September 28, 2012


John Worne, Director of Corporate HQ for the British Council, blogs about a recent panel debate he took part in about modern diplomacy in a digital age and how we are all potential citizen diplomats.

Yesterday I joined a fascinating panel debate, generously hosted by the Swedish Ambassador on #digitaldiplomacy. We talked about twitter, Fukushima, digital regime change, wikileaks and the demographic collision of the digital and real world in the digital lives of young people. I shared some thoughts though beyond the narrow confines of pure diplomacy – summed up in this tweet from the organiser’s Editorial Intelligence:

Here’s what I said:

For me three long term drivers of relationships between the peoples of the world are: access to opportunity, access to information and access to technology. And of course they are completely intertwined

Humans are good at reacting to shocks and events, but less good at spotting trends or predicting futures. So I guess our challenge here is to think about what is changing – and what stays the same – in human relations in the middle distance. At the British Council we have a lively group of external public policy, tech and networking thinkers, which we call our ‘Provocateurs’ to challenge us and give us new ideas for our medium term strategy.

And when I asked them about this they said:

- Watch out for Tech hubris – jet packs and personal hovercraft are less likely than an ongoing need for ‘connection’ and ‘authenticity’ aided by but not replaced by connected devices.

- Don’t underestimate the lasting impact of symbols, institutions and ‘national moments’. The Olympics, The Royals, our global cultural institutions: the BBC, Universities, Museums and Theatres, The Premier League. Plus London as a world city, and the British Council around the world – all these create a sense of connection and attraction to things ‘UK’, way beyond our borders.

- And finally encouraging the search for ‘meaning’: Many young people are searching for more ‘meaning’ – authentic experiences, ‘Live performance’, craft, quality; but real world demographics and youth unemployment are huge issues here.

So what can Governments do in today’s world? Mitt Romney says it’s jobs, Obama says it’s values – I’m sure they’re both right, but I think a big driver of change readily available to us, is more positive engagement and interest from ordinary people – because in the Digital Age everyone is a potential citizen diplomat.

And the idea of Government, authority and diplomacy operating in a ‘protected’, ‘moderated’ or ‘orderly’ space, I think, is long gone. We had a delegation over from China on Monday to talk about press and social media – and it was clear to all of us that pretty much anyone, anywhere can see or find pretty much anything they want to see – if they have ingenuity and a smartphone, tablet or laptop. Much more of how governments and countries behave in the future will be influenced by the unruly, uncensored, viral and unforgiving world of ‘always on’ social media. And YouTube sparking riots amply demonstrates this. As The Economist asked ‘how long before a tweet starts a war?’

I think a number of Governments – including the UK’s and Sweden’s are adapting very well to these opportunities and challenges. But my theme for this evening is what can ‘we, the people’ do to help?

For the UK I’d say:

1. Up the number of people in this country who travel, study and work overseas and increase the number who have languages,

2. Continue to be a welcoming, open country to those who would visit us, study here, work here and create art and content here,

3. Keep investing in our world class presence around the globe – especially our diplomatic presence, our contribution to international development and sharing English, education and UK culture.

As our provocateurs said: beware predictions of Ambassadors – cultural or traditional – dropping in wearing virtual jet packs: face to face, getting up close and personal, and making a difference on-the-ground will still matter. But people meeting people online and off, helping, sharing and learning together is even more important in the Digital age, because the world is watching – mostly on Facebook and YouTube.

Follow @JohnWorne on Twitter

Read the Twitter summary of Modern Diplomacy in a Digital Age