Here are ten thoughts on what to watch as digital technology further disrupts and transforms diplomacy …
1. Creative Content
The ability to create digital content that makes people ‘lean forward’ will be increasingly vital. Diplomats have always produced interesting content – analysis and reportage – but for an internal audience. Social media now gives them the means and incentive to reach well beyond that. The rules on how to do this will evolve – with authenticity the key, individuals will find their own tempo and their own voice. Foreign Ministries will recruit and empower digital natives to whom it comes naturally; and train and equip the rest of us. Allowing anarchy will bring out the smelling salts in corners of most civil services, designed over centuries to do precisely the opposite. But co-creation leads to better ideas.
2. How We Manage Knowledge
Being the recipient of masses of data is already a challenge. The person or machine who curates it will be at the sweet spot of influence. New tools will allow Foreign Ministries to create the equivalent of internal Google databases, that store and filter key information. Look at the way Ushahidi, Sparkwise or Gapminder are using data. We’ll need to develop better knowledge sharing networks between foreign ministries and analysts, economists and game theorists on specific global challenges. We’ll need to win the case that we can be trusted with people’s data. Our opponents won’t be constrained by conventions and silos. If we want to compete, nor should we.
3. What We Hand Over to the Robots
Can robots replace diplomats? Cynics say they already have. There will still be need for emotional intelligence and human interaction. But everything we do will need to pass the test on whether it can be done by new tools. Can a computer generate a fairer deal, say on climate change or energy, than diplomats? As in other industries, diplomats will focus on retaining a market lead on what can’t be done by machines. One particular niche will be analysis, seeing future trends and responding to them. As the expression goes, to every complex international issue there is always one answer which is simple, lucid and logical – but which is invariably wrong.
4. How We Predict the Future
Big data will give diplomats the ability to see and analyse trends far more effectively. We have always had to rely on small networks of contacts (thinkers, journalists etc) to identify ‘public opinion’. We can now get an unfiltered view. So when we talk in the future of ‘rising sectarianism’ or other trends, we will do so with greater confidence and authority. We can’t predict the future, of course. Human agency, fluke and cock up will all continue to play their part. But history is not just about great men and bungling idiots – there are more powerful trends at work. The ability to mine data in greater detail will give us a better understanding of what comes next.
5. How We Network
Engagement is already changing. We will need to use people’s desire for connectivity rather than push against it – I now encourage people to fiddle with their phones when I am giving a speech rather than put them away. But this process needs to accelerate: in three years we have gone from three UK ambassadors on Twitter to over 100, but that still means almost 100 are absent. Diplomats will increase dramatically their time online. There are growing threats from engagement: the smartphone with which I do core parts of my job is also the means by which terrorists track my movements. But the biggest risk is not to engage. Other businesses aren’t debating this, they are just doing it.
6. How We Influence
Diplomatic networking is ripe for innovation. Not just how we meet people, but how we connect those we need to connect. We will use new technology to create public squares where we can engage and communicate. Political movements are doing this already, using tools like Loomio to change the nature of popular participation in policy making. In building our national brands, we will recognise that people are much more likely to be influenced positively by direct, people to people connections than by anything that smells of government. So we need to create those opportunities, for example by connecting classrooms. And then stand back.
7. How Leaders Interact
Traditionally, diplomats minimised and managed direct contact between leaders. We encased their exchanges in protocol, prepared lines and statements. I’ve been in meetings where diplomats don’t take notes – they know what both leaders will say. New ways of communicating break down those restrictions. Leaders now text, email or tweet each other direct. During negotiations, the text messages between them (and between their advisers) will be more important than the formal conversation at the table. They won’t meet as often, yet will get to know each other better. Much of this will be out of the direct control of diplomats, but they will play a critical role in advising when and how to engage.
8. How We Deliver a Service
Big data means we can and must improve our service delivery. We will have to design public services in a way that (the clue is in the title) serves the public. This means cutting out the layers, and directly connecting consumers with the data they need. Our best minds need to be looking at how companies like Amazon provide an increasingly tailored experience to customers, and learning the lessons for our trade, consular and visa services.
9. Where We Put Resource
Big data will allow Ministries to plan better. Rather than relying on imprecise trade stats or vague notions of the warmth of the bilateral relationship, they will chart where real opportunities are for new business, and where the greatest threats lie. This has implications for recruitment, public diplomacy, contact strategies, financial planning. We will rely less on ‘bricks and mortar’ embassies – a hub for our country will be an idea rather than a building. Secondments will increasingly be to and from technology companies rather than to business or NGOs.
10. How We Create Citizen Diplomats
Given the dramatic shifts in power ahead, we will be forced to think more effectively not just about training diplomats, but how we create citizen diplomats. How can we influence how pupils are taught in schools in order that they are more likely to understand the benefits of coexistence and the costs of failure? When teaching diplomacy, we should be thinking less about how to draft a treaty than how we have managed to find ways, throughout history, to live together.
Elsewhere on this blog, further thoughts on these themes …
– the embassy of the future (https://nakeddiplomat.wordpress.com/2013/09/04/ambassador-2020/)
– the future of networking (https://nakeddiplomat.wordpress.com/2014/02/07/farewell-ferrero-rocher/)
– citizen diplomacy (https://nakeddiplomat.wordpress.com/2013/09/18/citizen-diplomacy/)