Marco Polo Project – designing new practices

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.

‘Lots of people talk about engaging with China. You’re one of the few who’s actually doing something about it.’ I received this affirmation from a business manager at the Sydney University China Centre in 2013, after speaking at an Australia China Youth Association event. A number of others have praised my work with Marco Polo Project in similar ways over the years. For a while, this caused me confusion, since my core skillset is about arranging words together. I’m too dim-witted to raise a question in reply to a compliment, so I was left to find the meaning of the statement on my own. Here is what I made of it.

Back then, there was a lot of money flowing to China-stuff, and associated opportunities. I benefited too. There were a lot of public events, roundtables and conferences, with recurring injunctions and recriminations: ‘We must do more of this. We must do less of this.’ As for the details of implementation, what precisely we should do more of and less of, this was not a matter for the future leaders of Australia-China engagement to define.

Major changes in global macro-structures require new micro-structures. Seating arrangements matter when people don’t share the same language, as does acoustics, and turn-taking rules. Good intercultural networking calls for clear instructions. Loose ‘discuss and mingle’ models only shift the burden on the more culturally intelligent participants. Online, sharp editorial choices are needed – or smart algorithms – to break the filter bubble. Established ways of doing things will only replicate existing structures and dynamics. New formats must be designed, and put to the test, then packaged, and shared.

Self-appointed ‘big picture thinkers’ stay well clear of those details, and the efforts involved. After all, public funding and other official accolades are mainly focused on outcomes. I’m an earthy guy at heart, and ill-suited to business as usual. I don’t put much credit in standard outcome frameworks. I like getting my hands dirty, and play in the mud of outputs. Or if I’m not, I look for impact at the nth degree. I guess that’s what they meant by ‘do something’.   

I was reflecting with an Indonesian friend, a few weeks back, on institutional failure to meet the core social needs of migrant populations and international students. For their well-being, as well as for professional success, newcomers need to form supportive, trusting relationships – personal and professional. Which means, at the very least, a chance to follow up on initial conversations. Migrants and international students must also find ways to integrate all the new things they learn about their new context to their existing understanding of the world, and their identity. Yet most events – networking and otherwise – are marketed as opportunities to ‘meet new people’ and ‘learn new things’, and designed in line with that goal.

You know the joke. A man is looking for his keys under a streetlight. ‘Is this where you dropped them?’ asks a supportive passer-by. ‘No, but it’s pitch dark where I did, so I’m looking over here.’ I always think of this when I attend an intercultural get together. I still remember a Facebook conversation on the topic. I was back from yet another disappointing event at some university, with boring speeches and no meaningful encounter. Yet there were prawns and scallops on the buffet table. I wrote a post about it. ‘Why do the people running those events spend so much on food, and nothing on experience?’ It sparked a lively discussion. It led me to finally realise – and accept – that improving participant experience must fall outside what most people consider even possible. Pretentious food and poor design may well not be matters of malice, cowardice, or laziness. Just a lack of imagination. This is where design comes into play. It’s not just about prototyping to figure out what could work: it’s offering something concrete, as a way to shift perceptions of where action is needed, possible, and fruitful. And this is what Marco Polo Project has done over the years. 

We have developed a broad range of new formats and resources. Some have achieved their final form. After numerous iterations, starting in 2012, we landed on Translation Club, a collaborative translation event to build deep intercultural empathy and trigger insights of cultural self-awareness, with low facilitation overheads. Using design-thinking as a template, we developed Design for Diversity, a one day program to train better intercultural collaboration in creative problem solving. Our Marco Polo Manual documents a number of micro-structures, components of facilitated events and programs trialled over the years. We’re still iterating on Culture Flip, a card game to support better language exchange by playing on conversational archetypes, and a few more tools and formats for better networking.

The doing certainly worked, yet we failed at one point in the process. We neglected the work of convincing. We fell short of producing sexy media to document our workshops, anchor assumptions in scientific articles, or get big names to vouch for us. And so, we stayed small. Maybe my new Dr. title will bring about an added layer of legitimacy? Or maybe now is time for scientific retrofitting? Time to make our assumptions explicit, articulate our practice to new trends in language learning, social health and psychology, and make academic sense of our efforts. Then we can focus on sharing the models, in hope to see them scale.

On speaking up

Today, I took part in a Hackathon organised by the Red Cross. Our goal was to come up with new creative solutions to improve social cohesion and integrate new migrants. I was part of a diverse team: a doctor from Pakistan, a basketball champion from Iran, a logistics expert from Congo – and a young Australian woman working for the Red Cross.

When working with diverse groups, particularly when English is not everybody’s first language, I’m very sensitive to conversation patterns: are all voices being heard, or do some people speak more than others? Generally, my tactic – and personal preference – is to sit back and listen, leaving more verbal space for others. If I am in a good position to do so, I try to encourage the more silent people with warm looks and smiles, or if I sense that they might want to contribute, try asking them a question.

Not everybody does that. Today, I noted an increasingly awkward dynamic develop in our team. The young Australian woman was a manifest extravert, and articulated all her thought processes aloud, thereby quickly dominating the conversational space. She might have been aware – she pulled anxious frowns, and seemed to call for help with her eyes, meanwhile piling up sentence after sentence. Not with much success. Our Iranian team-mate sat back, arms crossed.

An observer from the Hackathon core team came and sat with us for a while. When she left, she tapped on the shoulder of our African friend – all the time she was here, he had not spoken a word. ‘You should speak up,’ she said in half-voice, ‘I’m sure you’ve got a lot to contribute.’ This is often how we like to frame the situation. If in a group, some voices are not heard, well-meaning observers will encourage them to ‘speak up’. Much more rarely, if ever, will they turn to the local extravert, tap them on the shoulder, and say in half-voice, ‘you should shut up, I’m sure others have got a lot to contribute.’

Educating global leaders? Let’s give them Humanities!

On the Hub Melbourne yammer network, a friend recently posted the following note: “Am currently at a collaboratory meeting to recreate management and leadership education. These are the 3 questions today ; 1. How does the future leader look like ? 2. What is a globally responsible leader ? 3. Can we teach how to become a globally responsible leader.”

I found it inspiring, and suggested the following: “A good education base for future global leaders will be found in classics, history, philosophy and humanities, rather than ‘business and economics’. Management and leadership theories – or economics and ‘social sciences’ more broadly – tend to come in flashy new clothes. They decay more quickly than solid Aristotle, Plutarch and Montesquieu. In a fast-changing world, you don’t want fast-aging leadership education. Close-reading texts of ancient wisdom will teach future global leaders how to find meaning in complex, ambiguous settings; and reflecting on the distance between past and contemporary value systems will prepare them for accepting diverse, sometimes conflicting, world-views – and negotiate their way forward.”

I wanted to share this reply here, and reflect further on the topic. Everyone likes pushing their own agenda. I was trained in the Humanities – and find myself now more and more among people with a background in business, management and economics. Diversity benefits groups: people solidly trained in arts and classics are rare both in corporate and small business worlds, and their presence is likely to make for better decisions. I also do believe that the practice of translation and close-reading, which I learnt in France, is precious when working as an innovator. Translation is a good bullshit detector, and finding good ideas and people requires a solid capacity to filter out the dross. Innovation is also typically nothing but an old idea adapted to a new settings – who knows whether Medieval monastery rules, immigration models in old Athens, or Teutonic lending systems don’t hold the key to some future and precious model for social innovation in Australia.