Can Technology Help Different Cultures Collaborate?

The cities of today are thrumming multi-cultural hubs, loaded with creativity, and human complexity. Meanwhile, migration is steadily on the rise. Technological innovation has brought us all closer together, through the wonders of the World Wide Web, and affordable air travel. When we set these monumental leaps against a backdrop of a global population that has doubled in the last 50 years alone, it is impossible not to wonder how we will adapt to our quickly evolving shared existence on the planet we all call home. Despite the many challenges that humanity faces, a bounty of potential waits to be harnessed, if we can expand our capacity to embrace each other, and work together within this new global era.

A Population On The Move

As our planet’s population creeps towards 7.8 billion, migration has for the first time began to outpace population growth. According to the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs, some 272 million people — around 3.5% of the world’s population — make up this statistic. Conflicts, climate change, and political instability drive the displacement of refugees and asylum seekers, which are estimated to account for around 10% of migrants world wide. Most people migrate for work, while international students are on the up thanks to increasing education opportunities abroad. Climate related challenges such as water shortages, crop fluctuations, and rising sea levels are expected to increase displacements further yet into the future.

Upwards trends in movement between populations certainly pose complex issues, but perhaps not in the ways you might expect. Further research from the UN revealed that migration can benefit economies, raising GDP and easing pressure on pension systems. Large population influxes can put stress on social infrastructure, such as health care, education and housing, although data suggests that taxes paid by migrants largely pay for the services they use. Meanwhile, studies suggest that many countries are seeing statistical drops in crime rates alongside influxes of migrants, including in the US and Germany. As we look to the future, migration is a hot-button topic that elicits a broad range of reactions around the world. Fundamentally, the modern experience in terms of both population and migration is in it’s infancy. Aspiring to foster greater understanding and cooperation between cultures is a highly relevant pursuit, that is certain to be necessary as we move into the future!

The Digital Divide

Many may have experienced the fascination of watching a teenager communicate with others all around the world through an online gaming platform. For older generations, this cultural interconnectivity is both exciting, and extraordinary to behold! For those of us who enjoy unfettered access to such technology, it can be easy to assume that we are connected to the world’s many cultures in equal measures, but this is not yet the case. The term “digital divide” describes the gulf between those who have ready access to computers and the Internet, and those who do not.

The cost of ICT, geopolitical factors, economic factors, social, and geographical differences all come into play when we consider why such digital divides exist. The term “Facebook Divide” was even coined to describe demographics who do, or don’t, have access to the giant social media network! Arguments for bridging the digital divide include generating greater economic equality, improving social mobility, the forging of healthy democracy, and the potential to stimulate greater economic growth. Certainly, technological advancements historically drive cultural shifts. When we imagine the ways that innovations such as automobiles, radio, television, and air travel expanded our access to and understanding of different cultures, each seems monumental, and yet each pales in comparison to the potential held within the internet.

The Bamboo Ceiling, And Other Cultural Barriers

Within multi-cultural societies, fascinating new vocabularies are appearing to facilitate the break down of cultural divides. While the gender gap let to the adoption of the term “glass ceiling”, author Jane Hyun coined the term “bamboo ceiling” to address the barriers faced by Asian Americans in the work place. Haley Yeates discussed this concept in her 2017 Ted talk on cultural diversity. Born in South Korea, and adopted into an Australian family as a baby, Yeates’ experience working as a communications professional led her to explore issues impacting cross-cultural collaboration. She noted that a McKinsey study looking at over 300 multinational companies found that those performing in the top quarter for ethnic diversity were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their competitors!

Yeates’ research led her to conclude that culturally diverse teams were more likely to draw realistic conclusions, and more likely to deliver innovation. She also noted that within increasingly global societies, diversity in business better reflects today’s customer bases. She shared that breaking down so called “ceilings”, bamboo or otherwise, means that employees can bring their whole selves to work, fostering a stronger dynamic for everyone. So, if multiculturalism is good for business, can we apply the same logic and strategies to all areas of the human experience?

Bridging Cultural Divides

When different cultural elements meet, our capacity to understand and accept our differences

will be key when it comes to building bridges that unite. The continued improvement of translation tools, paired with greater access to global information, communication, and business resources are certain to elevate cultural collaboration across local and international barriers. The expanding remote work marketplace also suggests exciting potential for improved social mobility and opportunity, without geographical restriction.

Paradoxically, while businesses and educational bodies are exploring ways to harness multiculturalism, and greater connection is increasing cross-cultural understanding, technology is also being harnessed to plant seeds of division and mistrust within the political arena. It would seem that our societies still have some growing up to do — hopefully our global community is an infant that is set to blossom into adult hood, in the not-too-distant future.

Tim Rettig, author of Struggling Forward: Embrace The Struggle. Achieve Your Dreams, described intercultural empathy as one of the key skills needed to develop real understanding across cultures. He described this as consisting across three dimensions: the capacity to empathise cognitively, emotionally, and behaviourally. This means the capacity to tap into another person’s perspective, to imagine feeling as they do, and to be able to act in a way that demonstrates we understand and care about that person’s experience. If information is the key to understanding, then surely technology will have an indispensable role to play. Ultimately, the result of cross-cultural understanding is not homogeneity, but strength in diversity. What could possibly make collaboration more exciting?

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