Photo by fdecomite
In his book The Post-American World Fareed Zakaria argues that there have been ‘three tectonic power shifts over the last five hundred years’. Each of these shifts profoundly reshaped culture and economy on a global scale.
According to Zakaria the first shift was the rise of the Western World, starting in the fifteenth century. The second was the rise of the United States as an industrial world power. And the third shift – the one we are going through now – could be called ‘the rise of the rest’.
If I were an entrepreneur today in India, Brazil or China I would probably not identify with the term ‘rest of the world’. But my question is: How will we cope with the new reality that the economic logic of the Western world is just one of many world-views?
As the co-founder of www.shapeshifters.net – a crosscultural resource exchange for professional creatives – I spent almost two years travelling the world in order to get to know our future users personally. I wanted to have more than just ‘digital relationships’ with the people who joined our network. I wanted to learn what it means to run an architect’s studio with 30 employees in Johannesburg. I wanted to see through the eyes of a graphic designer who operates out of a rural garage in New Zealand. Or just simply hear for myself that for some Chinese it is incomprehensible how one can have a decent conversation with just 26 letters in the alphabet! It made me smile – and think.
You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know
My first lesson was simple. Getting information about a far away business is one thing, but understanding a business as part of a different culture is a totally different animal.
My belief system was so different from the one of a Brazilian music label owner that it took more than an interpreter for us to understand each other. Even though we had been using the same expressions, the meaning of such words as ‘money’, ‘strategy’, ‘plan’ and ‘time’ had got nothing to do with each other. I´m not saying that one culture is better than the other. I´m just stating that we need to understand our own framework of understanding in order to build and sustain trustful business relationships within the global creative economy. This is what our work at Shapeshifters is all about.
The tricky thing about world-views is that we can´t see them. But we experience the consequences when our own world-views collide with others. Thus my second lesson being on the road to cross-cultural understanding was a bit harder:
I needed to give up my belief that Westeners are perceived as the ‘good guys’, bringing in smart solutions to the so-called ’emerging markets’.
Over the centuries Europe did not only export products and services, but also imposed its own logic onto other cultures. And not always for the mutual benefit – as we know. The ‘rest of the world’ is totally aware of this. But I´m not so sure whether we in the Western industrialized world are as well.
Just the simple fact that Europe is prominently placed in the very center of most world maps has had a long-lasting impact on the mental maps of those people located on the rim of the very same map. Almost every Kiwi whom we met along our Shapeshifters World Seeding Tour claimed that New Zealand as a market is ‘really far away’. But far away from what? The Zero Meridian? I guess we need new world maps, too. Who will create them?
Sure, we have social networks that transcend time and space. But there are other global grids and co-ordinates, too. Older ones. More persistent ones.
The Rise of Diversity
Recently I talked to a successful Indian interior designer. Anjalee has offices in New Delhi and Tokyo. She told me over the phone that so many of her Indian clients want to have office designs from her that look exactly like offices they have seen in London. The interesting thing is that she refuses to accept these jobs.
These days she spends plenty time reminding her customers that India has a precious design tradition of its own – its own values, its own shapes, its own materials. There is a cultural richness that goes far beyond the glass-and-steel office cubes that we all know from movie screens and design magazines.
This change of perception alone is not yet a tectonic power shift but definitely a sign that things are changing in this world. The rise of the rest will no longer allow one culture to teach another culture what it ‘really’ means to run a sucessful busines or what it has to look like. There is not just one truth anymore. There are many. This makes things more complicated, but it will definitely make us all richer if we talk business on an even playing field. Tolerance of ambiguity is definitely a key competence for the times we are in.
Try to give up the belief that your own culture is ‘normal’. This is not just another new business skill, this is a change of attitude. There is an abundance of possibilities – but to realise them we will need to step outside our own cultural comfort zones.
The biggest shift is the one in your mind. It can create a whole new world.
What Do You Think?
Do you agree that Westerners are too quick to assume that they are the ‘leaders’ of the creative economy?
Have you ever had your own assumptions challenged by an encounter with another culture? What did you learn from it?
Do you think collaboration on a level playing field is the way forward for creative entrepreneurs across the globe?