Understanding people from other cultures will become a key future competence. However, this is not just an intellectual ability, but more importantly the ability to communicate empathetically, collaborate, and co-create communities and organizations. So how to redefine intercultural competences in permanently uncertain and chaotically changing world?
Mixed Cultures Meet Mixed Cultures
Intercultural competences will become more than just knowing the types of leadership, business etiquette, gestures or expressions that are characteristic for different cultures. For cultures today cannot be reduced to labels or essences. As people, images, goods, and ideas circulate intensely throughout the world, cultures mix and hybridize. It is impossible to reliably classify them, to place them in library archives of ideal types. In such a situation, cultures cannot be easily tamed and closed in frames. In organizations, mixed, hybrid cultures are much more likely to encounter other mixed cultures.
Attitude Instead of Learning Rules and Patterns
This is not to say that there are not ways to prepare ourselves and our organizations for such cross-cultural experiences. But instead of learning general rules and patterns, supposedly characteristic of closed isolated national or ethnic cultures, it will become more important to develop an attitude of attentiveness and sensitive participant observation, empathic communication, an active listening attitude, and to develop the ability to go beyond our own cognitive patterns, to think/experience beyond our own habits, to be open to pushing the boundaries of our own comfort zone, to be curious about otherness. Of course, this does not mean that knowledge about other communities, their symbols, stories, experiences, images, practices, is not relevant and interesting. It is. However, an important challenge today seems to be to abandon various simplifications which have safely ordered the world of intercultural relations based on simple oppositions: collectivist/individual, hot/cold, etc. This situation inspires the development of a new type of intercultural training that takes into account the complexity, changeability and ambiguity of today’s world.
Diversity Trumps Ability
Solving the complex problems of today’s world will require not only collaboration in transdisciplinary teams, but also in teams that are as diverse as possible: culturally, gender, and ethnically. Scott E. Page in his book The Difference. How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies, notes that
This is because better innovation occurs when teams are composed of individuals characterized by cognitive diversity: different experiences, perspectives, ways of categorizing the world, unique insights, values and ways of modeling the world. The diversity of the team as a whole turns out to be more important than the sum of the best skills of the individuals who comprise it. One way to ensure cognitive diversity is to create culturally diverse teams.
For those interested in a detailed analysis of this issue, we refer you to Scott E. Page’s book, and for fans of the synthetic formula, we recommend the author’s lecture as part of re:Work with Google:
Planetary Challenges and New Networks
While some commentators predict that the trend of deglobalization that began before the pandemic broke out will be reinforced by the breaking of supply chains, as well as the halting of tourism to many parts of the world, I do not expect a return to closed local communities. There is no indication that the system of planetary interdependence will disappear overnight. These interdependencies cannot be reduced to foreign trade or supply chains. New pandemics (such as vector-borne diseases and diseases caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria), declining biodiversity and the associated economic consequences (an excellent report on this topic was recently published by Partha Dasgupta), climate catastrophe, and global inequality will require the creation of new planetary alliances and solidarity networks, as well as new transnational bodies. We will interact more frequently and intensively with people living on different continents, and this will require new cognitive, interpretive, and communicative skills.
New Migration Patterns and Being Good
The phenomenon of migration will increase as a result of such trends and drivers as climate change (climate migration), increasing authoritarian tendencies in various parts of the world, economic inequality, and demographic trends. One person in thirty-five – 3% of the world’s population – are migrants. And that number is growing and will continue to grow every year. If the average income of a North American is 16 times higher than that coming from of Sub-Saharan Africa, and Europe’s population is aging rapidly, losing people of working age, it seems inevitable (that as a consequence of these two facts) hundreds of thousands of people from Sub-Saharan Africa will make the effort to reach the borders of the European Union. It is worth looking at this situation as an opportunity to create richer, more diverse societies.
New migration patterns will be the result of the relationship between the effects of climate change (droughts, lack of access to water, changes in ecosystems), demographic trends and economic dynamics (including, in particular, increasing or decreasing socioeconomic inequalities within and between countries). Depending on these patterns, the threat of exploitation of migrants and other forms of abuse against them will increase or decrease. Recognizing situations of forced labor and human trafficking and being able to prevent them will become an important competence. It will not only be important for services or labor inspections, but also for our organizations, which should start to care about transparency of supply chains, control their subcontractors. This challenge resonates with the Being Good trend that Natalia Hatalska has been putting on her trend map for several years.
Globalization and Power
In order to effectively build relations in a multicultural environment, it is not enough to develop an attitude of openness and tolerance, combined with practical knowledge about the customs of people from other cultures. However important, such knowledge may be far from sufficient if we do not take into account our own privilege, background and place in global power relations. Internalized systemic racism, or unworked years of colonial domination and exploitation, mean that forming relationships with people from other cultures should include acknowledging this additional dimension of power and privilege. Otherwise, we risk disappointment that our best intentions do not meet with the expected response. And the best-learned gestures and behaviors from other cultures will turn out to be no more than naïve theatrics. In view of the gigantic inequalities between the Global North and the Global South, evident in the extremely unfair way the SARS-Cov-2 vaccine is distributed, this should not surprise us. A new way of building intercultural competence will take these additional dimensions into account.
