Photo: Leyla Ismen

Tech and Government: What is next for Technology Diplomacy in the Bay Area?

How to make sense of three years working at the intersection of technology and government in the Bay Area.

Published June 28, 2023

The release of the 2nd edition of the report on the practice of technology diplomacy in the Bay coincides with my departure from Swissnex. It offers a good opportunity to look back, connect the dots, and reflect on some of the most relevant “next trends” shaping the way Switzerland builds bridges to and from the Bay Area.

I would always remember the briefing I received just before moving to the Bay Area back in August 2020. The message coming from Swissnex HQ was clear: the covid crisis amplified the impression that San Francisco belonged to the likes of Florence, Rome or Athens whose time had passed. Today, as I wrap up my time working for the Swiss government in the Bay Area, I am happy that this assessment proved to be wrong. Despite the concerning social and health crises unfolding in the city, the San Francisco Bay Area area remains a unique innovation powerhouse, constantly able to reinvent itself despite its many contradictions.

«While my arrival coincided with an era of disillusion, it ends with a shared sense that something is happening whose magnitude might be as disruptive as the creation of the personal computer and the internet». – Yannick Heiniger

After years in the making, the recent advances of generative AI and large language models applications, such as GTP, are not only transforming technology but also the environment in which most interactions in the Bay Area are taking place.

What has changed since 2020?

First and foremost, the practice of technology diplomacy is always shaped by the environment in which it operates. In 1860 already, Lord Palmerston allegedly reacted to receiving the first telegraph message by saying “My God, this is the end of diplomacy”. Not only is diplomacy still alive, but it also shapes technology through the practice of technology diplomacy. As presented in Diplo’s new report, while no one seems to really agree on how to define what technology diplomacy is, everyone does it with a different practice and model. What seems to matter is not only an alignment on defining its field but the fact that it exists via tools and ritualized processes framing the way industry and governments interact on issues related to economy, trade, science, innovation and tech.

Yet, since I arrived, there are elements in the environments that dramatically influence technology diplomacy, its practice and desired impact. The covid crisis is a first example. We witnessed what Microsoft would refer to as “two years of digital transformation in two months” as organizations across the globe embraced cloud computing and remote communication technologies with unprecedented speed and scale, bringing West Coast-based companies even closer to the rest of the world. This exacerbated the “state-like” power that big technology companies are having in the world, making proactive engagement with them a necessity for governments.

Another significant change has to do with geopolitics. From the politicization of 5G and Huawei, the question marks about the governance of the semiconductor supply chains, to the discussions about the role of social media in dividing societies, amplifying misinformation, disinformation, hate speech and violence, Silicon Valley has become more and more aware of the complex geopolitical ramifications of its global footprint. While it has historically always stayed away from politics, the war in Ukraine marked an important inflection point throughout the Valley. Openly “taking side”, the narrative of many Bay Area companies significantly differed from their usual “neutrality narrative”, both at a corporate level (i.e., contributing to strengthening the cyber capability of one camp against the other) and an employee one (with Big Tech employees contributing to the civilianization of warfare). This sifting narrative seems unprecedented in a region known for its libertarianism and belief in a free, open, reliable internet for all. 

Shaping a Multilateral Hub: The Evolving Landscape of Technology Diplomacy in San Francisco

In this environment, as technology diplomacy matures, it cannot simply be defined as the relationship between governments and technology companies. From the perspective of technology diplomacy’s practice, it takes different shapes. It includes a growing amount of forms, tools, and processes approach to policy-making, multi-stakeholder dialogues on emerging technologies and their global impact, and a common effort to reinforce specific values and principles, such as human rights, democracy and more. In reality, we are seeing tangible signals that could lead to associating San Francisco to a naiscant multilateral hub. How come?

For instance, governments are collaborating together more intentionally, through the Silicon Valley Chapter of the Freedom Online Coalition and the Techplomacy playground, an informal group aimed at enhancing literacy and joint initiatives among its members. International organizations (like UNHCR, OHCHR, IOM, WHO, UNICEF, WFP, UNIDIR) are regularly traveling to the Bay Area not only to nurture commercial partners or seek fundraising opportunities but to conduct strategic dialogues with global technology companies. This is driven by the recognition of the significant influence that these companies have on the environment where international organizations operate. NGOs and civil society, particularly those working on human rights and humanitarian issues, are also engaging more proactively in the region. Finally, academic actors are playing their role in contributing to the conversation and providing credible alternatives and solutions to systemic issues. In a sense, the common denominator of technology diplomacy has to do with the nature of these dialogues, which often precedes formalized and ritualized engagement. 


Creating Collaborative Spaces: The Need for Informal Settings in Technology Diplomacy

Despite these encouraging signs, the challenges in the practice are legion. Firstly, the tense geopolitical environment and threats of internet fragmentation increasingly shape the tone of these dialogues and efforts to collaborate. The “us vs them” narrative is increasingly the starting base of many discussions, framing collaboration and the outcomes pursued by technology diplomacy. In addition, the focus on regulation is also weighting in the practice of technology diplomacy, affecting the quality of the dialogue. This trend is best illustrated by the promising establishment of an EU office pushing for much needed regulation, yet potentially bringing private companies to reduce the dialogues led by governments to a search for regulation arguments, limiting the potential for exchange and true collaboration. In addition, the growing amounts of governments engaging with a limited number of big global players causes an absorption challenge for these companies, who are not equipped to deal with the specificity of each conversation. Finally, and more importantly, the narrative and practice of technology diplomacy seems to be mostly the fruit of Western actors, adding to the preexisting lack of diversity in the Bay Area. 

What can we do to address these gaps and ensure technology diplomacy delivers on its promises?

If it is mostly a place of dialogue, it needs more informal places, or in other words, more “diplomatic hallways”. At the UN or at any diplomatic conference, it is known that influencing and sometimes, decision making, do not happen on the stage but in the hallways where informal settings can offer an enabling environment fostering trust, mutual understanding and collaboration. The important geographic coverage, from San Francisco to Okland and San Jose via Palo Alto, makes it hard to bring the most relevant movers and shakers to the same place, at the same time. Yet, we need creative imagination to enable these convenings. Silicon Valley needs more safe spaces where real quality exchange can happen.

Looking at the practice of technology diplomacy, another key learning has to do with the mindset needed to engage successfully. In complement to traditional diplomacy, made of reporting and ritualized engagement, the nature of the Bay Area ecosystem requires a different mindset and skillsets with anticipation and foresight at its core. Covering technology development is not so much about knowing what is happening in the technology world. It is even more crucial to anticipate what will happen and be able to translate it to a variety of stakeholders, from those based in the capital to relevant circles in industry and academia. More than specific tools and methodologies, anticipation is first and foremost a way of thinking and connecting the dots with informal networks often not easily visible. When generative AI offers to disrupt the time spent in reporting (50% of a diplomats time according to some), one can see emerging the opportunity for diplomats to spend more time exploring nascent industries and diversifying the range of their networks. This could become crucial in ensuring the new generation of technologies are framed around values and principles that truly leave no one behind.

What is next for technology diplomacy in the Bay Area?

Looking ahead, while the environmental changes mentioned above have brought Silicon Valley closer to the world, it did not yet bring the rest of the world closer to Silicon Valley. The lack of diversity and inclusion that the Bay Area chronically suffers from is also illustrated by the way Western countries and narratives dominate the practice of technology diplomacy.

Bringing more diverse perspectives, for instance those coming from small countries and African voices, would generate positive impact. This represents a unique opportunity for organizations like Swissnex and the Swiss Consulate who can, for example, leverage their natural bridge to Geneva based international and non-governmental organizations, and through Pier17, offer them a unique safespace allowing them to successfully engage with Silicon Valley based actors and expose them to the real impact and challenges that technology has throughout the world.

Silicon Valley needs to keep complexifying its worldview. Technology diplomacy players, both from government, private companies and beyond, surely have a responsability to ensure technology truly works for everyone, everywhere.

Written by Yannick Heiniger, Senior Technology Diplomacy Adviser at the General Consulate of Switzerland in San Francisco and former Deputy CEO and Acting CEO at Swissnex in San Francisco. Yannick is committed to connecting Switzerland and the Bay Area on issues related to technology diplomacy, cybersecurity, digital trust, and the humanitarian implications of digital technologies. Prior to joining Swissnex in San Francisco in 2020, Yannick spent seven years working on collaboration and digital transformation at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Yannick holds a BA from the University of Lausanne and an MA from the University of Geneva. He is an alumni of the Global Shapers Community, an initiative of the World Economic Forum, where he worked for over five years with a team of young leaders to amplify the voice of youth on global key issues. Currently pursuing his Executive MBA at the IMD Business School in Lausanne, Yannick remains dedicated to creating meaningful impact and bridging the gap between disparate ecosystems of innovation.

Edited by Sophie Bohnen, Head of Communications at Swissnex in San Francisco