Cesar Jung-Harada Interview

Updated: May 16

H: Can you tell me your name and how do you normally introduce yourself?

C: My name is Cesar Jung-Harada. I’m an inventor, artist, entrepreneur, educator and environmentalist.

H: Can you tell me the earliest memory you have with the ocean?

C: The earliest memory I had of the ocean was partially constructed because I was very young. I was 4 years old. But my parents told me I disappeared and then they found me at the edge of the wave. My mouth was full of water, and my nose and my lung was full of sand. They rushed me to the emergency room, and had the operation. Cos I was tumbling in the waves and almost drowned. So that was my first memory of the ocean. I’m always very drawn to the power of the ocean. The other one I remember vividly was when I was 6 or 7 years old. I learn to sail in a small dinghy in France. They call them Optimist. They’re very efficient and great for learning. The day we went out seemed to be a nice day but the weather just changed. Suddenly, there was a storm. This is a place famous for fast-changing weather. The waves got big. Not because I was a small child and exaggerating the memory. They told us the waves were as tall as the mast. One second I was on the top of the waves with very strong gusts. I remember all the other kids were crying, but I was just loving it. Loving the intensity of the storm. Because I was told the boat is not submersible. It is made out of plastic that would never sink. So I just enjoyed the moment. Thinking this is very powerful. I love it, the power of the sea, the waves and the wind. I was the last to get picked up as I wasn’t crying. I thought there might be something wrong about me.

H: At the age of 6. You’re already thinking about the construction of a boat. That the boat is made out of plastic and it won’t sink!

C: I was very rational. I guess.

H: Can you walk me through the places you’ve lived that lead you to where you are now?

C: My father is Japanese and an artist and my mother works in computer marketing, so we moved around a lot. But during my teens, I did some exchange programs in London. As an adult, I worked and lived in Kenya, San Francisco, Boston, New Orleans, and I had a company in the Netherlands Rotterdam, and I lived on a ship and sailed around the world between 2013 - 2014 for half of the year with a program named Unreasonable at sea. I had also lived in a van. I was homeless for a while. Long story short. Because of my unusual profile of ocean machinery and a presentation at MIT. I was recruited to join a team to clean up the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. So I moved to Massachusetts. In the lab, it was mostly about technologies and some futuristic ideas that could take a long time before it would be ready to help. But I wanted to do something more tangible, get my hands dirty, and help the people on the ground. So I moved to the Gulf of Mexico for 3 years, helping with the cleanup, collecting data and where my subjective research took place. There, I developed a technology named Protei. It is a shape-shifting sailing robot. It is designed to use wind power to drive a bloom that could absorb oil.

H: What impact did the BP oil spill had on you and what action did you take upon it?

C: When I was a kid in Brittany, there was also an oil spill. It was a big shock to me to witness how it destroyed the sea, dead fishes and the fishermen losing their jobs. It was a huge truma when I experienced that as a kid. When it happened again in New Orleans, it was a recall of that emotion. When I arrived there, I remember having the same sensation of seeing my older brother being beat up. Like my family member is being abused. That makes me incredibly angry. I met the local people and learnt about the damage that had done to their lives. I realized the BP oil spill was not just an environmental catastrophe, but also destroying the lives of animals and families. At first, my instinct was to help clean up, but then I was more involved in the data mapping side of things. The problem was that if you want to help doing the clean up. You’ve to sign up as a BP cleaner, and you had to sign a NDA to conceal any information for 10 years. A lot of people who got sick working in the BP oil spill cannot talk about it. There was a lot of lack of transparency in the scheme of things. Basically, if I was a foreigner who touched the oil without their consent, I’d be seen as committing a crime. I’d get kicked out of the country. So we looked into different ways to clean up. So we figured out we could fly a drone to locate the position of the oil. A cheaper way to fly is to fly a helium balloon, attach cameras and stitch up thousands of pictures. Those pictures could be used for clean up, but also for residents to bring evidence to court. During the operation, I learnt a lot about what was happening on the ground. I also learnt that the path of the oil is where the wind is coming from. So I thought maybe we could use the wind as a form of energy to propel the machine while cleaning up the oil. I went through many designs. Eventually, I came up with the shape-shifting boat idea. I worked days and nights. Eventually, it had its breakthrough. I published what I learnt and made that an open source material. It attracted a lot of attention, it caught on like a wildfire. Suddenly, a lot of people got in contact with me and became interested in studying it and developing it. And so that's how I started Protei. For me it is really important to make it open source. I believe that if a technology is working and helping the environment, we need to share it. We have no time to bicker about ownership and taking credit for an invention. I’d rather die poor to do something good for the environment than being a negligent millionaire with patents.

H: What did the first one look like?

C: It looked like the spine of a dinosaur. It looked nothing like technology. It looked like something Indiana Jones would dig out from the ground.

H: Tell me more about the Protei development after it caught a lot of attention.

C: When I was working in MIT, I had so many resources. But when I was in New Orleans in my garage. I was just using everyday’s materials that I could find. I was really broke. In the end, I didn’t have the research budget anymore. I didn’t have anything fancy, but I had the internet. I was able to post drawings and ideas. That attracted people from around the world across disciplines. Eventually, someone suggested doing a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter. We raised about US$ 30,000. From there, we were able to build prototypes. We gathered that this technology has a lot of potential so we started a journey looking for investors after the first batch of funds ran out. We met a guy in San Francisco, who first committed to put in $10,000 each month for 2 years for R&D in exchange for 10% of the company. So I started to hire a team, rented a studio and invested in machines. But after 3-months of negotiations. The investor decided to pull out. It was lucky I still had my job to teach the master of environmental design in Goldsmiths University of London at the time. But it was only 1-day a week. Losing the investor for the company development had put me in a lot of debt. For 2-months, I was sleeping on my friend’s couch. But after 2-months, I just became homeless. Eventually, I found a rooftop and built myself a big tent and lived there for a while.

H: So you were still building Protei during this time when you were homeless?

C: When you’re homeless, you become extremely organised and resourceful. I was still teaching at the university. So I was trying to be clean, shaved and had clean teeth. I was lucky to have a friend who allowed me to use his rooftop and access the basic necessities. But I was basically building Protei with trash that I found from the dumpster. Like a remote control of a toy car that was thrown away after Xmas. Engine, batteries, frame parts. Printer. Printer was amazing. You could find any part in a printer. Any money that I made, I’d be putting it back to the project. I kept stealing the Wi-Fi from next door, and applied for competitions. Eventually, I won an award from a very prestigious competition for ocean technology. It was US$ 100,000. They had no idea I was a homeless guy. They just thought I was a guy who teaches at Goldsmith University. But by then, due to the financial hardship. Most people from the team left the project. But there was one woman named Gabriel Levine who was a hardcore hacker hardware developer. She seemed oblivious to the fact that I was in financial difficulties, instead, we kept having this research focused conversation. We discussed what we were going to do with the US$100,000. She was based in San Francisco, and invited me to move there to join the tech shop in Silicon Valley. The people there are environmentally conscious, love sailing and so I moved to the sunny side of the world. I shared a table with another guy who was developing an open RV. It was a magical time. And there, we applied for more competitions. From then on, we got accepted to another incubator program called unreasonable at sea. It is a university on a ship. And that ship sails around the world. We sailed off from San Francisco, crossed Mexico, Hawaii, Japan, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, India, Mauritius, Ghana, Mococoo, Spain and crossed the Atlantic. So this is how I came to Hong Kong by ship. So this is how I discovered where most of the parts and plastic came from. I went to see my suppliers and decided to move here.

H: Can you take me back and tell me a bit more about “unreasonable at sea”, and what was that experience like?

C: It was an incubator/ business mentorship program on a ship that travels around the world. At each stop, we took out ideas and pitched it to prospective investors. We learn how to level up our designs as well as the business side of development. For instance, one of our mentors was the head of marketing for Nike. And others, founder of Google X. There were all the amazing people on the ship to learn from. The 2 people who had impacted me most were George Kimball, the co-founder of Stanford Design School and Tom Chi from Google X. We kept building more Protei boats inside the boat. We tested Protei in every port we landed, rented a motorbike and went to see different factories to compare costs. When we arrived in China, we discovered the cost of the manufacturing is 7 times cheaper, and 4 times faster than San Francisco. This is when I decided to move to Hong Kong.

H: What did you see in the sea during the trip “Unreasonable at sea” that inspired you to continue?

C: I originally decided to build robots to clean the sea because of the BP oil spill. But the more I studied about the ocean, I saw there were many kinds of ocean pollution. When we crossed the Pacific Ocean, we arrived in Hilo in Hawaii. There was this beach where you couldn’t see the sand. There was only trash. Not just on the surface, you could dig down to the layers of plastic. What was horrifying was that there were still many animals hanging out. When I went back to Japan to study radiation, the contamination was releasing in the sea and they are still planning to release more of it into the ocean. And when I arrive in Hong Kong and China. Of course, we see a lot of plastic and trash around the sea. In India, some of the rivers were black with feces. Just horrible stuff and in Ghana, we went fishing with the locals but the fish were depleted because of the foreign fishermen and the oil. Having the chance to travel around the world to test our boat was great but it was also a punch in the face to learn so much of the ocean was damaged by humans in many different ways. Overfishing, chemical pollution, urban runoffs, industrial plastic, radioactivity. That was hard to see.

H: So from there, how did you make the decision to come to Hong Kong?

