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.

Three pillars of editing

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

I was chatting the other day with my friend Erin. ‘Editors are Gods’, she wrote, ‘I don’t know how someone could do it and not make mistakes. Like how do you learn how to do that?!’

As an editor, I felt surge of pride. I also took this opportunity to reflect on how I learned my skill. As I was drafting a reply, I came to realize it came from three main sources.

First, I trained in Greek philology. I spent large amounts of time, in a classroom and at my desk, reading passages from speeches, history, philosophy and literature, written in a language that is no longer in use. The goal was to train my brain in accessing the mental world of people who lived in a different context from mine, through the linguistic traces they left. It was also to make their meaning accessible to my contemporaries, through translation and commentary. More generally, the art of translation, which I practiced extensively through my studies, is probably the closest approximation to the art editing. You must understand the logic, meaning and style of an original, disentangle them from their linguistic form, then find the right equivalent in your language. Success is making your presence invisible: leave no scars after your intervention.

Second, I trained across a broad range of disciplines. When I prepared for Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, beside Greek philology, I studied history, philosophy, literature, English, German, and some geography. Later, I complemented my training with neuroscience, anthropology, sociology – and a smattering of design, ecology, politics, computer science and business. A good editor must have an extensive culture, because they need sensitive antennae, to pick up whatever seems ‘not quite right’ in areas where they have no deep expertise. Whether laziness or hybris, I see many writers follow the poor example of journalists, politicians, and public intellectuals. They like to use blanket statements to make a point; except the statement is often unverified or untrue. Common culprits are sentences that begin ‘people have always’, ‘our ancestors’, or just ‘everyone. When this happens, the role of an editor is to play the risk management game with their authors. In comments, I often write things like ‘you’re making generalising statement x, y, z. I am quite ignorant of this domain, but I’d like to double check with you that all the sources confirm what you’re asserting without ambiguity, or whether there is some debate, and some sources could invalidate your claims. If the latter, I would suggest possibly rephrasing as x, y, z. Please, accept my apologies for my ignorance, and simply disregard if what I’m writing is confusing or naïve in any way.’ Generally, my comment is neither confusing nor naïve, and the author tones down their bold statement for something less brassy, but more accurate. 

Third, I learned the art of flattery during my short-lived experience as a film director. In 2010, I wrote, directed and coproduced one short-film. When I describe the experience, I like to say that it was a perfect dom fantasy. On set, I told people exactly what to do, and everyone obeyed. They were looking for someone to give them orders. Earlier, during rehearsals, I observed how actors craved attention. As long as I gave it to them – describing what I saw them try with care and precision – they would happily try whatever I suggested.  Editors need gentle firmness. Writing is very personal, egos easily wounded, and trust needed for suggestions to be taken on board. Like a good dom, the editor must have the pleasure of their partner in mind, and be thoroughly guided by benign intentions. In that, we differ most from the critic who points out flaws in an argument, or props up their own ego by stepping on someone else’s shoulders. There may be suffering involved, or effort, in perfecting a text, but It’s all about helping an idea find its ideal shape, and shine through. Editing, then, comes with a measure of eroticism. Like diplomacy, it is a subtle power game, where the goal is mutual victory, and the weapon language.

The art of editing

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

The most preventable risk is the risk of misunderstanding. Yet as any teacher would know, getting a point across is difficult work. For we must build not on top of a student’s knowledge, but through their ignorance and prejudice. In the classroom – or in any one-on-one conversation – pointed questions and personal charisma compensate for hazy wording and brain fog. A text has to stand on its own, and withstand the winds of ignorance, with no live human crutch to prop it up.

Ensuring its robustness is the role of an editor.

For this, we use two complementary tools: the scissors and the glue. 

Coco Chanel is our patron saint when it comes to wielding scissors. Our end goal is invisibility, so that the curtains of language won’t obscure the light of intent, meaning and imagery, or drown an original voice under their heavy ruffle. So, before sending a text out the door, we like to take an extra thing off.

More complex is the art of mastering glue. For it requires two different sets of skills.

Editors must engineer the mechanics of a text. We closely follow the sequence of words, sentences, and paragraphs, to make sure that rhythms, emotions and ideas will achieve their intended effect on the reader. For this, we carefully track every cog in the machine, checking that it catches the right wheel, and that nothing comes to block their movement. If things don’t click properly, we must guide the author either to craft and place a new cog, or take apart the whole machinery, and re-assemble it on the basis of a different logic.

Editors also need to master linguistic chemistry, because our text will circulate out there in the world, and interact in the brains of its readers with all sorts of unexpected compounds. We must foresee where an argument might corrode when exposed to the air of media discourse, and place appropriate coating over its more fragile joints. We must anticipate where the cogs will catch and grip, and place just enough oil that the reader won’t get stuck, nor slip. We must expect all sorts of distractions to take eyes away from our text, and therefore lure attention with emotionally loaded scents and decoys. Most importantly, we must consider the natural decay of all things alive: if our aim is longevity, we must ensure that the core web is made of solid verbal material, genuine spider silk, not a flimsy suit of clichés. And finally, we must ensure that the various elements of this textual chemistry, once activated in the brains of readers, will not bring about a toxic shock by reacting with each other, or what was already there – or if there is a risk, ensure that it is taken consciously.

This is the work of an editor. Wow, that’s a lot!

Amplifying the signal

My partner used to take me to concerts – not so long ago, when concerts were still a thing. Last year, we listened to the Doric quartet. Walking back from Hamer Hall, I raved about that concert. Here is how I phrased it: their interpretation was such that I could identify the signal clearly – the melodic phrase, and the harmonic intention. There was a deliberate attempt at making sense of the score. Playing in that manner takes expertise, but also courage. Because, when you decide to interpret music in this manner, you state this is the music. No fudging. And if you made a wrong choice, inaccurate interpretation, people notice.

I had the same experience a while back, listening to Peter de Jaeger play a piece by Messiaen at an ANAM concert. Suddenly, there were echoes of jazz, it sounded like Gershwin. That was the message. I thought: ‘Of course, that was the musical world of Messiaen, no wonder he captured it, incorporated it to his work’. Peter de Jaeger revealed this to me, and showed how this piece fit in historically with others at the time, only by a choice of deliberate interpretation. He was reading the score, and shared the meaning he found with an audience. He made sense of the piece.

For this, he amplified a certain signal – melody, harmony, rhythm – isolating it, muffling the rest as noise. In the same way, the work of an editor is to amplify a signal. This is what I do, when editing: I look for the signal in the noise noise, then work with an author to amplify the first, and reduce the latter. It is a very personal process. I might be right or wrong. In fact, what I perceive may not even be clear to the author themselves. My unconscious brain, or whatever it is, comes into play.

Corollary: when a piece has nothing but noise, no signal, I will sense this, make it clear to the author. So, the skill – my gift, one may even say – is not my capacity to understand, but remain puzzled. In fact, I have never felt – or been – more useful than when I got puzzled.