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.

Innovation calls for gentleness

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 placenta is a unique adaptive organ among mammals. Its role is to keep peace between the mother’s immune system and the foetus by dampening the mother’s immune response.

This description of the placenta, which I read in David Quanmen’s The tangled tree, made me reflect on this aspect of innovation. That every new idea begins its life as non-self, in the mind of its originator, and in any circle where it spreads.

For innovation to take, therefore, you must reduce immune response from the ego. You must temper the knee-jerk reaction that says ‘this is not for me and I will get rid of it’. You must create conditions calm enough, peaceful enough, that an idea can enter and modify you. 

Innovation requires blurring the barriers of the self. With this comes a sense of vulnerability. Any threat of aggression, therefore, or whatever prompts a lifting of the shield, will reduce the likelihood of new ideas emerging.

As a facilitator, my primary goal is calm. I reduce energy, because innovation threatens the self, and therefore demands gentleness. The same applies to my editorial work. Soften the message, reduce the sense of threat, keep egos asleep.

Values cards project – Order

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: In Art of Hosting, there’s an interesting model where we place order in-between chaos and control. You’ve actually got four ‘states’ that things can be in: there’s destruction, chaos, order and control. Most businesses like to operate somewhere between order and control, but creative organisations must find a way to work between chaos and order, without self-destroying. I find that the model explains a lot, about organisations, and about politics. If you look at the Yellow Vests in France, here’s a possible grid of interpretation. That democracy needs a minimal amount of order to work. If there’s not a proposal that makes sense in relation to some sort of order, then there is no politics. But with that movement, it’s not about creation, it’s not even about destroying something, it’s just pure shapelessness. And this shows – many people believe they’re doing politics, when they’re actually just flapping around.

B: I’ve always found that it’s a clear sign of stupidity when you say that you should destroy structures to be free. But then, it depends on your implicit model of what the world is. I see two categories of people: you believe that the world is essentially constraining, and so freedom is destroying that constraint. Or you think the world is chaotic, and freedom is about giving shape to something – the creative impulse is about creating order from chaos. I think that’s where my interest for China comes from, there you find the idea that chaos is more dreadful than too much order.

A: I think the distinction between order and control is an important one. And for the categories of people you spoke about, the first set would probably see control as a form of oppression.

B: Another thing I thought about is, when you say ‘order’, we have that expression, ‘to give an order to someone’. When there is order, it means some people can give orders, and we know that those orders will be executed. That’s what happens in a military organisation. And any type of strategic thinking, it’s about asking, what orders will be obeyed or not?

A: I’m looking at Wiktionary now, and there’s 26 different definitions for order. It’s a very polysemic word. Maybe we need to invent a new word for that meaning I spoke about, in Art of Hosting. A word that describes the type of structure where freedom is possible?

B: For people who think of order as a value, they must appreciate a measure of rigidity. They put that over freedom. What if it’s like that, order has to do with a certain organisation of meaning. And rigidity is… there are elements you can lean on. It’s like a skeleton, if you want to stand up, you need something to be rigid somewhere. Without a bone structure, you’re just a blob on the floor.

A: Then, there’s a set of people that seem to have this epidermic reaction to hierarchy, and they’re all about delegated or distributed leadership. I wonder if it has to do with what we’re saying?

B: I’m more interested in hierarchy as a way to get protected against abuse.

A: What about we see it like this? Structure is static, it’s about the way the parts are arranged. While order is dynamic, it’s about things moving in a predictable way, because people obey.

B: Well, if you look at something like ‘the order of doctors’, there’s a status quo there, so there is some rigidity.

A: Maybe it’s maintaining status quo is essential for a living organism to survive. Homeostasy. You need something to stay the same so that other things around it can change.

B: Looking back at those two categories I spoke about, maybe there’s a common way to see things, but different fears. Some are more afraid to be turned into stone, others are more afraid of falling apart.

A: It’s like, in zombie movies. They’re all about human society. All zombie films are about that, what makes our society hang together, and how fast can it be destroyed? And what are the primary instincts that come out when things start falling apart? I Think I would survive better in an environment where things are out of control, and everything need to be rebuilt, than one where there is so much control I could only just survive, but nothing more.

B: I think, my experience was, I grew up in a very chaotic family. So, I’ve got this belief that chaos is the fundamental structure of the world. I always expect chaos.

A: While I grew up in a very functional middle class family, but I experienced chaos when I lived in Africa and in South East Asia. There’s an exoticism to it, but when I’m in chaos, I can feel that I’m not in my natural environment.

B: That’s interesting, because I see the world as just equally chaotic everywhere.

A: While I sense a clear difference between chaotic places, and non-chaotic places.

Education is changing people

THNK taught me to think of education as a form of socio-emotional engineering in group context. The purpose is for each participant to transform. In other words, the goal of education is to change people. That change is more likely to come about through well-designed interaction among peers than through new knowledge, even weighing in the possible charism of an inspirational speaker, and the desire to emulate them.