Manga goes to college


What will the shopping malls of tomorrow look like? Find out in the world’s first academic manga.

Shoppers zooming from store to store in airborne shoes. Tourists wearing whispering headsets that instantly translate every language around them. Shy geeks trying out virtual hairstyles in the privacy of augmented-reality styling cocoons.

A scene from a Disney sci-fi movie, perhaps? No, this could be the future of shopping by 2020, say a team of researchers from Helsinki’s Aalto University and Tokyo University’s i-school.

“Well, I admit Peter Pan shoes sound very Disney, but the technology already exists for all our other ideas, such as experimental adventure playgrounds where kids can interact with the elderly,” says the Future Store project’s spokesman, Miikka Lehtonen, a PhD student from Aalto University.

Pushing boundaries

The University of Tokyo invited Aalto students to join them in a radical rethink of how shopping could be made more rewarding – or less painful – for all types of people. Pooling their multidisciplinary talents, the team created prototypes for a brave new mall of the future.

As only befitting a boundary-pushing pilot workshop, the team did their reporting in a radical new way, too: in the form of a traditional Japanese cartoon. The world’s first academic manga is a far cry from the musty research reports that are usually forgotten on back shelves in dust-covered binders.

“Academic writing can be very abstract, so we wanted to find a way of communicating our ideas in a more engaging way. We wanted to make our project accessible to a wider audience, using humour,” says Lehtonen.

Clark Kent meets Superman

The manga tells the story of how the research team – or “ultra-innovation force” – goes on a fact-finding mission to save the future of shopping. Just like Clark Kent’s famous alter-ego, the mild-mannered researchers are portrayed as superheroes with an unstoppable can-do attitude. And, yes, any resemblance between the real-life researchers and the manga heroes is not purely coincidental.

In their mission, the researchers are joined by a group of “special guest stars”– a noisy gaggle of impatient kids, the most honest imaginable feedback-givers on what is wrong with the malls of today.

“Getting feedback from kids was our way of tapping into the hardwiring of the shoppers of the future,” explains Lehtonen.

Based on the kids’ forthright feedback and inspiring ideas, our heroes came up with new design prototypes addressing real user needs. And if you’re questioning whether Peter Pan shoes constitute a “real need”, don’t pretend your legs never got tired while plodding around a mall the size of 100 football fields.

“What made this workshop special was that we acquired new mental skills on how to prototype and think out of the box like designers, which is vital for future problem solvers,” says Lehtonen.

Finnair on board

As one of the project’s sponsors, Finnair makes a brief cameo appearance in the manga, in the scene where the characters fly between Tokyo and Helsinki.

“Finnair was an important bridge between our two universities. Finnair Cargo sponsored the air transport of print copies of our manga from Tokyo to Helsinki,” reveals Lehtonen.

Copies of the Ultra Innovation Force manga will be available in Finnair lounge at Helsinki-Vantaa airport shortly. You can also download the e-version from this link.

Text by Silja Kudel


Published August 10, 2012

Category: Collaboration