Government International Affairs Tech & Society

Why Silicon Valley Demands Diplomats

After eighteen months in Palo Alto as Denmark’s tech ambassador, I have become quite familiar with two questions:

What’s your value proposition? And what does success look like? 

Fair enough. After all: Silicon Valley runs on the fuel of venture capital and the ability of a few very smart individuals to pick the billion dollars idea – literally. Yet as a career diplomat, who has spent most of his career in conflict or war zones, I am still working on my ninety-second elevator pitch. What do new technologies mean for the complexities of foreign relations? How will AI shift global balances of power? And how do we craft effective and reasonable policies at a time when governance is under increasing pressure from the digital revolution? These are hard questions with no simple answers. But let’s start with the basics.

The value proposition of TechPlomacy

In 2017 the Government of Denmark decided to elevate technology and digitalization to a crosscutting foreign and security policy priority. The initiative was named technological diplomacy, or simply #TechPlomacy.

It builds on the basic insight that in today’s increasingly digital world, new technologies such as AI, Big Data, the Internet of Things and Blockchain transcend borders with unprecedented speed, transform almost all sectors of society, and impact not only domestic markets but international relations and the global balance of power.

In this age, a select number of highly successful multinational tech companies have become extremely influential – to the extent that their economic and political influence match or surpass that of our traditional partners, the nation-states. Conversely, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for policy-makers at all levels to keep up with the pace and impact of new technologies.

For a government to rely solely on traditional diplomatic relations to bring home knowledge, promote its interest and safeguard values abroad no longer seems sufficient. Over the course of the last two years, it’s become increasingly clear that technology brings not only opportunity but also real risks, new threat scenarios and possibilities for misuse. More than ever we need a renewed push for dialogue and collaboration between industry and government.

So Denmark became the first country to take the step to establish a dedicated diplomatic mission to technology and create my position as Tech Ambassador. We have a global mandate and a team that spans Silicon Valley, Europe, and China. The basic mission: To provide a platform for a regular (and frank) dialogue with today’s most influential private entities. Instead of going, as a traditional ambassador might, to the State Department or the White House, we go to the headquarters of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Alibaba, Tencent and so on. We do this not of course to replace our existing diplomatic relations, but rather to augment them and expand our influence.

It’s important to underline that the TechPlomacy initiative is fundamentally an optimistic one.

Our mission is thus not to over-regulate industry nor to restrict innovation. On the contrary, as a small, open, advanced economy and one of the most digitalized countries in the world, we have as much at stake as any nation. Yet we also cannot be blind to the dark sides of technology, some of which have become increasingly evident over the last year. So, we desperately need a more balanced and human-centered approach that maximizes opportunities for innovation while safeguarding fundamental democratic values and societal institutions. This is only achievable if industry and governments work much closer together. Neither can do it alone.

This is the core value proposition of the TechPlomacy initiative: Companies and governments have a shared responsibility to make sure we get technology right – and Denmark is committed to doing its part. By creating this platform for dialogue, we give tech companies an opportunity to share perspectives and concerns directly with Danish and European decision-makers, while also giving the Danish government an ability to exercise influence over some of the biggest trends impacting Danish society and citizens.

What’s at stake?

The sense of urgency becomes even greater if we zoom out to the global level. US and China are in a fierce battle for future technological supremacy, not least in the area of AI. As someone who divides much of his time between Silicon Valley, Beijing and Brussels, the contours of a new world order are striking. In 2017, nearly half of the world’s venture capital investments in AI went to China, around 40 percent to the US and the remaining 12 percent to the rest of the world – including Europe! While American companies and researchers have led in the discovery age of AI, Chinese companies, with that country’s almost unhindered access to data from a 1.4-billion-person population will likely lead in its real-life application.

Europe, on the other hand, has proven willing to enact regulation that aims to balance technological and societal considerations, and is rapidly emerging as the de facto epicenter of global tech policy. In its current proposal for a new European Approach to AI, the European Commission not only suggests boosting investments in research and application. But it also calls for putting in place the necessary legal and ethical frameworks in place to ensure AI really benefits society and individuals.

