Ambassador 2020

Last week I was scheduled to join Foreign Minister Bildt for a Q&A session on innovative diplomacy with Sweden’s ambassadors. I was looking forward to learning from them, as the first Foreign Ministry to put all their envoys on Twitter. But the ongoing dramas here in Beirut prevented me from travelling, and so I joined – appropriately for the subject – by videolink. A good UK/Swedish combination: the Brits invented electricity and the worldwide web, and the Swedes invented Skype.

As part of my talk, I tried to imagine what it will be like to be an ambassador in 2020. There is always a risk with these exercises of sounding a bit ‘Tomorrow’s World’. But here’s what I suggested.

“The ambassador is woken refreshed from a night in which his smartphone has measured his sleeping pattern to ensure maximum rest and assessed what nutrients he needs in his morning smoothie. As he shaves and has breakfast, his tablet projects onto the mirror, wall or his glasses a distilled stream of analysis and news. In the car on his way to work he has a videoconference with his capital and neighbouring posts.

He enters his embassy through a series of non intrusive but effective security checks. The ground floor is an engagement zone, a pavilion full of space and light, designed by Britain’s best creative minds, not by civil servants. All services are online, with customers exploring virtual reality tours of the UK while they wait.  Students are accessing language materials, online and in the library, and a class is meeting for its monthly discussion group. Others are learning about cultural events or watching English films in the cinema space. People are making connections to British friends and strangers through hundreds of iPads with bespoke apps. Some are making business deals through a portal that uses online dating technology to link them to UK networks. Students are taking virtual tours of UK campuses, and sitting in on sample lectures. A cafe serves organic British products, and some non organic fish and chips. Interior walls feature a constantly changing virtual gallery of contemporary UK artwork. Kids are having photos taken with interactive models of British heroes, with Prince George the most popular.

This is not a space that people come to as a chore. But where they choose to come. It is client-focused. It projects the UK as fresh, innovative and creative. It responds to the security threat by embracing openness. It channels the same spirit that lifted the London 2012 Olympics.

He chairs a meeting with his key staff, most joining by videoconference. All have tablets on which they can add to the meeting record, displayed on a virtual whiteboard. He spends an hour online, engaging members of the public. He joins a digital demarche on human rights, quickly backed by 1m people, and picks a lively online argument with his Iranian colleague, with thousands joining the debate. He hosts a virtual coffee with civil society activists from all over the globe, livestreamed. He uploads to the embassy website a digital clip of his response to the new energy policy, which is simultaneously translated. He checks the number of Brits in country, all registered through the embassy’s visitor app, and where they are.

At a public event, livestreamed and with a Twitter wall for interaction with what was once called his audience, he is pleased to see that most in the room are playing with their phones, a good sign that they are engaging and interacting. Struck by a comment from a participant in Texas, he downloads a paper written ten years earlier by a colleague in Finland and shares key elements with other participants as he speaks. He hosts a skype call between a local business group, a UK investor and one of his predecessors – in a networked world he needs to leverage every influence possible.

He looks forward to a more traditional encounter, lunch with the Foreign Minister. As is now standard etiquette, there will be no smartphones on the table. Not just because half the world could listen in. But because it is just rude.

The 2020 envoy is a lobbyist, leader, communicator, pioneer, entrepreneur, activist, campaigner, advocate. She has learnt from the best in those fields, and has worked in several of them. She understands that diplomacy is not some kind of secret art form, concealed by jargon and titles, but an amalgamation of disciplines. She does crossover. She competes for space, attention, relevance and influence. She builds coalitions and alliances across business, civil society, borders. She doesn’t see the embassy as a building, but as an idea. She bases herself less on structures/institutions than on networks. She unleashes the younger members of her team to reach the parts she cannot. She spends little time in international conferences. She finds out where people are, and goes there. Her embassy is the hub for the national brand and UK companies she promotes unashamedly. Her appraisals include an assessment of her digital clout. She gives her Foreign Minister added value through influence and analysis, not reportage. She prioritises outcomes over relationships. She takes time to build a personal and national brand. She takes risks. She does not hide behind diplomatic platitudes. She does not believe that diplomacy is a job for life.”

I picked 2020 because it had a nice ring to it, and because it is a bit of a theme to these blogposts. But there is no reason why all of this couldn’t be done in 2013. Indeed, by 2020 this post will look even more ridiculous.

There is a bit of a backlash against digital diplomacy at the moment, because it hasn’t changed the world. No-one said it would. There is still a need for traditional diplomacy, more than ever. But we also have to embrace innovation faster if we are to remain relevant as diplomats. I always ask people who will influence the 21C to a greater degree – Google or Britain? Most say Google. We need to show that they’re wrong.

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