Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are transforming relationships. Networks are rapidly replacing hierarchies; the power of actors to effect change increasingly depends on the number of connections they have rather than the name of their institution; and what we call “mass communication” can nowadays be sparked by a single individual. But modern forms of interaction made possible by ICTs, particularly social media, can also enable governments to engage directly with citizens in new ways. An important part of this dynamic is ensuring that relevant actors play a key role in conflict resolution and that women, in particular, are able to take part in emerging networks. To take full advantage of the technological revolution, governments need to find new ways to interact with the public.
When Sweden recognized Palestine as a state, the news spread quickly around the world—in part due to the strong opinions surrounding the topic. But an additional important explanation is the new social media system the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs (MFA) has been developing to enhance its digital public diplomacy and the reach of news like this. Since 2013, most Swedish embassies have had a presence on Facebook and Twitter. Recently, the Swedish MFA launched a dedicated news portal, designed to increase discussion around Swedish foreign policy in social media by drawing on the expertise in the organization.
The process of enhancing the Ministry’s use of social media is part of a wider push that acknowledges a shift in citizen mobility and behavior. Hierarchies are giving way to networks of people who self-organize organically to collaborate and make their voices heard. New forms for engagement and innovation are emerging that draw on the opportunities that lie in new information technologies and leverage the power of networks to approach problem solving in new ways.
Although technology in itself is neutral and can be used for both good and evil, this positive potential must be duly recognized.
In conjunction with technological developments, security policy is expanding to encompass issues such as gender equality, climate change, migration, freedom of speech, and public health. The security of individuals and their right to freedom of association and expression are key issues for advocates of smart power.
People’s everyday concerns are intrinsically linked in a fine web of relations and interactions, whose exponential growth is often driven by technological development. One case in point, where Sweden is using ICTs to empower women and girls in new ways, is the work of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) to increase socio-economic equality between women and men by ensuring equal access to technology.
At its best, technology helps create social development and real, people-to-people communication across borders and conflict lines. It can generate a global sense of community in which people can find common ground. At its worst, virtual communications can be misused to spread propaganda and hatred, and fuel conflict. Conflict thrives where there is a lack of understanding and where access to information varies.
At its best, technology helps create social development and real people-to-people communication across borders and conflict lines. It can generate a global sense of community in which people can find common ground.
As a result, technology’s potential, for good and bad is expansive and needs to be explored thoroughly. Although technology in itself is neutral and can be used for both good and evil, its positive potential must be duly recognized. This is why the Swedish MFA takes learning and engagement in this new environment seriously: in order to understand and inform the new landscape, we need to be part of it.
To respond to this new reality, the Swedish MFA is increasingly engaging directly with global audiences, an initiative which has raised new questions regarding the way the organization interacts with the public. There is a growing need for an agile capacity for collaboration with emerging actors, and we need to do things differently if we want to make an impact. In the past, it often sufficed for foreign ministries to deliver official messages of their governments’ policies, but today their role is much more dynamic—as partners and nodes in the exchange processes, both listening and expressing their views with a genuine curiosity about important issues and the countries they engage with.
In keeping with the modern transformation of this role, the Swedish MFA is actively exploring novel forms of engagement that tap into the field of digital innovation. These initiatives include the Stockholm Initiative for Digital Diplomacy (SIDD), a co-creative event bringing together various actors from the field of digital diplomacy for a workshop on the future of diplomacy in a connected world.
The first SIDD event took place in 2014 in Stockholm and gathered digital diplomats from all over the world. The second edition is a multifaceted campaign combining digital content with convenings at multiple locations across the globe. The campaign, Midwives4all focuses on women’s rights to safe motherhood and the importance of midwifery to health and development. According to a recent United Nations (UN) study, well-trained midwives can prevent two-thirds of deaths among women and newborns, illustrating that midwives should be recognized as heroes. This is an urgent matter and I will personally take part in the campaign to highlight the importance of investing in midwifery services globally.
In collaboration with the Dutch Embassy in London, Sweden has also developed the Diplohack concept, an experimental platform for combining the specific skill sets of diplomats, social entrepreneurs, tech developers and designers, journalists, academics, NGOs, and businesses to ‘hack’ traditional diplomatic problems in start-up style groups.
Although these small innovation hubs function as laboratories, they also represent a genuine intention to stay informed about technological developments. This intention reinforces a foreign policy based on Sweden’s priorities for a safer world: to build our security in solidarity with others, our top priorities are: a feminist foreign policy empowering women, an active UN policy, disarmament, and sustainable development. Our experience is that constant change is the new norm. Those who are innovative and take initiative, however modest, will be able to promote positive development. We therefore need to be explorers and adapt to new circumstances as we aim for our policy objectives.
Importantly, technology is now making information flow from places that previously were blank spots on the mental map of policymakers. We can no longer say “we did not know,” when images and videos of conflict and human rights violations recorded on smartphones and distributed over the Internet, are reaching us from the most remote places in the world.
Big data has opened new pathways to development and conflict resolution. The information technology revolution sweeping across the globe is also opening the way for many socially beneficial applications of technology. By analyzing mobile money transactions (while keeping them anonymous), the United Nations Global Pulse, a flagship initiative on the use of big data, has been able to demonstrate the feasibility of creating early-warning systems for food security. Flowminder, a Swedish foundation, combines anonymized mobile phone data with traditional surveys to solve public health problems, such as mapping the spread of Ebola. A further example is that through careful and real-time analysis of social media, it is now possible to quickly pinpoint ceasefire violations.
The positive effects of technology, the Internet and big data for development must not be overlooked in discussions of issues of surveillance and privacy now taking place at the UN and elsewhere. The use of big data will be crucial to ensuring that we know what is happening, not least in relation to the new sustainable development goals currently under negotiation at the UN.
The distance between organizations working in the field and decision-making at the political level is too great.
It is safe to say that policymakers and diplomats–just like most of us–have not yet fully grasped the consequences of the mobile revolution as it comes to unfold, a key vehicle for interconnectedness and the foundation of the global village. With all the data in the world accessible via smartphones in our pockets, government still needs to figure out how to close the gap between analysis and action. The distance between organizations working in the field and decision-making at the political level is too great. While previously, we were unable to take action because we did not know enough, today we are hampered by the huge volume of available information. As policymakers, we need better ways to distinguish signals from noise.
Technology in itself cannot resolve conflicts. But in a world where nearly everyone has–or will soon have–access to communication technologies, the question is whether we will be able to resolve conflicts without technology. It is sometimes argued that small-scale initiatives, such as those developed by the Swedish MFA or other stakeholders, are futile when it comes to peacebuilding and conflict resolution. This view overlooks the importance of initiating positive processes in collaboration with other stakeholders. Progress will depend on our capacity to join forces with the people who are currently working to create a better future, and the times we live in suggest that technology will be at the heart of this work.
(Feature Photo Credit: CIDSE via Flickr)