C: I was living in San Francisco. I was having a great time there before I moved to Hong Kong. But I realised it was so much more efficient to manufacture in Shenzhen. Basically, it makes no sense for me to stay in America. Originally, I was going to live in Shenzhen. But very quickly I realised the financial system, infrastructure, the labour law, the tax and it was so easy to get around. It was just much more practical to base in Hong Kong and import the parts from Shenzhen. It was not a hard decision. I’m half French, half Japanese. I'm a world citizen. I just go where I need to go. I love the fast speed, the flexibility and the can-do attitude of the people. Nobody really cares what everyone does. You could do whatever basically. There are rules, but everything is kind of a grey area and flexible in Hong Kong, which is great for innovation. I’ve been very happy living here for 8 years now.

H: So you started MakerBay here in Hong Kong. Can you tell me a bit about how that came about?

C: Because of the financial hardship I endured. I become extremely careful with the money. But when I realised the rent in Hong Kong was exorbitant. I looked for a good deal where I could afford. I had a friend back home who introduced me to the lovely family here who turned out to run a chicken farm in Yuen Long. They happened to have a lot of vacant chicken coops and buildings, so I started building my factory there. But I missed the community culture like when I was in MIT, on the ship working with all the brilliant people together in the environment where science, technology, art and design all in one place. The Hong Kong government gave me some free space in Science Park. I went there for a while but I found the culture there rather snobbish. So I thought if the collaborative space doesn’t exist. Why don’t I just build one? So I started MakerBay. There’s another hacker space called Dim Sum Lab, which still exists. It is a tiny space in Sheung Wan. But it was a little too small for me to build boats. So I built my 2nd MakerBay in Yau Tong. We had some financial difficulty at the beginning. It took my attention away from Protei for a couple of years. I also started to get more involved in teaching again. Teaching environmental science and inventions to kids. And I eventually got hired by HKU. And now the 3rd MakerBay is in Tsuen Wan. It is growing with 3 floors, and active people coming to do all kinds of work. Now MakerBay has a life of its own. I can put my focus back to inventing.

H: How do you define makers?

C: I’ve a broad definition of what a maker is. In the maker movement, there’re a few spectra. On the very right, you’d have makers working only for 1 corporate, designing for companies. And then you’ve university, work in a lab and write and publish papers. You also have maker space like ours and I try to fit in the middle both compatible with corporate and also community works. You also have the hacker makers, who are on social issues. The grassroot makers might be under-appreciated. For me, when you’re using your hands to make something. You’re a maker. Biology is a maker too. If we want to have the 4th industrial revolution. We need to create new materials. I think we could only do real good stuff when we allow talents from all disciplines to work together. The one thing that defines what a modern maker is the willingness to share. I think it is fine for a maker to do their own thing but I’ve a lot of respect for people who make the extra effort to make it an open source. I think that defines what a true maker is to me.

H: The Ocean Imagineer- a giant piece of art combining science and engineering thinking that was displayed in North Point. Could you tell us a bit about it?

C: It was a project commissioned by the Hong Kong Arts Center with Urban renewal authority to re-brand North Point. The historical North Point was very connected to the water. It used to be a destination for people to go swim on Hong Kong island back in the day. But nowadays, as many of us can see, the water has become disgusting. I don’t have another word for it. I was in that water inspecting the sea floor when building the OI. My skin got infected, and got very sick. I proposed to the commissioner in a natural way, using biology to clean the water instead of using some expensive machines. So the proposed idea of OI was an artwork that resembled a piece of giant oyster. It was also a small eco contraption to test the type of animal that could filter best of the water. That was the first question we wanted to explore. The second question we wanted to tackle was if we could produce solar energy and hydrogen gas. Hydrogen is so far the cleanest fuel on the planet, and we have an abundance of these molecules in the universe. The idea was that we could build this beautiful floating artwork, at the same time, we could improve the environment, and we could also produce the cleanest energy. If we could wrap these 3 things together, and benefit the people of North Point. It could be replicated elsewhere around the world.

H: We are going to move on to a bit more of the internal questions. During the journey of all of your inventions. Have you ever doubted if your inventions are going to help the environment? Tell me some personal struggles you have to overcome?

C: As an inventor. I do come up with a lot of ideas all the time, but there’s only so much time you could have to do them. Like Protei for instance, it was never commercialised. It remained a piece of craft. We made tens of them. We sold them but mostly for research purposes. There’s a sense of failure and sense of frustration that I never brought to the mass market. Of course, there’s a lot of remorse and nothing goes as planned ever. The thing I do is so niche, but I’m proud of doing more on the non-profit and research side of things. The thing I’m mostly focused on is education. Because I realised if my talent is coming up with ideas and creating prototypes for somebody else to manufacture them and they make money out of it, that is fine by me. That’s perfect for me if I could teach young people who are so much more talented than myself, and get inspired to care about the environment, to trust their capability to create change practically. It is a worthwhile investment to teach and create a space like MakeBay. My time is well-spent. The things and work I do are so grim, like oil spills, radioactivity, visiting abandoned oyster farms. If you don't have a sense of humour, keep your mind cleared. It is so easy to go down the dark path. You do need to have a mental mental discipline to turn the negative and positive. It’s like doctors who treat terminally ill patients.

H: Do you feel like treating the environment is like treating terminally ill patients?

C: For example, working with coral is extremely depressing. Each time you visit is worse than the previous time. If you’ve a kid, you want to take your kid to see the coral right now because my grandkid might not get to see it. So there’s a sense of urgency there. Everybody sees those things but not everyone is conscious that they have an expiry date. Going back to what I said about the feeling of having someone in your family get beaten up. If that happens to you, you’re going to fight. You will do everything you can to save it. Even it is horribly painful. It is a thankless job. The environment doesn’t thank you. The environment gets better but you don’t get paid to do it most of the time. But then at the same time, you get so much satisfaction doing something that you know is the basic building blocks of the whole society. People might not realise but this is the most important work in my opinion. Because you don’t have a clean environment, you can’t have a social order. If people don’t have food to eat. Clean water to drink. Clean air to breathe. They can’t live in this place.

H: What hope do you have for your son?

C: There’re a few things my parents have given me that I would like to give to my son as well. I might not be able to do it as efficiently but I feel very lucky to have inherited it. My father is an artist. When you’re an artist. It is the most difficult job in the world cos you work on something that has no tangible value and is subjective. What I learned from my father is to have faith and confidence in your dream even if nobody believes in it. The work that you do have an intrinsic value in it that might not be recognised right away, but you have to be sure that the work that you do has a value. It requires an incredible amount of self-consciousness and courage for it. From my mother, it was devotion, efficiency, being a good communicator and respecting people. Having a clear work relationship with people and love. These are the things I wish I could give to my son. My father has a quote that says everything is alive meaning everything is a god, the sun, the river and so is nature. I want my son to respect nature. The second quote is that everyone is equal. The cleaner or the president has to be respected the same way. Respect other people and live like you do for yourself. And the final one is that nature has no rules. As a researcher, we try to make sense of the complicated world. As an artist, you try to interpret and create a new world. But the truth is that, nature is always more powerful and complex than we could ever outrun it. Therefore, we need to respect nature with a mindset of an artist and as a learner. These are all the things we want to give to our son in addition to all the love and trust we have for him.

H: Sounded like the best gift you could ever give to a child.

C: Let’s see. Right now he likes dinosaurs. One step at a time.

H: Final few questions. In the context of what you do, what keeps you up at night and what you’re afraid of?

C: Nothing keeps me awake at night because I work such long hours…I’ve no problem sleeping. But to answer your question. There’s this one topic I was working on when I was a student about the nuclear waste stored in the ocean. It was too sensitive that I got into some serious trouble. I got a little taste of the power of industrial and government lobbying. How money is much more powerful than lives. We are now building a lot of nuclear power plants transitioning to green energy but the truth is that we don’t understand what a long-term effect the radioactivity in the water might have on us. I don’t have evidence to support what I say but it is coming from some studies that I ruminate on.

H: That makes sense. What usually keeps someone up at night is something you’re uncertain about.

C: This problem is not going to affect me or my kid. But it may affect someone in 10 of thousands of years. It could be a poison gift we give to the next hundreds of generations.

H: We are going to wrap on something positive. On the flip side, what one thing you’re optimistic about?

C: I’m a pretty optimistic person. There’re many things I’m optimistic about but one specific thing that makes me the most optimistic might also be a scary one is that understanding how selfish humans are. We’ve been selfish enough to destroy every other species for fun and increase our own comfort. Most animals that are still alive now are basically either pets or our food. But at the same time, we are doing all these for our comfort. So what’s the threshold value that we realise we need to fix this and we need to do better for ourselves? It will come to a full circle that we need to heal the environment in order to heal ourselves. I only hope that we don't have to go through some extreme environmental fascism before we make the drastic change. This is why I created Makerbay so we could be part of the industrial revolutions where people are not just buying things but repairing them. Or using this space to invent things to clean the environment. Commit their time to make incremental changes. I see young people start to think that this new way is normal, but not the current practice. And see people getting angry but at the same time developing empathy for other people. No longer passive about the issue, and think that it is somebody else’s problem. So what gives me hope is to work in this direction, and also seeing people work toward the same goal.

To find out more about Cesar's works.

To re-visit the CNA series A League of Extraordinary Makers. Cesar is featuring in episode #2

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