These threads are brilliantly collected by Kathryn Sorrells and Sachi Sekimoto in their introduction to Globalizing Intercultural Communication. A Reader:
The authors see intercultural competences as an area for critical reflection on one’s own status and a way to develop responsibility for a more just world. This aspect will be crucial not only in the field of alter-globalist activism, but also in processes of designing scalable global innovations, services or products.
Intercultural Peer-2-Peer: Bridging Localities
The new intercultural competences will not focus on isolated localities, but on their new relationships and connections. Organizations emerging from networks of connections between localities from different continents will become crucial. We hear so much lately about a return to local economies, local products, local communities or local solutions. This return to locality is usually presented as a counter to the abstract, disruptive forces of globalization. It often emphasizes the importance and “authenticity” of what is local, as opposed to modernity having a cosmopolitan character. The local in this story becomes specific, saturated with the senses, unique, like a traditional French cheese or other regional specialty. Sometimes tales of locality are accompanied by local characters, a sentimental-nostalgic tone, and often links to territory and land. Others emphasize the ecological nature of locality, which in extreme forms takes on the form of eco-fascism, and in milder forms naive visions of nature. Locality is also often supposed to be an antidote to the inauthenticity and alienation of large structures. Authenticity, grassroots, social zeal and vigor are located in it. However, many years ago Arjun Appadurai in his book Modernity at Large. Cultural Dimensions of Globalization observed that locality is not a given, but is created in the process of production. It is all these stories, the nostalgic-sentimental marking of territory, the intensification of the specific, the sensual, and the supposedly unique that build localities. However, this does not happen innocently. Each time the interests of specific groups or nations, neighborly territorial games, identity politics, or local business strategies come into play.
Learning to build bridges between different localities will be of great importance in the future. Understanding that localizing a perspective and playing with locality are not the same thing. Creating organizational forms that allow the transfer of knowledge, experiences, practices, tactics, and resources directly between localities, within networks of solidarity, friendship, care, and support, without corporate intermediaries and multi-level supply chains. This intercultural peer-to-peer will become a great challenge (but also opportunity) for a variety of small businesses, organizations, and communities that attempt to join forces without the intermediation of large digital monopolies, logistics companies, or banks. Their direct cooperation, often based on cooperative formulas, will become a new form of planetary social economy. Until now, it has been associated only with localism. However, it turns out that if we want to start dreaming about a good future again, we cannot give away systemic changes to others. And these will not be realized only within the framework of our own locality. One of the important trends will be the creation of cross-cultural coop tech, some of which will be based on decentralized and open technologies and finance (DeFi). The combination of blockchain-based technology solutions, coop tech, and awareness of global inequalities may become the beginning of an empowering and democratizing cross-cultural peer-to-peer revolution.
Technology from the South
An interesting perspective – one that will play an increasingly important role in the coming years – is the intersection of socio-cultural conditioning and technological innovation. We are paying close attention to what is emerging in the field of technology in countries of the global South. Makers, innovators, hackers, and digital collectives from Africa, Asia, and Latin America do not have access to the vast resources available to corporations in the North and West. Working in a situation of extreme scarcity, they experiment with what is available. What’s more, their goal is very often not simply monetization and scalability of a given solution, but solving real problems of various communities, ordinary people, related to everyday life, not high-tech futuristic fantasy. Through their practice, we can look at the future of the relationship between technology and social innovation in a new perspective. It goes beyond the opposition between technology as an unquestioned source of human well-being and technology as an authoritarian surveillance tool for managing communities and capitalizing on emotions.
This perspective is aptly summarized by Ramesh Srinivasan, a technology researcher from the global South, in Opinion: The Global South Is Redefining Tech Innovation:
You can read more about tech beyond the Silicon Valley in Beyond the Valley. How Innovators around the World are Overcoming Inequality and Creating the Technologies of Tomorrow by Ramesh Srinivasan.
One example of this is AB3D (African Born 3D Printers). It manufactures 3D printers from locally available recycled materials in a true circular economy. These printers are later used, among other things, at roadside locations in Nairobi, Kenya, to print everyday items for the locals. The founders talk about their business in this way:
The potential of emerging technologies in sub-Saharan Africa has also been recognized by Google, which has opened an artificial intelligence research center in Accra, Ghana.
Technology from the South is more likely than their Western corporate counterparts to be much closer to a design style that Nick Foster has described as the future mundane. This way of designing the future does not take place in the visual form of a sterile world made of overclocked renders, but is an everyday reality, with perishable equipment, dust, and scratches, built on the past and populated with secondary characters who perform ordinary, everyday tasks.
It is this intersection between technology and everyday life, embedded close to the community, that shows how technological innovations are immersed in a variety of cultural contexts and how much a deep understanding of them can give us. The field of innovation and technology is one of the most interesting places where intercultural competences will prove to be crucial in the coming decades.