Design across Cultures

MediaLAB Amsterdam’s global initiative for collaboration between cities and multidisciplinary multicultural design teams to tackle similar local challenges all over the world, using the undeniable force of cultural differences and similarities as a design strategy. The teams speak a common language: (design) methods. They use this language to share and transfer the design process between teams so that they build upon each other’s research, research papers, ideas and insights rather than merely the end-result.


Speaking the common language of methods to prevent ‘design waste’

We have seen the rise of the so-called ‘Global Village’, stating that our world has become like a closely connected village; first through the introduction of electronic technology and later with the impact of the Internet. It seemed that local issues became global issues and global challenges became local challenges. More recently, events, threats and opportunities are not just coming at us faster or with less predictability, but they are converging and influencing each other to create completely new situations. These developments require unprecedented degrees of creativity, and designers and innovators are hopping on the bandwagon to improve, alter or produce better or more effective solutions. Local ‘Jams’ are being organized in cities all over the world, where new innovative ideas are generated to solve social issues or improve people’s lives in one way or the other. We are definitely living in an idea-generating era, where ideas and innovations are created in a staggering pace, and even more so: simultaneously on over a thousand different locations. The solutions that are developed in cities around the world are often very suitable for the local context. However, even though challenges might be very similar between cities, this does not always mean the solutions will also work in both contexts. Based on the conclusion that the end-solution is not suitable, the concept is often discarded as not being valuable for a particular city or context. Additionally this means that all of the research, ideas and insights that were generated in the process are also discarded. Even with the given fact of the similarities in the challenges, the process (and especially, the methods that were used and the resulting insights) could have been the most valuable to share and be inspired by. This phenomena of throwing away valuable work from the design process is something we refer to as ‘design waste’. Uncovering this design waste and enabling designers and design teams to ‘recycle’ it is an important mission we are currently undertaking.

There are many opportunities to build on the ideas and solutions that have been generated by others. Nevertheless, there is not a real culture of sharing, referring and building upon each other’s work in the design field or other fields when it comes to user-centered or method-based research. Therefore, we state: it makes sense to structurally gain insights in the process of solving problems and tackling challenges in cities across the globe by speaking the common language of methods, in order to 1) build upon ideas and insights, 2) learn how design and problem-solving differs across cultures and 3) structure and feed collaborations between (multidisciplinary) teams working on the challenges simultaneously in different contexts. Design Across Cultures is the manifestation of these goals, and we are working hard to find ways to translate all of our learnings within the program into this common language for design teams.

The first steps have been taken by introducing the physical Design Method Toolkit and using and exchanging the methods in the Design Across Cultures program. The next steps are to build a platform where the results of the design process and the applied methods are uncovered for everyone to see, refer to or build upon. Let’s speak this common language!

Design Across Cultures projects

The Design Across Cultures (DxC) program connects cities, industries and multidisciplinary, multicultural design teams around the globe in order to locally solve global issues and improve ‘citizen empowerment’ around the world.

In the past 1,5 years, we have gained experience in running DxC projects with teams in Amsterdam (The Netherlands) and in Bangalore (India), both working simultaneously on the same challenge in collaboration with industry partner Cisco (for example on women’s safety in public spaces, and food waste).

More recently, we have finished DxC projects in collaboration with Bell Labs, Innovation Studio Fukuoka, Schiphol, Elisava Barcelona and Kyushu University. In all of these projects, citizen empowerment has been a main focus, especially in relation to the local context of the cities (Amsterdam, Bangalore, Barcelona and Fukuoka).


City, Industry, University, Lab

Each DxC project has a specific structure, where different stakeholders meet in a temporary or existing ‘lab’. Central is the agenda of the local (city) government, stating the current challenges they face (i.e. flooding, food waste, safety, sustainable energy, etc.). Industry (tech) partners support local governments in facilitating technology to tackle these challenges. Universities provide research capacity and talent. In the DxC ‘lab’, these parties collaborate in student-driven projects, supported with technology from the industry to tackle cities’ most current challenges. Unique to the program is the fact that several teams work simultaneously on the same challenge in different cities and share their work continuously.