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Design Across Cultures

A platform for collaboration between multidisciplinary, multicultural design teams, using the undeniable force of cultural differences and similarities as a design strategy to locally solve global issues.

Global village, multiple discoveries and inevitable inventions

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 appear to 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 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 living in an idea-generating era, where ideas and innovations are following up on each other in a staggering pace, and even more so: simultaneously on over a thousand different locations. It is said that real innovations depend on a combination of (a) entering what is called the ‘realm of the adjacent possibility’ and (b) the supply of people who are smart enough to act on it that has to be large enough for the idea to be quickly discovered. The discovery often happens by multiple people on different locations in the world. This phenomenon is also referred to as “multiple discovery”, building upon the idea that inventions are inevitable: given the electric motor and the train, is the electric train not inevitable? If inventions are indeed inevitable one can expect that each (ancient) civilization would have developed similar instruments and in the same order. Research has shown that there is indeed an order in how ideas evolve and inventions are made.

Multidisciplinary Design Teams (MDT’s)

As a result of the rising complexity of challenges, industry demands for highly specialized professionals that have the ability to apply their knowledge in broader contexts and fields, also referred to as ‘T’ shaped professionals. T-shape type skills (in relation to 21st Century Skills) include collaborative working, creativity, critical thinking and problem solving. These skills go beyond a single discipline, and are best learned through multidisciplinary team- and project-based education. At MediaLAB Amsterdam, we have introduced a structured 20-week program with agile work forms, an extensive design and research methods toolkit, and a culture where making, applied research and design meet each other in multidisciplinary, multicultural team projects.

Towards a MDT platform to Design Across Cultures

How does the increase of connectedness in the world influence the phenomenon of multiple discoveries and how can we make use of this impact? In a world where multinationals have multidisciplinary design teams (MDT’s) on many locations in the world, trying to find solutions for similar challenges at the same time, but in different local contexts? Can we create a platform for MDT’s all over the world through which they can collaborate, share insights, results and ideas in order to 1) speed up the realm of possibility, 2) increase the number of smart people to quickly act, and 3) create the sequence that is necessary to provoke those inevitable inventions?

We will try! MediaLAB Amsterdam’s initiative, the Design Across Cultures platform, connects cities, labs 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 Design Across Cultures (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). Recently, we have launched a DxC project in collaboration with Innovation Studio Fukuoka and Kyushu University on designing the future workspace. In all of these projects, citizen empowerment has been a main focus, especially in relation to the local context of the cities (Amsterdam, Bangalore and Fukuoka).

Citizen Empowerment

The rise of digital media and the advent of the network society have shifted the relations between citizens on the one hand and companies and governments on the other. Citizens have new tools to organize themselves around issues of communal interest. The relation between professionals and citizens is shifting. This means both citizens as well as institutional parties and companies are looking for new relationships and new roles in society.

A call for participation

Currently we are extending the DxC program and are looking for partners to run projects with. Also, we are working on organizing and designing the before mentioned platform of labs and cities where MDT’s can collaborate in DxC projects. Not only with Amsterdam but also with each other. Join us in this new endeavor and let’s Design Across Cultures! Contact Marco van Hout or Gijs Gootjes

Please have a look at the presentation we gave at TEDxSalon Shanghai on March 12th: