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Our cultural values are all the time influencing, and being influenced by, technological development, and the way we interact with technology will also strongly affect the way we interact across cultural borders.
Cultural values can be explained as our attitudes toward other attitudes, and in particular; general and commonly accepted attitudes within a population. To try and describe these attitudes in countries like Norway, Italy and Japan, is difficult, and the definitions become dependant on the comparison itself (comparing Norway to the USA, for instance, brings out a different perspective). I also want to avoid stereotypes, but probably some aspects will reflect them, even though I rely on research and my own experience from having lived in these cultures over a longer period of time.
Without going too much in depth on cultural psychology or anthropology, I would just like to outline some clear differences between the three cultures I`ve chosen as inspiration; Norway, Italy and Japan.
To condense in a few words what defines a style or a cultural identity in design and product development is difficult and dangerous, with the risk of stereotyping. It is obvious that today we have the possibility to find inspiration from everywhere, and this means that the concept of universal design perhaps does not only apply to objects designed for the optimal ease of use, it also applies to a universal sense of aesthetics somehow. Norwegian design has traditionally foucsed on being practical and solid, with a very clean cut look to objects; I interpret it as leaving a lot to the remaining space, the context of the object, like you would se a boat on the sea, or a tree on a snowclad field. Simple beauty. Minimalism became a mantra in the 90`s, strangely enough with the explosion of the internet, and when a new way of doing international trade got foothold. It gave the possibility to many smaller manufacturers and companies to do business across borders. Perhaps this context let people wanting to find that universally common aesthetic, in order to expand commercial reach. Japan on the other side of the world, has traditionally had geometric perfection and minimalistic shapes as the epitome of aesthetics, but because of it the japanese have been a lot more experimental and playful in designing and developing products in order to let it evolve. Great examples are the works of Naoto Fukasawa, who has designed many of Japan`s landmark objects of today, for japanese IDEO, Muji and manufacturers worldwide, including many italian. This is also curious, since Italy has a very strong tradition in designing classically beautiful objects, a serious type of beauty, that comes from a lot more maximalist and exponential aesthetic value. Now, Italy`s great designers aren`t young designers anymore; Sotsass, Castiglioni and Mendini for instance still are the names that tie italian design to great quality and innovation.
The tendency today, as I see it, is that the traditional national identity in design is no longer that; we do have a different approach because of our ways of communication and because so many have been open to different points of view, including them in their design. It`s much more important to make good stuff than it is to follow cultural dogma. (Yet, this is what we are told is necessary to understand the user and the user context. Ref. ZIBA`s Lenovo project in China.) Still, the values that define our cultural identity are very visible. Italian designers, having adopted much from both scandinavian and japanese design, still make classical beauty standards, and norwegian designers still think in a very practical way. Japan pays western designers a great deal more than their native ones, in order to get more western values incorporated in their products.
So what does this mean? We seem to have one eye on the world and another on culture. The future, it seems, is the global culture, where our cultural roots serve as inspiration and are visible only through bits and screens; the one in Japan the same as here. In Japan, the playful approach to design is visible in other cultural phenomena; movies, TV shows, karaoke, videogames and personalization of cell phones, fashion and street subcultures. In Italy, the street is culture, but the idea of classical idea of quality is the value that perforates everything. Norwegian behavior reflects much of the old, traditional values; the strong individual, high moral standards, and a sense of quality through nature. Quality is the key factor here. What defines quality in different cultural contexts? In Norway, it seems like quality is an untouchable value; there is only one way that is the best way, and there can be no discussion about it. Quality is quality. It is hard to pinpoint which value drives innovation in different cultures when what is being made is made for mass consumption on a global scale. I mentioned Lenovo`s project in China, where a year was spent doing cultural research to get a clear picture of the user context for a product innovation strategy specifically designed for chinese youth. The result of a research phase like that can spawn many project ideas and has value for Lenovo far beyond China.
It is well known that what is designed specifically for one user can be desirable for many others, especially when we talk about technology. Here, the cultural issue can be left out; we have almost a common technological culture throughout the world. What we are accustomed to in the developed world, is just as applicable elsewhere. Many products specifically designed for japanese consumers, like HD viedo cameras, MP3 players and cars work fantasticly in the west. A product designed specifically for a japanese context, like the keitai (cell phone w/internet connection/RFID), would be very interesting to western users had we had the same type of services connected to it. Here in the west the services connected to mobile phones aren`t that well developed yet; costs are different and subscriptions favor other solutions. Also, the software is developed for different use. Vodafone Europe, Nokia and Sony Ericsson make software for their phones based on models intended for various users, according to the research done on the european users. But do we know that, if mobile phone software were developed here for Nokia or Sony Ericsson that allowed you to send emails from your phone as easily as an sms, mobile internet wouldn`t be used as much as there? Would we not use our phones to pay our groceries at the supermarket instead of a creditcard? And would we not use a phone to pay our bills? And what happens when video communication becomes the norm? Will we make solutions based on global cultural standards or our traditional ones?