Mark Vanderbeeken: The English Language Innovation Bias
Wired August 13, 2014
*This piece was originally published, in Italian, in the exceedingly innovative (and very Italian) website “Che Futuro.”
*As somebody who spends a lot of time in non-Anglophone countries, this is a situation that I see commonly. I rarely see it as well-described as this.
*I’d be flattered if people thought I wrote this thoughtful essay, but Mark Vanderbeeken wrote it. Mark’s a Belgian guy who lives in Italy, and you can tell that because his English is so superb. I emphasize that Mark wrote it, because eager startup guys with limited English-language skills are sure to link to this blog entry, firmly agreeing with everything Mark says (because it’s true). Since this is my blog, they’ll skip over all the biased English, including this very paragraph, and they will hastily conclude that I wrote it myself. That’s part of the “bias,” you see.
*But, alas, despite my English, I’m not the innovator here, he’s the innovator.
There are many reasons for the international business community to be grateful to the English language. English is the dominant business language precisely because it gives the global community access to itself – it is widely spoken, lacks the grammatical complications of the romance languages, and has a simple alphabet that lends itself easily to use on the internet.
However, as an entrepreneur in Italy, one of the many European countries where the native language is not English, I cannot but notice how strongly the discourse on innovation has become determined by the English language, and the media reporting in that language.
This dominance of English language carries with it an accompanying perspective of Europe, both in terms of stereotypes and in terms of relevance (or lack of) to the Anglo-Saxon world. This often puts European businesses and countries at a serious disadvantage that they are too little aware of, and are hardly addressing. But it also disadvantages businesses in the English-speaking world, which are perhaps not aware that they are receiving an abbreviated picture of innovation in Europe. This article is about the non-English disadvantage and what we can do about it.
Deconstructing the innovation bias
Key decisions about Italy’s economy are now made in New York, London and Frankfurt. Political decisions come from Brussels. And nearly all international business dealings are made in English.
In an age of 24-hour online news, increasingly global media, and social sharing engines such as Twitter and Facebook, the global news about innovation is written and read in English. It is only natural that international decision makers are influenced by English-language media reports on how European business climates and countries are being perceived.
Unfortunately, Italy ends up being portrayed as a country without strong innovation capabilities.
There are several factors at work here. The first is that most global economic, political and business decision makers do not read Italian (or French or Spanish). Reading about Italy as it is covered in the English language inevitably offers the perspective of an outsider looking in.
Even the best translations can miss nuances, cultural references, and contexts – especially when a complicated story is reduced to a few lines in the “World” section. This often means that a story is being seen as “foreign business”, and not simply part of regular “business”. It becomes a part of human interest reporting.
Secondly, Europe, and Italy in particular, is often described as conservative, with little space for startups and entrepreneurship, with high unemployment, with quarrelling politicians who are far removed from their electorate, and with ageing companies that cannot keep up with the speed of the rest of the world. This biased image is of course only partially true: similar descriptions could be made of much of the USA or of the UK.
Too often, the Italy that the international media portrays is one of scandals and economic depression, alternatively picturesque or run down. This kind of broad-brushstrokes look at an entire country fails the locals who go about living, inventing and doing business much like anywhere else in the world. That is another Italy, however, and one which the English-language world is not really being given access to.
Decision makers who are basing their information solely on what they are receiving in the English language media are unfortunately not learning a lot about the more dynamic and highly innovative realities that have recently arisen. There is a sense that these realities are drowned out by the bigger picture, of euro zone woes, or political upheaval. In reality, they are the smaller pieces of the puzzle that help to shape an accurate view of what is happening on the ground, and are vital information for anyone wanting to do business in Europe.
The triple bind
This brings us to the third factor making up the innovation bias. In addition to a language barrier and a skewed perspective of Europe, there is also a geographical bias, which manifests in the desire to read about things happening close to home. The English language media – in my field they include Techcrunch and Wired, Fast Company and Business Week, The Guardian and The New York Times, ReadWriteWeb and UX Magazine, Shareable and Core77 – tend to write about social, technological, cultural, educational, and design innovation happening in their own cities and regions.
Therefore it is easy to find innovation articles about Savannah, Georgia, but not about Parma, Italy, or Nantes, France.
And since the European newspaper editors take a lot of their innovation copy from English-language media, the bias gets reinforced: even Italian media tend to write about innovation as if it comes primarily from abroad. Local Italian media often only start reporting on new local companies when they are noticed by the English-language media (such as the fine food initiatives Eataly or Grom, which went from scant press attention in Italy to widely reported “home-grown success stories” after they received international acclaim).
