Marco Polo Project

Marco Polo Project is currently re-imagining its activities after the COVID19 pandemic. As the world looks for a new normal, nurturing social health is more important than ever. We will continue to develop original models for diverse communities to learn better from and with each other. Finding the exact format is a work in progress.

This page reflects our story so far. If you would like to learn more about us, you can check out this series of blog posts reflecting on our ten-year anniversary.

Our Story

Marco Polo Project was first inspired by the personal experience of its founder Julien Leyre. Born in Strasbourg, he grew up inspired by the European dream. When first visiting Melbourne in 2006, he was awed by its cosmopolitan potential. With the world headed towards a new geopolitical balance, Asia on the rise, and global challenges calling for new ways of negotiating shared understanding across cultures, Melbourne appeared as a perfect location to re-invent intercultural engagement. This newly minted UNESCO city of literature could serve as a pivotal point, bringing together the traditions of Europe and Asia, and reconciling advanced modernity with a 60,000+ year old aboriginal past.

When he migrated to Melbourne in 2008, Julien’s first impressions were confirmed. So, in 2011, he gathered a team committed to the mission of building new bridges across cultures, and founded Marco Polo Project. The organisation started as an online platform, bringing the voices of Chinese intellectuals and cultural analysts to the rest of the world, through collaborative translation. Texts from the then-flourishing Chinese blogosphere were curated on the Marco Polo magazine, and translated by a global community of language learners. Those texts informed columns and contributions to other online publications. This infographic reflects our first two years of operations.

Starting 2013, we brought some of this work offline. We did this both to increase our range of partnerships and engage more in depth with people. A key milestone was the organisation of a global Festival of Digital Literature in 2014. Working with universities and cultural organisations around the world, we curated the first festival exploring how the Internet reshaped reading, writing and translating in China and in the West. You can read more about the festival here – or listen to our participants talk about writing online and shaping culture.  

One key outcome of the Festival was cementing a new format for collaborative translation. Translation Club brings together native speakers of English and Chinese/Japanese, working in small groups to translate a text. The goal is not to make a perfect translation, but explore what can be learned through the process about language and culture. The event offers a natively bilingual space of focused attention. This enables a new social dynamic to develop, revealing the sophistication of native Chinese speakers to their English-speaking counterparts, with positive emotional impact on both sides. In short, the event goes beyond language to train cross-cultural empathy. Translation Club now runs as a weekly MeetUp in Chinese and Japanese, with additional pop-ups around the world. Click here to learn more about our underlying peer-learning model.

From the start, training intercultural empathy has been our core focus. In 2015, we started addressing this challenge more directly. We were invited to collaborate with the China Australia Millennial Project – the world’s largest bilateral leadership and innovation incubator – and contributed to Melbourne Knowledge Week. We then started developing and running hackathons inspired by design thinking and human-centred design principles. This work crystallised in two flagship programs: Design for Diversity and Intelligence by Design. Those programs help young people living, learning or working in culturally diverse communities deal more confidently with uncertain futures. We train them to communicate better in teams and at networking events, find new solutions to shared problems, and better manage their time.

In parallel, Marco Polo Project served as an intercultural facilitation R&D centre. In 2015, we set up an informal structure called ‘Co-lab’. Through this structure, we prototyped and piloted a broad range of activities and programs, particularly with schools and young people. Some of this work is captured in the Marco Polo facilitation handbook. We also developed a card game called Culture Flip, exploring an original model to language exchange activities. Click here to read more about our partners.

Operationally, Marco Polo Project was initially led by founder Dr. Julien Leyre, with support from a large, flexible and evolving cloud team. In 2017, Julien was joined by educator and Indonesia expert Sam Shlansky, who was appointed CEO in 2019. Sam developed new strands of activity, including original program design and delivery for universities and TAFEs, as well as curating workshops and talks for diverse young people. During the COVID pandemic, Sam brought Marco Polo Project activities online, allowing our organisation to survive.  

Lockdowns and travel restrictions put high pressure on our activities and revenue. In early 2021, we decided to put Marco Polo Project on pause, with the exception of Translation Club. Our long-standing partner, Transcollaborate, took over and scaled joint programs that use collaborative translation to increase social health among Romanian, Nepalese, Spanish and Chinese speaking communities. Sam and Julien redirected their efforts to different projects, while the cloud-team largely disbanded. However, the experience of working with Marco Polo Project was intentionally designed as a transformative experience. All our alumni therefore carry forward some of the mindsets and practices incubated with us.

Marco Polo Project is largely on pause, but our people remain committed to the mission. As people face a constant shift in their identities and solidarity networks, under the joint impact of migration and industrial disruptions, we need collective structures that can act as shock absorbers. In companies, neighbourhoods, learning institutions, or informal ‘communities’ of all sorts, we need the right mindsets and methods to continuously renegotiate what is to be considered common world, common knowledge, common language, common sense, and common morality. Inventing those is the work of Marco Polo Project.

We have a range of tested approaches, and insights from over ten years in the field. We are looking for ways to build on this knowledge, and would love to share it with you. If you’re interested in learning more, please contact Julien.