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Cesar Harada, a man of many titles, started out with only one.
By Grace Li Yang Xin He

At the closing session of the TEDxSummit in Doha in 2012, a young man with a beard takes to the stage wearing a casual graphic tee-shirt and baggy trousers. “What is the common point between oil, plastic, and radioactivity?” he asks in accented English.

The accent, like the young man himself, is hard to place. In fact Cesar Harada, now 33, is the child of Japanese and French parents. He was educated in France and Britain, studied animation, graphic design and industrial design and has worked in Britain, the United States and now, Hong Kong. It is hard to categorise Harada because he has so many interests and works in so many fields – environmentalist, inventor and entrepreneur are the descriptions on his TED (technology, entertainment, design) biography.

Harada speaking at TEDxTallinn Estonia. Photo courtesy of Ulrika Rosenblad.
Harada speaking at TEDxTallinn Estonia. Photo courtesy of Ulrika Rosenblad.

Harada was born in France and received most of his schooling there. Unlike his brother, who he describes as a “super intelligent guy” who is currently a lawyer, Harada says he was always seen as the “idiot in the family.” As a child, he says his teachers would even humiliate him and tell him that he had no “academic capacity”.

“I was so angry at them,” he recalls. “I pretty much just dropped out of high school and studied very, very hard. Independently.” A year later, the 18-year-old Harada took the French Baccalauréat, the national examination, and achieved stellar results.

This experience had a powerful impact on the teenager, who came to the realisation that as students, we can give up on mainstream education, but we have no excuse to give up on ourselves. “The world needs all kinds of intelligence,” he says. “And the normal education system doesn’t work for everybody.”

Although he struggled in the mainstream education system, Harada is actually obsessed with learning, and even compares it to “a drug.” After completing his public examinations, Harada embarked on a journey of life-long education and has not stopped learning since. He spent his next 10 years travelling, studying, researching, and teaching around the world.

In 2014, Harada arrived by ship in Hong Kong, as a participant in a global entrepreneurship programme called Unreasonable at Sea. The programme is designed for entrepreneurs to take their ventures into new international markets, sailing through 13 countries in the span of 100 days. Harada’s venture was a low-cost, oil-collecting robot called Protei which he is developing to clean up oil spills.

He ended up deciding to build the robot in Hong Kong because it was too expensive for him to do so in the United States where he was based at the time. Harada had originally planned to move to Shenzhen, but was drawn by the city’s potential and international culture. “I think a lot of Hong Kong people underestimate the power that is in their hands,” he says, adding that Hong Kong “has all the ingredients” to be a centre of innovation, including talent, technology, convenience, proximity to China and affordability of materials.

Harada fixing the prototype of Protei in Lamma Island, Hong Kong in 2014.
Harada fixing the prototype of Protei in Lamma Island, Hong Kong in 2014.

But while we may have all the ingredients for innovation at our fingertips, Harada says there needs to be systemic and cultural change in Hong Kong’s education system. Given the strength of Harada’s belief in the need for change, you might expect him to be leading rallies and marches to demand it. However, Harada says the days of protest are over for him. “I used to really be on the front line,” he recalls with a shy smile. “I was really radical.”

Now, he says he focuses less on “pointing fingers” and more on “finding the solution”. He believes that technology, culture and education are key components to positive change and to save the environment. This is why he is trying to combine these three things through his teaching. Instead of cramming their minds full of facts for tests, he wants to guide students towards deeper understanding and knowledge of the underlying issues. What he wants to do is to motivate young people to develop technologies that will benefit both people and the planet.

Harada put his skill and enthusiasm for teaching to use at The Harbour School, a private international primary and secondary school in Hong Kong that adopts a customised approach to learning. This approach generally revolves around innovation, creativity, and teamwork. The school started off as an institution for students with special needs.

During his time there, Harada organised short-term science workshops to teach students about how to reduce the use and production of plastics and ocean pollution. The workshops were popular with students and parents, but Harada says some teachers “hated him” because of the dust and noise they produced. A year after he started teaching there, The Harbour School relocated to another site and there was no space for Harada’s workshops.

As a result, Harada taught his students for a year in the premises of MakerBay, Hong Kong’s first “makerspace” for designers, inventors, engineers, artists, and entrepreneurs, which he founded.

In the past five years, more co-working spaces have emerged, providing a hub for freelancers, entrepreneurs and creatives. They are spaces with internet connections, coffee machines, and meeting tables. But fashion designers who need a sewing machine or architects who need to build models still had nowhere to go. It was with this in mind that Harada founded MakerBay in 2015 and built the 600-square-metre creative studio and community space with his team in Yau Tong. In 2016, MakerBay launched an offshoot – a design hub in Police Married Quarters (PMQ), a creative industries centre located in Central.

A year later, it turned out that The Harbour School was inspired by MakerBay and built a creative space on its new premises.

“The staff and the people I trained are technically taking my job,” Harada laughs. “I’m happy I kind of made myself redundant, which is what I always hoped for. I hope I can solve the problem and people won’t need me any more.”

After his time at The Harbour School, Harada now works with a Hong Kong local school, The Mission Covenant Church Holm Glad Primary School. Harada says that this school is special because they tend to accept students who are rejected by mainstream local schools. He has noticed that because the students are not expected to excel academically, they are allowed to be more experimental and creative. “The result is that they have more freedom,” he explains. “So the Maker education became the dominant trait of the curriculum there.”

It is no surprise that as an individual who failed in the mainstream education system, Harada remains unconvinced by its dominant ideology. He feels that Hong Kong is still a conservative society. “If the government and the economic trend make people think that being a doctor, a lawyer, or a financier is a better job, and being a blue collar is humiliating and degrading, it makes sense that most families are going to do all they can to keep their children away from blue collar activities,” he says.

Harada thinks this trend will only create a bigger social divide and “incredible wage discrepancy”. That is why he is trying to bridge the gap through technology, science, and education. Although he has introduced his brand of maker-inspired education to several schools, he has yet to convince mainstream local schools to adopt his curriculum.

However, the current trend for and promotion of STEM education has given Harada the opportunity to work more with local schools. STEM is an approach designed to equip students with skills in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The government’s initiatives in this area include handing out funds for schools to reopen their design and technology programmes. However, many schools do not know what to do with the money. “Lots of them don’t know what to do with the hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong dollars,” he explains. “We have solutions for them.”

With increasing support for STEM and design and technology, Harada envisions a world that can accommodate both education and innovation, where both white-collar and blue-collar workers can be respected equally. He would like to see an education system that no longer puts a premium on memorisation and giving the correct answers. He believes that we should not be measuring a child’s intelligence based on numbers and grades, but should be appreciating their unique qualities instead.

“Can you do something that robots can’t do?” he asks. “Being able to work with your hands and work with your creativity – it’s what humans are best at.”

Alluding to the ancient Greeks, the enlightenment era and the Renaissance period, Harada believes that humans have the ability to take on many different roles. Historically, people did not erect boundaries between creative work and technical work, or distinguish intellectual work from spiritual work. Rather, people understood that successful craftsmen needed scientific knowledge while great scientists had to be creative.

He hopes that in the future, humankind can reclaim these traditions. His stake in that future seems bigger now than before. As he talks to Varsity, Harada constantly checks his phone. He quickly fires off a message, not as an environmentalist, an inventor, an entrepreneur, or a teacher this time but as a father.

His wife and their newborn baby are still in San Francisco, part of the reason why he travels back and forth between the United States and Hong Kong. But he hopes to raise their child in Hong Kong in the future.

Surprisingly, the difficulties of raising a child here, given the stressful education atmosphere, do not bother him. “One of the beauties of Hong Kong is that even if you live here, you could live your life in so many different ways,” he says. “It doesn’t mean that just because you’re here, you have to abide by the mainstream.”

For Harada, the point is that humans can solve the problems they have created. It all goes back to the question he asked his audience at the 2012 talk in Doha  – what is the common point between oil, plastic, and radioactivity?

“These are man-made problems,” he answered back then, before breaking into his characteristic optimistic smile. “But if we have the power to create these problems, we may have the power to remediate these problems.”

Edited by Verena Tse