Our Italian media have, in other words, become indoctrinated by an Anglo-Saxon bias in the international innovation coverage.
So it’s not only when you don’t read French, Italian, Spanish or German, that you have a hard time figuring out what is going on in France, Italy, Spain or Germany – even if you do read one of these languages, the local media will not necessarily inform you about young, innovative companies setting up exciting projects.
This is perhaps the most difficult challenge.
Here in Italy, I just learned that there are more people in their twenties now who are starting companies than those that have steady (i.e. not fixed-term) employment. Aside from the employment problem for the young (which is disastrous, and urgently needs to be addressed), we also have another problem: we don’t know what these young companies are doing.
Italian media tend to write about bigger, older industries that are politically well connected but are not doing very well, but seldom about younger companies that are growing and hiring young staff.
In seven years of operations, for instance, our 30-person company – which has hired a lot of young people – has never had a long write-up in the local press. Even when we received an innovation award from the Italian President in person, we had to work hard to get some small write-ups in the local media pages. A 10 times bigger company here in Torino, which works with FIFA, UEFA and NBC on sports technology services, also doesn’t get much media attention and I discovered them last year, nearly by accident.
The problem only becomes worse when the coverage is in English: it is difficult to be informed about bottom-up initiatives, young start-ups, and social innovation in Italy, France, Germany or Spain, because there is so little media reporting about this in the English language. Italy for example relies on a very limited register: Ansa in English, Corriere della Sera English, the foreign correspondents in Rome, and the many initiatives of individuals who write blog posts, tweets, and short stories in English on what the other Italy looks like. This limited register is then the major source of information for international English media, who are more likely to pick up a story if it’s already written in English.
Even the European Commission, who should be the first ones to be interested in repositioning the innovation capacity of the continent, has not much to offer beyond some PR stories on European-funded research projects. Other private European initiatives such as PressEurop, WorldCrunch and eGov Monitor are laudable but have limited impact.
This lack of media attention, both in our local languages as in English, has huge implications for those of us in Europe who wish to conduct international business. We are at an unfair disadvantage compared to our UK- or US-based competitors, and we have difficulties getting political, cultural and business support in our own territories.
Some entrepreneurs who speak good English have decided to launch their own English-language websites, blogs and other media channels, or write for some of the international outlets directly (as we have done, actually).
And if a European (non-UK) company is really good, often the only way to make that case in the dominant international media is by opening an office in the UK or even better, in North America.
Rethinking the challenge
The English-language conundrum that entrepreneurs outside the UK and the US find themselves in can only be addressed through a concerted effort on five levels.
More European entrepreneurs will have to write about their work in English, either directly or through a good ghostwriter, and share their ideas not only on their own sites and outlets, but also through other (foreign) channels. Well-written and inspiring English is crucial in making our voices heard.
Local non-English media will have to become much more interested and engaged with social, cultural, technology and business innovation in their own communities and cover it, not because they are politically important or simply trendy, but because they hire (rather than fire) staff, set out a concrete future for their countries, change the public perception, and will be inspiring to others.
On a national level, Italy (and other European countries) will need a more structured approach. I suggest an online English-language magazine with a strong editor and a handful of writers whose task it is to cover the other Italy.
The European Commission has the biggest challenge, since there is currently not one voice speaking about interesting developments in European innovation. We need to create a resource where a Brazilian, American or Korean investor can read up on things, while avoiding the Anglo-Saxon bias. The Commission’s recent Innovation Union initiative is a first beginning, but for all I can see it is drastically underfunded and understaffed.
Finally, I want to provoke the international media, the Business Weeks, the TechCrunches and so on. I know that most of these outlets are aware of their bias, and have started to address it, in part through more reporting by foreign authors, in part through the opening of other language editions. But it is clearly not enough. What kind of benefits would be created, for European businesses and their UK and US counterparts, if one of these media outlets started an English language Europe-wide venture on innovation?
I am European so I write about Europe, but the problem is exactly the same, if not worse, for some other regions in the world. Think Asia, Africa or South America, who often need to confront an even stronger language and cultural bias.
Perhaps we should think globally to confront this challenge (as Aljazeera has done for world affairs), but it is clear to me that with the increased importance of pervasive online media and the current economic crisis, the accepted status quo is not an option. It is up to us all to change this biased perception and develop some new, impactful tools.
Mark Vanderbeeken is Belgian by origin. After many years in the United States, he moved to Torino, Italy, where he and three partners started Experientia, a global 30-person user experience design consultancy. He publishes extensively on the company blog (Putting People First), on Core77, a global design site, and in some professional magazines.
(((This just in:)))