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Illustrated portrait of Tatsuyoshi Saijo Lauren Tamaki for Vox

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Tatsuyoshi Saijo wants to be “a good ancestor”

Inspired by “seventh-generation decision-making,” Saijo is looking to the future.

Sigal Samuel is a senior reporter for Vox’s Future Perfect and co-host of the Future Perfect podcast. She writes primarily about the future of consciousness, tracking advances in artificial intelligence and neuroscience and their staggering ethical implications. Before joining Vox, Sigal was the religion editor at the Atlantic.

You might not have heard of Tatsuyoshi Saijo, but your great-great-grandchildren may one day be very happy he existed.

A Japanese economist, Saijo is at the forefront of the “Future Design” movement, which aims to figure out how to get the world to care more about future generations. Their lives will be directly affected by the decisions we make today, yet they don’t have a voice in politics — so how can we make sure their needs are taken into account?

Saijo was inspired to tackle this question head-on after learning, on a trip to the United States, about Indigenous communities that have long embraced the principle of “seventh-generation decision-making.” That principle, in some articulations, involves weighing how choices made today will affect a person born seven generations from now.

Back in Japan, Saijo rallied together an interdisciplinary team to form the Research Institute for Future Design at Kochi University of Technology. The team does a combination of original research, surveys, and real-world experiments.

One experiment started in 2015, at a town hall of 20 residents in the small community of Yahaba, in northeastern Japan. Their goal was to design policies that would shape the future of Yahaba. They would debate questions typically reserved for politicians: Would it be better to invest in infrastructure or child care? Should we promote renewable energy or industrial farming?

But there was a twist. While half the citizens were invited to be themselves and express their own opinions, the remaining participants were asked to put on special ceremonial robes and play the part of people from the future. Specifically, they were told to imagine they were from the year 2060, meaning they’d be representing the interests of a future generation during group deliberations.

What unfolded was striking. The citizens who were just being themselves advocated for policies that would boost their lifestyle in the short term. But the people in robes advocated for much more radical policies — from massive health care investments to climate change action — that would be better for the town in the long term. They managed to convince their fellow citizens that taking that approach would benefit their grandkids. In the end, the entire group reached a consensus that they should, in some ways, act against their own immediate self-interest in order to help the future.

What started in Yahaba has since been replicated in city halls around the country, feeding directly into real policymaking. Saijo chronicled one example:

In rural towns in Japan facing a declining population, it is becoming harder to maintain water facilities, including pipes, without raising water rates — which is very unpopular. But the future designers realized that without tackling this problem they would not leave clean water for future generations. They proposed raising water rates, and residents agreed.

An agreement to raise water tax rates in a rural town may not seem like a huge deal on its own. But think about the broader implications.

Saijo’s big ambition is to figure out ways to activate what he calls “futurability” — the quality you exhibit when you happily choose to forgo current benefits because you know it’ll enrich future generations (like when a parent, facing food scarcity, willingly eats less so their kids can eat more). If researchers can design methods to activate futurability in society — and Saijo’s research suggests that’s possible — that could change how we approach massive issues like the climate crisis.

Saijo has said that he would like to one day be thought of as “a good ancestor.” That wish seems likely to be fulfilled.

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