Learning from the Water Refill App, "mymizu": Engaging People in Social Issues in Ways that are Fun
Profile: Robin Takashi Lewis (Co-founder of mymizu and Co-Founder/Director of Social Innovation Japan
After joining Peace Boat's 77th Global Voyage as a Communication Coordinator (CC) or volunteer interpreter, Robin Lewis became involved in disaster relief and international development as a Peace Boat staff member. He has worked for international organizations, social enterprises, and NGOs in over 20 countries, including as a consultant for the World Bank (Climate Change Group). He has managed humanitarian relief efforts in countries which include Haiti, Nepal, Vanuatu, and Mozambique, and has been involved in numerous international projects related to sustainable development.
The massive influx of plastic into the ocean is now a global issue that has a tremendous impact on marine ecosystems. We asked Robin Lewis, co-founder of mymizu, an organization whose mission is to reduce consumption of single-use plastics and increase the number of people involved in environmental issues through a free water refill platform, about his perspectives on sustainability related issues and his future goals.
mymizu is a platform that connects users with locations throughout Japan where you can get free water if you bring your own bottle, helping people to shift away from single-use plastic bottles. It currently has partnerships with over 200,000 water refill spots around the world, including cafes, restaurants, co-working spaces, hotels, and stores. It came about when the two co-founders went on a trip to Okinawa in 2018 and were shocked to find that the beautiful beaches were polluted with a large amount of trash, mostly plastic bottles.
--Robin, you were a Communication Coordinator (CC) onboard the 77th Global Voyage departing in August 2012. When did you first connect with Peace Boat?
Robin: It was when the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami hit in 2011. My own grandfather was in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, so I went to Tohoku to volunteer at the time it happened. While volunteering for various organizations, I came across Peace Boat, which was also providing disaster relief. There, I learned about volunteer interpreting, and joined the 77th voyage as a Communication Coordinator.
--How did you feel after becoming involved with Peace Boat?
Robin: I've been involved in many things, including mymizu, but I think Peace Boat has had a huge impact on me. While on the ship I met and talked with so many people, which really broadened my horizons. I had always wanted to do something to help society, but after meeting and being inspired by people already active during the voyage, I began to think that I could also contribute something.
--You have been interested in international development since you were a university student, have worked in disaster relief with Peace Boat, and now you are working as a social entrepreneur on sustainability issues with mymizu. You are obviously highly conscious of taking action for society. What is the underlying motivation for your activities?
Robin: Being involved in volunteer activities after the Great East Japan Earthquake, I saw the effects of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima and the situation in the affected areas with my own eyes, as well as talked directly with people there. So, I began to think about disasters and the environment. More specifically, I became intrigued by the relationship between humans and the natural environment, which led me down my current career path. Therefore, I feel that the experience of the Great East Japan Earthquake was a major turning point for me.
--mymizu is a well-known app which informs users where they can refill water. Can you share with us why you are also involved in other activities such as corporate collaborations and giving presentations?
Robin: Our efforts are not just about providing a platform to allow people to refill their water. We hope for the app to be a catalyst for many people to get involved in environmental issues, and through our activities, to create a social movement for people to be engaged. This is why we not only provide the app, but also give lectures at schools and actively partner with a wide range of companies and local governments to create a more sustainable, circular society. The mymizu platform is a co-created system so that we can involve as many people as possible and provide an opportunity to think about and take action on environmental issues.
--What are you conscious of in your approach to environmental issues?
Robin: The tagline of mymizu is "less plastic, more fun," and I think that "more fun" is the most important thing. When it comes to activities related to environmental issues and climate change, I feel that people often talk about negative things like the need to "stop doing something,” or having to “make a sacrifice.” However, I believe that to involve the masses, we need to change the conversation and engage people in a positive, creative and fun way.
--Since the release of mymizu in 2019, the term "SDGs" has been gaining more and more recognition in Japan. Do you feel that society has changed in the course of your activities related to environmental issues?
Robin: I feel that the general public's awareness of environmental issues has been increasing. There is a definite increase in the number of municipalities that have adopted a "zero plastic waste" policy and companies that are working on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Another great hope is the increasing number of young people in Gen Z who are working on creative solutions to environmental problems. For example, when we recruited interns for mymizu the other day, we received nearly 100 applications, and I was surprised to see how many enthusiastic young people there were. Furthermore, I am lucky that many of my team members are young, talented and very driven to make a positive change in society.
--Is there any part of yourself that has changed in your thinking, or conversely, any part that has not changed?
Robin: The part that hasn't changed is that I want to make activities related to environmental issues creative and bright, as I believe this is the best way to appeal to and engage large numbers of people. Also, although mymizu uses technology in the form of an app, it is difficult to solve environmental problems with technology alone, so I would like to continue thinking of and creating solutions by involving a wide range of people, such as government, private sector and civil society partners.
-- Please tell us more about mymizu and what you would like to do in the future, Robin.
Robin: Actually, mymizu's mission is not only to reduce the consumption of plastic bottles. That is one of our goals. mymizu's mission is to involve 3.5% of the population in our efforts, in line with the so-called “3.5% rule”. According to a study from Harvard University, social change occurs when 3.5% of society takes action, so we would like to involve 4.3 million people, or 3.5% of Japan's population, in our activities. To achieve this, we will not only provide our platform, but also continue to organise campaigns and programmes to reach more people and involve them in our activities.
Robin: Also, personally, I would like to place importance on creating something with younger generations, so I am planning to collaborate with universities and other educational institutions to support the younger generation of social activists.
--Finally, do you have any message or advice for the younger generation?
Robin: Many grants, programmes, and other forms of support are now available in Japan and elsewhere for people wanting to make a positive change. I personally think that now is the best time for people who want to do something to tackle a social or environmental issue. I know I'm repeating myself, but when you decide to do something, you need to enjoy the process or it will be challenging to continue over the long-term. So, make good friends, build a great team, and try to enjoy the experience. It doesn't have to be a big activity from the beginning. It's difficult to change society all at once, so it's important to try something small around you, even if you fail.
Also, I often refer to young people as "future leaders" at conferences, but there are also of course young people who are already working for society and leading the way. So, I don't think of them as future leaders at all, but rather, current leaders.
Let’s work together and give it our all!
Based on this original Japanese report written by Sumi Moeka.
Photos by Mizumoto Shunya, Robin Lewis, and mymizu.
English translation by Peace Boat US intern Farrah Hasnain.