Integrating economics and data science for sustainable consumption and production

Discover the Research: Article 1 – Tomoaki Nakaishi, Faculty of Economics

Integrating economics and data science for sustainable consumption and production

In Japan, phrases like "sustainable society" and "sustainable development goals (SDGs)" have become buzzwords in recent years. With the numerous challenges facing modern-day societies, which include environmental issues such as air pollution, climate change, and marine plastic pollution, what approaches can be taken to achieve a truly sustainable society? To explore this question, we spoke with Lecturer Tomoaki Nakaishi from the Faculty of Economics, who is conducting research that merges the fields of economics and data science to achieve what he calls “sustainable consumption and production.”

The original Japanese version of the interview can be found here.

Maintaining a balance between the economy, environment, and society

Could you tell us about your current research?

My research focuses on sustainable consumption and production, which relates to Sustainable Development Goal 12—to “ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns." For me, sustainability means a state where there is a balance between the economy, the environment, and society. This is what is commonly referred to as the “triple bottom line.”

What does a balance between the economy, environment, and society look like?

Since the Industrial Revolution, the mass production and consumption of cheap goods have fueled our society's development. While this has enriched our lives, it has also led to environmental problems like pollution. We now face a plethora of environmental issues, from air pollution and global warming to the crisis of marine plastic pollution. It has become clear that economic development alone is not sufficient—we must also consider the environment.

How does society play a role in achieving the right balance between the economy and the environment?

Well, for instance, while renewable energy is highlighted as a countermeasure against global warming, it often costs more than conventional energy sources, which can disproportionately burden the poorer segments of society. It's not ideal if we prioritize the environment to the extent that society suffers.

So, your research is looking at how to achieve this balance.

Yes, that’s right. While many companies are now prioritizing the environment, this focus often results in adverse effects on society. I use the lens of economics and data science to understand how producers and consumers can act in ways that create harmony between the economy, the environment, and society, with the aim of achieving sustainable consumption and production.

Exploring issues through the eyes of producers and consumers

Please tell us about the strengths of your research methodology.

A maritime village in a Philippine slum that Nakaishi visited as a student. He observed that all domestic waste was mostly discarded out of the window into the sea, turning plastic waste into sludge. Although the residents’ livelihood mainly depends on fishing, their fishing areas are increasingly threatened by marine pollution. This experience led him to realize the importance of environmental awareness and education among consumers.

In my lab, half of the students conduct their research from the perspective of producers, while the other half adopt the viewpoint of consumers. The strength of this approach lies in our ability to view issues from both perspectives and bridge the gap between them, getting to the root of the issues and leading us to fundamental solutions. It’s also important to not just sit at your desk with a computer or book but to always have one foot in the field in order to provide solutions based on firsthand data. One tool we use to do this is data science. We take data we’ve gathered ourselves and analyze it using mathematics, statistical software, and programming to test our hypotheses.

What led you to develop your current methodology?

I initially conducted research on something called producer theory. For example, I would investigate power generation and environmental load based on data from power plants in China, comparing plants with the smallest environmental footprint with others to determine how to boost power output with minimal environmental impact. While engaged in this kind of research, one day, it suddenly occurred to me that focusing solely on the producer's perspective might not be enough.

What made you think what you were doing wasn’t enough?

A rubbish mountain in a Philippine slum. When Nakaishi asked the children who were earning money from the dangerous rubbish heaps about their dreams for the future, they all wanted to become doctors or teachers. This experience prompted him to strongly consider what he could do to realize a fair world without educational inequality.

No matter how outstanding a product might be, it won’t become widespread unless it's accepted by consumers. For instance, even if a product is environmentally friendly, it won't be accessible to the average consumer if it's too expensive. This realization of a need to align with consumer demand underscored the importance of adopting a consumer-centric approach.

Can you tell us more about a consumer-centric approach to research?

It involves visualizing the gap between awareness and behavior. For example, even though we should be well aware of the importance of the environment, the reality is that many of us regularly commute by car and turn on the air conditioning when it’s hot. Despite knowing it's not the best practice, our actions often directly contradict our awareness.

After examining the perspectives of both producers and consumers, what do you do next?

The next step is to explore how producers can efficiently produce environmentally friendly products. At the same time, we look into how consumers can align their actions more closely with their awareness. My research aims to find common ground between these two perspectives where both parties can meet—identifying the point at which sustainable consumption and production become possible.

Seeing eye-to-eye with students

Is there anything you particularly focus on when teaching your students?

When I was a student, my academic advisor told me to become a teacher who meets their students wherever they are, and I've kept that advice close to my heart ever since. But I don't believe that alone is enough. In addition to meeting students where they are, I also make it a point to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them and look at things from their perspective.

Mountain-climbing seminar at Mount Kaya, near Kyushu University's Ito Campus. Participants had the opportunity to engage with nature directly and presented their research at the summit of the mountain.

What do you mean by looking at things from their perspective?

As educators, teachers at the junior and senior high school level are supposed to guide their students toward the correct path by showing them the right way to do something when they make a mistake. But universities, on the other hand, are research institutions where the answers to research are unknown until explored. It is precisely because the answers are not readily apparent that I believe it is crucial for professors at the university level to search for answers alongside students.

So, the role of university faculty is to present options to their students.

That’s correct. As researchers and individuals who have lived longer, we have more experience than our students. In research, instead of providing a "correct" way of doing things, I envision offering my students options for different ways to achieve their goals. In providing career guidance, I also make a point to empathize with their concerns and think about life choices from the students’ perspective.

Nurturing independent minds

What kind of individuals do you hope your students will become?

With a goal to increase research activities conducted in the field, students from the Nakaishi Lab, as part of their seminar activities, visited Asahi Printech Corporation, Ltd.

Given my specialization in data science, I want my students to develop the ability to discern the nature of things based on facts. The internet is flooded with information, and many people claim to be right without any real evidence to support their assertions. That is precisely why I don't want my students to become people who are easily swayed by the opinions of celebrities or people in positions of power.

Is there anything in particular that you want to tell the students in your lab?

I encourage them to commit fully to whatever it is they choose to do. It’s up to them whether to participate in a seminar competition or not, for example. But if they do decide to participate, I hope that they put everything they have into it. When you fully commit to whatever you’re doing, results will follow. Your efforts will be noticed and eventually rewarded.

From research to social impact

Where do you hope to take your research next?

As I mentioned, I am currently conducting research from both the perspectives of producer and consumer, but going forward, I also want to conduct studies that bridge the gap between the two. For example, I'm interested in exploring the role of intermediaries in the distribution process, like supply chains, that connect producers to consumers. I also want to make sure that my work doesn’t end at the research stage—I aim to create something tangible that can be of use to society.

This is your first year running your own lab. How has it been so far?

Well, I would like to see my lab grow in size. As you mentioned, my lab is still in its first year, and I am currently working with ten students. I’m expecting about ten more to join us next year. As the lab grows, I hope to create a well-staffed organization that will enhance the quality and speed of our research.

Where there's a will, there's a way

Do you have any advice for high school students who are still deciding whether to pursue higher education?

My expertise is in economics, but my research involves knowledge from various fields such as environmental science, statistics, and meteorology. And this isn't unique to economics—it's the same whether you study in the School of Agriculture, the School of Engineering, or any other school. My advice would be to thoroughly research different faculties and schools and discover what modules they provide. If you find it difficult to figure that out on your own, you can ask your high school teachers for advice or consider visiting university open campuses to get a feel for what they offer.

So, you're saying it's important to seek out information on your own.

Yes, exactly. I want students to do their own research and choose their own path. However, once you actually get into university, things might be different from what you imagined. But don't get discouraged if things don't go as planned. Make the best of your circumstances, and things can turn out better than you’d expect. That’s my advice to high school students.

Visit his lab website for more information about his research: