Sony researchers are tackling social issues unrelated to the company’s business. What’s their motivation?

2021 / 5 / 25 | Author: enw_editor

Synecoculture: A multi-problem solution

A research initiative at Sony Computer Science Laboratories (Sony CSL), a Sony Group affiliate, is attracting interest as an innovative way to solve three sustainability problems at once: ecological destruction, food production, and human well-being. That initiative is synecoculture, a novel farming method scientifically formalized by Sony CSL Researcher Masatoshi Funabashi.

a method of open-field agriculture that produces diverse crops at high density and in an “ecologically optimized environment,” without tillage, fertilizers or agricultural chemicals.

At an experimental farm begun in 2015 in the Sahel Region of Africa, Funabashi’s team used synecoculture to transform desertified land into a rich ecosystem of 150 edible plants in a single year. The farm continues to operate in hopes of achieving commercial viability.

Why Sony?

Synecoculture is certainly progressive and worth learning about, but it raises a question: Why Sony?

Typically when corporations develop a social responsibility program, they follow an assessment process that matches their business strengths with the SDGs or other societal needs where they can have the greatest impact.

Sony’s investment in research that has little connection to its business is unusual. A research project like synecoculture is slow-going and takes years to reach commercialization. So what’s the motivation?

Focusing on the problem’s size, not its business relevance

The title of a leadership statement by Hiroaki Kitano, Sony CSL President & CEO and Director of Research, offers a clue:

Research for the Future of Humanity

Apparently, Sony CSL wants to give researchers a launchpad for turning their wildest planet-saving dreams into reality.

In an interview with Nikkei xTECH, Kitano comments, “We understand it takes time for a farming method that zero people are doing to go from very basic research to common use.” He says they hope to get returns on their synecoculture research in 10 to 15 years.

Central to Kitano’s thinking is the conviction that research that helps solve one of the world’s biggest problems will inevitably find a path to commercialization. Hence Sony CSL’s enthusiasm for supporting such research, despite the time it takes.

Sony CSL has birthed new businesses from its research before. The startup Koozyt, launched by a Sony CSL member in 2007, uses proprietary sensing and AI technologies for a social purpose. Sony Global Education, another Sony CSL spin-off, partners with schools to drive innovation in education.

Focusing on the planet’s future

Focusing on the size — and thus the opportunity — of a problem is a thread that runs through many of Sony CSL’s research initiatives. Its interests are truly eclectic, combining digital technology with urban planning, communications technology with outer space, and human augmentation technology with musicians.

If only we had more companies like Sony CSL — companies that invest in projects because of their long-term potential for improving our planet — the world would be a better place for everyone. It seems there’s much we can learn from Sony’s ambitious, delightfully odd, approach.


Miho Soga (Author), Translation by Stephen Jensen

Photo by Anna Pelzer on Unsplash