In 2010, I founded an organisation called Marco Polo Project. After COVID put a spanner in our wheels, we put most of our activities on ice. We’re now re-inventing what the future might look like. As part of this work, I wrote a series of posts exploring the original drivers behind Marco Polo Project. This is also an opportunity to reflect on success and failure – celebrate what was, mourn, and explore what could be.
When you try to build something new, you’ll often be misunderstood. This is common wisdom, yet rarely presented when people share their sense of failure. I clearly remember how, on two distinct occasions, well-intentioned mentors took the wind off my sails. Those are among the bitterest memories of building Marco Polo Project.
First scene. I’m sitting in my mentor’s office, bright sun outside, whale songs playing on the computer. They’re offering to send introductions for me, and ask ‘help me write this email. Why did you start Marco Polo Project?’ I pause for a while. I’m a reflective extravert and at the time, didn’t have enough questions of the sort. After a moment, I reply: ‘Well, ultimately, it’s about world peace’. I was hoping for a follow up question, a chance to clarify what I meant, and why everything had been so difficult. I get laughter instead. ‘Well, what about we say it’s about bringing Australia and Asia closer together’. I nod, embarrassed, and they send their email. That introduction fell flat. I never asked for that mentor’s advice again.
Second scene. I’m sitting at a café table with my mentor. They’ve been helping me build a business case. I followed their lead, and did my homework. But something was missing – a sense of scope and purpose. On the third meeting, this is where our conversation went. ‘So, what will your project bring to Australia?’ I reply ‘Well, to be honest, I don’t care about Australia.’ The French accent probably made it sound more callous than it was. Yet indeed – this was always a global project, incidentally benefiting Melbourne. This mentor and I never really spoke afterwards.
Looking back, I fell into the common trap of assuming others share my experience of life. I grew up in Strasbourg. The European dream has always been a personal matter of civic pride. When I fell in love with an Australian and chose to migrate, I decided I would carry that European dream to the southern hemisphere. On my first visit, I experienced Melbourne as the cultural capital of a globalised world, where the traditions of Europe and Asia, colonial and indigenous histories, could come together. It had just been appointed as a UNESCO city of Literature, it could be the epicentre of global cultural integration. Here was a place where the European dream of cultural and political harmony could extend to the rest of the world. Marco Polo Project was a vehicle for that vision.
The European Union was explicitly developed as a peace project, a reaction to the Second World War. One of its achievements has been cultural and linguistic integration – mutual linguistic and cultural understanding, a sense of shared history, and of common destiny, among countries that only recently were sending armies against each other. Marco Polo Project was directly guided by the spirit of Europe, which I breathed in from as far as I can remember. It carried an aspiration to extend this peace-building project beyond Europe, through collaborative translation and cultural dialogue, and weave together distinct histories and narrative threads across the continents. It was naïve to believe that the vision would be readily shared – even understood – by people whose worldview was rooted in remote Australia.
Sometimes, though, we reach our goals in unexpected ways. In 2016, I got a message from an old friend. They were looking for an atypical profile to serve as Chief Editor with the Global Challenges Foundation, in Stockholm, to work on global catastrophic risk. ‘Would you like to help us avoid the end of the world?’ Marco Polo Project was the reason for seeking me out. The peace-making vision I carried from the start had been finally recognised.
I said yes. Beyond personal validation I got precious experience, a good income, new networks, and prestige from this role. Yet for Marco Polo Project, a period of tension started. I would not be capable of taking on the new role, and continue to carry the organisation forward. We sought – and found – a new CEO to take over. With this handover, strategic clarity was crucial. I could no longer rely on my third eye to drive decision-making. Yet the direction was unclear. Should we accept that Australia was not ready for a natively global organisation, and focus on local matters – leaving Europe to look after the state of the world? Or should we take it as a sign that our global ambition was, in fact, at the core of our mission, and never to be compromised?
We didn’t give a proper answer to those questions. Rather, we skirted around. We focused our projects on Melbourne, more narrowly, as a space of experiment, and the direct environment where we would seek impact. Meanwhile, we welcomed opportunities to trial global partnerships – Translation Clubs in Mexico, Japan and Oregon, for instance – and kept our narrative global. We’re still misunderstood, often, but we’re more able to find allies, and ignore the rest.