The Challenge of Intercultural Innovation in a Globalised World

‘Innovation’ has become a buzz word for government, corporate and civil society sectors striving to respond to more complex social realities and seeking to improve overall productivity and performance within their respective domains. At its most basic level and from a very general perspective, ‘innovation’ can be seen as the capacity to harness invention and creativity among people within any particular organization or context. The notion of ‘intercultural innovation’, however, is much more challenging as it implies a pursuit of the same ‘creativity and invention’ agenda but within a culturally and linguistically socio-political context. This means and implies an ability to understand the manifestations of cultural diversity, the requirements of meaningful intercultural relations and the practice of inclusive intercultural engagement.

 At a more abstract level, the notion of ‘intercultural innovation’ requires a whole system approach whereby government social structures (e.g. education programs), political ideologies (e.g. how national identities are constructed and projected), and corporate management policies and practices(e.g. how key institutions go about recruiting and relating to people of different backgrounds) are all attuned to therequirements of engaging with and operating successfully within intercultural settings.

At a more practical level, ‘intercultural innovation’ especially in the workplace, should not simply refer to acknowledging different manifestations of diversity per se, but more importantly, it should encompass putting in place a set of strategies and action plans to ensure that the organisational structure itself as well as its core services reflect in a deep manner and meaningful manner this diversity and as such become more inclusive of all individuals irrespective of their personal backgrounds.

More importantly, ‘intercultural innovation’ should not only be about successful management of cultural diversity, as it should also be approached as a matter of equality, fairness and justice. People from racially, culturally and ethnically diverse backgrounds should in principle have equal rights and opportunities to participate in whatever field of employment they might choose. Equality and equal opportunity are matters of human rights enshrined in international laws.

In terms of who is best placed to achieve and benefit from ‘intercultural innovation’, the answer here is not so simple. But a combination of characteristics are needed to ensure organizations in increasingly globalised contexts are able to meet the ‘intercultural innovation’ challenge. Such characteristicsinclude a set of formal legal processes; a decentralised leadership unit; ongoing diversity training; critical monitoring of demographic data for workforce and in relation to wider population; certain proactive recruitment measures aimed at supporting members of visible minorities; ongoing professional development for all employees including those from previously underrepresented backgrounds; and accountability for diversity management results. In short, ‘intercultural innovation’ should be about building cross-cultural bridges so that we as a society are able to optimize the input of every single individual,  irrespective of their personal attributes, into our shared lives, our inter-dependent communities and our inter-connected world.

This article was first published in January 2013 by the United Nations Alliance of Civilisations (UNAOC) for a series of reflective perspectives on intercultural innovation: