Sy Chen: Future Prototyping

We tend to fall into the trap of trying to expect the future by calculating what happened in the past. What we need is understanding what kind of future you want to create and drawing your own paths to get there.


Sy Chen: Entrepreneur, Path Creator, Author, Speaker

Sy Chen is the founder of CIA (Creative Intelligence Associates), the very first branding agency in Japan that specializes in creating a “Blueprint of Success” by envisioning and navigating ideal future. CIA has done a number of branding projects including UNIQLO, the biggest apparel company in Japan, and Rakuten, the biggest online market in Japan. Also, his unique approach enabled NIKE and GAP to successfully launch their first stores in Japan. He helps companies understand their desirable future and envision strategic paths to get there. He is also the founder of China Club, a legendary lounge in Los Angeles back in 1980's. To empower people, he often shares his unique idea at international conferences such as Speculative Branding, a conference supported by the Spanish government. 

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-----You founded a legendary restaurant, China Club, in Los Angeles in 1980. What was your motivation to launch your business in the US?


Compared to New York, LA back then lacked a venue for music and counterculture so I have decided to open a cultural gathering lounge mixing art gallery, music performance, healthy Chinese restaurant and a bar. Andy Warhol wore Mao jacket and posed for our ad in the Interview Magazine. Japanese illustrator Pator Sato did the mural design with interior designer Sampei Abe. April Greiman was the art director. It attracted mixed group of movie, music and art business people, and celebrities including Van Halen, Talking Heads, Keith Haring, Rod Stewart, Go Gos, David Lee Roth, Ray Charles, Devo, Steve Martin, etc.



-----Then, you founded CIA (Creative Intelligence Associates) in Tokyo, Japan. What was the original purpose of the company?


Tokyo was full of creativity in 1984 so I decided to create an integrated studio of architecture, interior design, art direction, and operation specialists. It was the same principle as the movie production approach with project scenario, casting the Takematsu, and interior designer Joseph Lembo, we have created more than a hundred projects. My most memorable projects are the Metropole & the Wall with Nigel Coates.specialists team and the operation execution. Working with architects like Nigel Coates, Fredrick Fisher, Josh Schweitzer, Alfred Arribas, Yukiharu



-----CIA is the first branding agency in Japan. How did you educate the market to

understand the concept of branding when nobody knew what branding was?


With prototyping verification approach, we were able to transform UNIQLO from apparel discounter to a brand new retail company back in 1998. Prior to that, we were helping Nike and Gap to create brand presence in Japan. Once UNIQLO’s success was recognized, Japanese companies understood the importance of our integrated retail branding. We take a unique approach by integrating development process of brand DNA definition, brand positioning, brand identity, store identity design, store design, architecture design, operation tune up, and prototype verification approach.



-----You have a very unique approach, called future-prototyping. Would you elaborate its core concept?


Our future prototyping is about hypothesizing customer experience in  most ideal state in near future and realizing it through the prototyping verification process. By applying this method we were able to create a lot of successful results like Aoyama Flower Market, Peach Aviation, MUFG Private Banking, Ueshima Coffee, Oisix, etc.a

-----Why do companies need to think more about their future?


We live in Post Moore Era where people are only concerned about building smart infrastructure, social communication, simplicity, smallness, compactness, safety, speed, high yield, reliability, low energy, and specialization. Today’s trend is about being faster, innovating and making money. People are lacking mid and long term vision these days. Our educational emphasis is putting more weight on analytical and critical thinking skills and communication skills.



-----If you could make your own case studies for business schools, what would be the most important factor to learn from them?


It is all about realizing the hypothesis through prototyping verification approach by customer experience. It is similar to MIT’s course of Science Fiction to Science Fabrication. We emphasize on functional and realistic prototyping development and improvement process. We are mapmakers - charting and drafting maps to existing and undiscovered, not yet invented realms.

-----You have been to Tibet, learned Tibetan Buddhism, and met the Dalai Lama. What did you learn from that experience and how has that experience enriched your career and life?


I was baptized as Christian but, I met the Dalai Lama 4 times and was attracted to his way of thinking. I spent a large amount of time trekking the Himalayan mountains and visited a lot of Tibetan monasteries. In Christianity, all you need is love and in Tibetan Buddhism it is all about compassion. You become thankful to everything around you.



-----If you could make a call to 20-year-old Sy Chen, what would be your advice to him?


Listen to your intuition and follow your heart.