A critical issue in the coming years will be navigating the increasing fragmentation of norms and values that exist within these domains, especially when taking geopolitics into the equation. Ensuring that technology is used for the benefit of mankind, rather than for increased control and surveillance, will be a key feature of this debate. And maintaining a strong transatlantic bond – when it comes to technology policy will also be absolutely essential. US and Europe – and their respective companies – are grounded in a shared set of basic liberal values and principles.

So, what does success look like? And have we achieved it?

I am not going to sugarcoat it: After a year and a half on the ground in Silicon Valley and Beijing, we have mixed experiences engaging the global tech industry. Some companies have been enormously interested and open for dialogue from day one. Others have been much more reluctant to engage in uncomfortable political discussions. While the Cambridge Analytica scandal and other incidents have moved the discourse along, we still need to see a higher level of responsibility from multinational tech companies, one that corresponds to their size and influence in society.

In other words: We have not reached the finish line quite yet. But two takeaways from our first 18 months in the job indicate we are on the right track.

First, one of our internal KPI’s has been that others follow suit. Over the past year, we have seen Germany, France, and Slovakia appoint digital ambassadors. Each has differing mandates, but all are based on the same realization that we need to engage industry in a more structured way. Similarly, organizations such as the United Nations and European Union have elevated the importance of technology and digitalization in their efforts to promote peace and security, global development and human rights.

One specific example is UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ decision to launch a High Level Panel on Digital Cooperation. Realizing that the UN is falling behind in this area, Guterres is asking for new ideas on how global multilateralism can address some of the pressing issues of the digital age, for example reducing digital inequality or safeguarding human rights online.

Second, a number of tech companies are increasingly bringing forward ideas of their own on how to bridge the gap between technology and regulation.  Microsoft is behind a Tech Accord and Siemens a Charter of Trust, both of which are in essence pioneering digital peace initiatives. Apple’s CEO is calling for federal privacy regulation in the US, as are YouTube, and the list, fortunately, goes on.

Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, has pretty much nailed the issues facing us head-on: ’It cannot be left to the CEOs of tech companies arbitrating the policies for the world. It’s a strange position to put four or five of us in. Nobody elected us.’

I completely agree: Governments need to step up the plate and invest more resources in promoting a human-centered approach to technology grounded in democratic principles and values. Tech companies similarly need to step up to assume a higher degree of responsibility for the kind of impact they are having ono established institutions and societies around the world. And international organizations such as the UN, as well as civil society and research institutions, need to play their important part in bringing new solutions to the table.

That’s our (not quite 90 seconds) elevator pitch. Will it unlock a Series A round for TechPlomacy? Probably not. But from our side, we’ll continue to invest heavily in the dialogue with industry and other governments – in Silicon Valley and globally – to make sure we get technology right.


Tags: ,

3 Responses to “Why Silicon Valley Demands Diplomats”

  1. Tom Foremski says:

    For countries to send their ambassadors as if to a foreign court, requires that court to recognize it has powers. Silicon Valley doesn’t have a sense of itself — let alone a common foreign policy. And the company cultures are very insular and inward looking. Denmark’s move certainly is important in signifying the importance of Silicon Valley technologies and its companies to its future health and prosperity but there is no existing mechanism for that type of input or discussion – and there is none planned. There is no entity or institution called Silicon Valley.

  2. Rosalie Day says:

    I like the term “techplomacy.” I trained for just exactly that, international conflict studies applied to technology policy issues. All the ubiquitous and controversial issues mentioned implicitly (privacy, big data and AI ethics, digital divides,..) are technology policy issues for companies and for governments. All of them have the seeds of conflict – if not fully apparent today, the latency won’t last. Transparency and grappling with the asymmetries of resources should occur now with forethought – preventing further escalation and entrenched patterns.

  3. xxxxxxx Noureddine Sefiani says:

    This article explains clearly why every single state should appoint a Tech Ambassador and practice extensively Techplomacy. Basically diplomats ought to be present and deal with whatever item that has international implications or has consequences for the economy and/or security of one’s own country or on a world wide basis. Well done

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *