. A respectful step behind the great professor stands student Koichi Mano, while to Yukawa’s left is the American physicist Richard Feynman.
A few years after this photo was taken, Harold Wilson, the future British prime minister, famously described rapid technological progress as “white heat”. Presciently, he voiced wonder at its potential, while fearing the possible impact to jobs and society.
The continued acceleration of the speed, reach and impact of invention globally has been called the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, describes it as “evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace, disrupting almost every industry in every country.”
Today, every country needs to consider that disruption.
Embracing innovation in Japan
How is Japan dealing with the “white heat” of technology progress at the start of 2020?
Home to approximately 1.6 percent of the world’s population, lacking natural resources and with barely one-third of its land habitable, Japan doesn’t have the advantage of numbers, size or geography.
And yet Japan’s innovation in the sciences, medicine, manufacturing, and process has lifted it to become the third-largest economy in the world.
There is a huge appetite in our customers’ industry to embrace innovation. At Refinitiv, we support this with our data and services, including our network of Refinitiv Labs. And Fintech is absolutely hot in Japan.
Yet, when we read tables of the ‘hottest innovation’ countries, Japan sometimes doesn’t trouble the top of the leaderboard.
Perhaps there is a reason hidden beneath the headlines. Can Japanese Nobel Prize winners from 2014 offer a clue?
Japan’s Nobel Prize winners
Red and green LEDs had been available since the 1960s. But only by adding the third primary color, blue, could the much more useful white light be generated. The problem had eluded scientists for decades.
Eventually, Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura discovered how to produce the light using gallium nitride crystals. Their successful creation of the first blue LED in 1989 resulted in the bright, energy-efficient white lamps and colour LED screens we use today.
As one quarter of the world’s electricity usage is for lighting, the white LED with its long life, low-energy usage and cool running has significantly reduced global resource usage.
The Nobel Academy concluded that “incandescent light bulbs lit the 20th century; the 21st century will be lit by LED lamps”.
More recently, Japanese scientist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2019, Akira Yoshino, was asked about the qualities of a great researcher. He replied: “Flexible thinking, and its direct opposite, tenacity of purpose.”
Yoshino was awarded the Nobel Prize for the invention of the lithium-ion battery, alongside John Goodenough and M. Stanley Whittingham.
The Nobel Committee described the breakthrough as one that could help society to create a fossil fuel-free world.
Yoshino’s award brought the total of Japanese Nobel Prize winners to 27.
In a December 2019 speech at Stockholm University, he generously noted that an electrode used in the lithium-ion battery built upon research by Kenichi Fukui and Hideki Shirakawa — both Nobel Prize winners themselves.
“必要は発明の母” — “Necessity is the mother of invention”
Discovery and invention is increasingly the result of international cooperation, partnership and openness.
The internet and data, and the innovation built upon them, is exactly the same.
The ‘lightbulb moment’ of innovation of popular imagination is less a switch than an iterative process of cooperation. Working on small problems to develop a bigger solution. Helping others and seeking help. No problem is too small or too trivial.
Japan has proven extremely adept at this process of cooperative innovation. In fact, Japan leads the world when measured by the number of international patent applications per capita.
Which brings us to answering our question about Japan, innovation and managing the “white heat” of technological progress.
Flexible thinking and tenacity
If Harold Wilson was right to be concerned about the potential for negative effects, he might have been reassured to learn that the highest accolades are reserved for those whose inventiveness serves society.
Yoshino has said: “For the recent recipients of the Nobel Prize, innovation has of course been of great importance, but it’s now not just about that. I feel like considerations such as what contributive effect the research has had towards the environment have become more relevant”.
In awarding Akasaki, Amano and Nakamura the 2014 Nobel Prize for Physics, the Academy noted that they had “succeeded where all others had given up”.
They had employed both flexible thinking and tenacity of purpose. Their 20-year “long journey” to build the blue LED illuminates our answer:
Seek light, not heat.