A huge natural disaster or a catastrophic man-made one suddenly hits. Everything you take for granted instantly disappears.
You’re separated from your family. You have no way to contact them. You can’t travel and no one is around to help. You fear for your family’s safety and pray for their survival.
How would you react? What would you do? What could you do? This awful scenario was thrust upon Joi Ito while he was in Boston.
It was 11 March 2011, and his wife and children were in Japan when an earthquake, reading 9.0 on the Richter scale, hit just off the coast. Joi was 6,700 miles away and just about to be made a director at MIT’s Media Lab.
The death toll from that day was 15,890, while 230,000 people were left homeless in the aftermath. Joi had no idea if his family were among those dead or displaced.
The earthquake was followed by a tsunami that wreaked havoc and was further exacerbated by the Fukushima Daiichi power plant being severely damaged with a leaking nuclear reactor. This happened just 200 miles from Joi’s family home.
Frustrated at finding almost no information from the authorities he began conversing in an online community with other desperate relatives searching for information on their loved ones. The group consisted of contributors from Los Angeles, Tokyo, Singapore, Seattle and Maui, just to name a few, swapping information and in particular working out the worst hit areas for radiation.
Using his technical knowledge and experience the Safecast company was born almost overnight. Initially it helped discover the immediate whereabouts and condition of friends and family, but the development soon evolved to provide a complex mapping system. Working with many collaborators and volunteers, high quality Geiger counters were set up around the country showing radiation levels.
Joi and his worldwide colleagues provided a timely service that was essential for millions of Japanese citizens who were affected by the nuclear leaks. Essentially it was a reactionary approach giving an immediate solution set up incredibly quickly.
Much is made of developing proactive and predictive technical solutions, and then looking for a market that will find it useful. But often, problematic situations will arise where the key element of a responsive commercial solution is its timeliness and speed to market.
Explaining the success of Safecast and how it has changed his attitude to product development, Joi explained: “I don’t like the word ‘futurist’. I think we should be ‘now-ists’.”