The Power of our Differences

Evelien Christiaanse
May 20 · 8 min read

Within the Digital Society School we have a team focused on learning about and fostering cross cultural collaboration, called Design across Cultures (DxC). We recognise that many pressing issues do not stop at the political borders of a country. They are often a layered challenge with many politics, expertise, and perspectives needed to solve them. This is why we strive to work across cultures and contexts through various projects.

To kickstart this we invited our partners for a conversation in Amsterdam. We worked with a small group of people coming from all around the globe to identify ways we can work together to address global challenges from a multi-cultural and multi-context perspective. Together we spent three days discovering what meaningful collaboration means to us and how to move it forward towards shared projects and initiatives for the Sustainable Development Goals.

The participants in the seminar came from the Netherlands, India, Japan, Brazil, the US, Korea, Germany, Guatemala, Italy, and represented universities, non-government organisations and social businesses that want to bring a global perspective on their local work.

There were four main goals: to set the foundations of good work together, to build up the relationships between us and to explore new ways of working together, and make content for our MOOC. The build up of this seminar was largely inspired by the Art of Hosting and Harvesting Meaningful Conversation techniques, because we wanted to host the conversations that needed to happen.

We captured these insights on working on complex global challenges and translated them into educational materials for a MOOC. This course (still in development) strives to build the capacity of entrepreneurial and sustainability oriented people all over the world to collaborate on systemic solutions globally and locally.

Day 1 — Building connections

To facilitate the open conversations, that we were intending to host between what was then a group of strangers, we needed to get to know each other fast.

To bring focus to our day we used a check in round of introductions that helped us to get to know each other and to identify the reasons why we chose to invest these three days on an event like this. Each participant picked one of the 17 SDG’s and shared their personal connection to that goal and their motivation to work on it. This set the stage for the coming days. Making something global, yet personal, our participants started making connections with each other early on.

It was immediately clear that the group had richness in their diversity of experiences and motivation to work on the goals. Despite never having met, there were several exciting connections born. Some of us connected the goal to their personal life, some connected it to their work and to each other. This process allowed us to discover how much we have in common. Some of the goals that were woven into the conversation were #1 No Poverty, #4 Quality Education, #3 Good Health and Well-being, #13 Climate Action, #10 Reduced Inequalities, #16 Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions, and obviously, #17 Partnerships for the Goals.

After this, we moved into a World Cafe. This consists of a series of collaborative conversations in small groups. In three rounds we dove into the following questions:

1.) What is an example of good cross cultural collaboration that you have experienced? Write down the characteristic of that collaboration.
2.) Why is this a good characteristic of good collaboration?
3.) How can I contribute to Design Across Cultures?

The World Cafe in action

This process allowed us to make space for people to interact in small groups and cosy environment in order to have deeper and more focused conversations than a larger group would.

In the end we clustered the conclusions to take with us in the days moving forward and to identify common wishes and nuances from the groups conversation. Stopping to speak with intention and listen with attention like this is a wonderful opportunity to reflect on questions that one may not otherwise take the time for.

We ended the day with a check out round sharing their wishes for future Design Across Cultures programmes and a commitment to work together. The intention of this activity is to transition the group towards thinking of steps to move forward.

Day 2 — Let’s share

The day was focused on creating content for our MOOC. The participants were busy with interviews, fiming, podcast recording and sharing stories.

Meanwhile, we took the time to synthesise the outcomes from the conversations on Day 1 into a mind map that represents the main themes and patterns around good collaboration that emerged in the afternoon. From this we knew that Day 3 needed to focus on the Platform, Community, Culture and Social Impact of Design across Cultures projects.

Day 3 — Let’s make

As Day 2 was spent making video content for our DxC MOOC (more on that another time) we had to bring our participants back to the task at hand.

We hung the notes from the first day around the room. To check in we invited everyone to take a look around on their own. This way they could refresh their memories and arrive in the space ready to focus on DxC.

We invited the participants to choose a topic or group of people that they would like to work on. To offer something more concrete we asked them to work on one of the three DxC themes that we had introduced on Monday morning; Water challenges related to climate change, Migration, and E-Waste. Using the Mash Up method the groups were able to narrow down their focus for the morning.

The Mash Up

While we discussed, we listened for the choices and considerations that they made in designing the newest program. We listened for the ‘How’ to organize it and for ‘Who’ is involved. We tried to identify how to bring the four themes discussed on day one into the project.


This group envisioned an assignment in which the object should be designed for the post user (for example, designed for the people who take apart electronics to be recycled). An interesting discussion emerged from this project regarding the timeline and depth of the ideal DxC project, in this case quantity vs. quality. Thesis students can truly take the time to dive into the nitty gritty of a good project but there are usually only a few interested in the topic. An entire class offers many eyes and perspectives but the risk is a lower quality and less dedication as they often have several courses at the same time.

Could the learnings of the classroom project feed into a more specific thesis topic in this case?

See Migration

All about migrants

This group discussed at length the enormous variation in the ways and reasons people migrate. They quickly discovered that this would make it nearly impossible to make parallel projects in two different contexts. Rather than on working on the same case in two different contexts, this project would focus on different touch points along the migrants journey that they do all share. Each migrant prepares for their journey in one way or another and has a first day in their new country. The group discussed creating interdependence and sharing moments between different contexts in order for the project to move forward.

Could we look at the journey to identify points where the teams in different contexts are reliant on each other in order to continue further on the project?

Mirror Mirror on the Wall…

This team dove right into all the details of which parties need to be involved in a DxC project for water threats; local government, universities, researchers on psychology and user behavior, water suppliers (or other relevant professionals), and the list goes on. They realised that in order for a project like this to be successful, they need to make the project practical and focused. This group discussed a mirrored project to discover how people react to water limits in their city. They stressed the importance of localizing the project (everyone has a different concept of what ‘too much’ is). Starting up such a project means searching for what we have in common and to discover what motivates people to action.

Could we ask the exact same question in several places at once?

The start of our community

All good things must come to an end. Or in our case, a short break. At this point we could have gone on forever. It was time to finalize this project and enjoy the wrap up drinks,

We’re looking forward to the collaborations that are born out of this event.

Do you want to learn more about how to work on international challenges through cross cultural teamwork? Join our summer school!

Interested in learning more or working with us or our partners on local projects for global solutions? Please reach out!

PS. Thank you!

Alex Lobos, Rochester Institute of Technology
Aline Alonso, Butterfly Works
Anneke van Woerden, Digital Society School
Bharrath Palavalli, Fields of View
Claudia MontAlvao, PUC Rio
Eunjoo Maing, Korea Institute of Design Promotion
Jorik Elferink, Digital Society School
Manuela Quaresma, PUC Rio
Mieke van der Bijl, TU Delft
Nadim Choucair, Cabinet
Marco van Hout, Digital Society School
Nick Verouden, Digital Society School
Sanjay Gupta, World University of Design
Simona Maccagnani, Instituto Europeo de Design
Sruthi Krishnan, Fields of View
Zlatina Tsvetkova, Digital Society School

The Digital Society School is a growing community of learners, creators and designers who create meaningful impact on society and its global digital transformation. Check us out at


The Digital Society School is a growing community of learners, creators and designers who create meaningful impact on society and its global digital transformation.

Evelien Christiaanse

Written by



The Digital Society School is a growing community of learners, creators and designers who create meaningful impact on society and its global digital transformation.