Smart Cities Diplomacy: Smart Power

Santiago Martín Caravaca

In 2018, no city mayor representing a city (with more than 1 million citizens) located in a developed country should ever answer “I don’t know” when asked the following question: “What is the Citizen Engagement Rate of the city you represent?”. That is to say: “What is the percentage (%) of citizens who are involved in policies that have an impact in the common good of the city, through apps or digital platforms?

The city mayor should not ignore the answers to the following questions either: What is the strategic positioning of your city towards those outside it? What cities does it cooperate with? What cities does it share common goals with? What cities are rivals to it? How does it engage people or groups from other cities in the principles or values that inspire its city branding? What is its digital reputation? And finally, how is all the aforementioned measured? Which tools are used? The new diplomatic corps in the cities will be in charge of developing a strategy -ad intra and ad extra- and perform the required actions to provide an answer to all the aforementioned questions.

From a Diplomacy point of view, “when we thought we had all the answers, all the questions suddenly changed” (M. Benedetti). We moved from Conventional Diplomacy to Public Diplomacy, then on to E-Diplomacy or Digital Diplomacy. Why? We just adapted ourselves to the most prominent communication method in every moment in history. Communication and Diplomacy are connected vessels. A mutation in the former modifies the latter. Current changes are deeply entangled with the development of information technologies.

The day he took office as US Secretary of State, John Kerry stated: “In today’s global world, there is no longer anything foreign about foreign policy”.Diplomacy is no longer about a place where two people wearing white shirts and red ties meet in an old café in Paris; at least it is no longer exclusively about that. As the Indian ambassador Kishan Rana said in just a few words: “Diplomacy has become multifaceted, pluri-directional, volatile, and intensive.”


 The communication strategy will require choosing between private and weak vs public and strong


Network Diplomacy 

Nowadays, the scope of the expression “diplomacy” should move closer to home while simultaneously remaining in the traditional foreign policy arena (“Diplomacy in Cities” and “City Diplomacy”). On the other hand, new agents will have a role to play: cities. Their range of action will go beyond the concept of “Paralell Diplomacy” (but the State-wide potestas by the national government will still have to be considered, and a common action framework between cities and the State will have to be established). In my opinion, the future will move towards the expression “Network Diplomacy”, in which Smart Cities will be focal points due to their nature as privileged nodes for communication and interconnection (Internet of Cities), as well as by means of the new innovation tools that are particularly abundant in such places.

To date, the role previously played by papyrus, parchment or paper is played by Twitter, a Tablet, a SmartPhone or Wearables. Means are not neutral. Is it possible for a 140-character society to consider slowness a core value? Of course not. This is why today’s Diplomacy needs prompt responses. Diplomacy is more transparent now. There is more diplomacy in civil society, and more of the civil society is found in Diplomacy. This is nothing but the result of the new principles that are born as a consequence of the new communication channels.


There is more diplomacy in civil society, and more of the civil society is found in Diplomacy, as a result of the values that arise from the new communication channels


When looking back in time, the “forefathers” of photoshop -Neanderthal men who had no capacity to articulate common language- draw pictures on cave walls (perhaps an early wink to Instagram). Oddly enough, current trends also involve providing our movements and actions with meaning; no words are involved. Talking without uttering any words or entrusting smart technology with a role to understand us and make our lives easier.

We may not forget the transition through the Renaissance society (where the printing press made it possible to print pamphlets that contained caricatures mocking the ruling power) towards the current and Hyper-modern society that uses “Memes” in Social Networks (which in turn are based on the mass media communication tools that were available in the 20th century: TV and the radio).

One of the biggest revolutions that took place in the Modern Age was having the thoughts of a person reach many other people in a short period of time. Martin Luther published his 95 theses in Latin in 1517, and he managed to have his criticism against indulgences translated and distributed all over Germany in 15 days; after a two-month period, they could already be found all over Europe. Had he written his theses a century before -when no printing press was available- years would have gone by before a minimum social impact was reached, and most probably the effects would have remained local. These are some examples that should indeed be analyzed in the proper context. They may also be linked to current facts such as Arab Springs, which are also based on a technological transformation of communication channels and the promotion of freedom of expression.


Smart Power


Networks have not replaced hierarchy. At the same time, networks are now the mainstream social paradigm. Each generation needs to crack the codes of their own time. We are currently witnessing a regression in the power of hierarchies, along with the need to show the human aspects of leaders and make them more accessible to people. Remarkably enough, according to Twiplomacy, it is in African countries such as Uganda and Rwanda where the leaders who provide the highest feedback (using Twitter) are located. According to the same source, 77.7% of world leaders have a Twitter account. Nevertheless, the analysis of 505 Twitter accounts performed by Twiplomacy showed that 161 leaders had not mutual connections in Twitter. This is something that needs to be addressed by city diplomacy in the next few years.

Nowadays, you do not need a face on a shirt to provide inspiration. You need a cause and a powerful purpose. “A million voices against the FARC”. This was the name of a group founded in Facebook (in 2008) by a young engineer in Colombia. “I thought this would go unnoticed, but it gradually became a major mobilization thanks to Facebook”, stated the young man who started the protest; nearly 5 million people adhered to it and demonstrated in the streets in many countries all over the world.


The capacity to generate influencers will be key for the new diplomats, who will also need to possess abilities for analysis and for the interpretation of Big Data


Are we witnessing the downfall of the pillars of the “Temple” in Westfalia? Nations and hard diplomacy are losing their grip. Cities and soft diplomacy are becoming more and more important. But what builds the ground for Smart Power* to exist is the balance between negotiation and cooperation, between off line and on line modes, between private and public issues. Digital Diplomacy meets traditional diplomacy. Hard diplomacy and G2G (Government to Government) communications will continue to be of importance. On the other hand, the communication strategy will require choosing between private and weak vs public and strong. Understanding who the target is and letting it express itself, either using Blogs, Twitter or Facebook, as well as open innovation programs. This is not a matter of “talking in the network”, once and again, but of generating real engagement and having your target feel commited and coming back to you. The capacity to generate influencers will be key for the new diplomats, who will also need to possess abilities for analysis and for the interpretation of Big Data. This will mean moving diplomacy to the streets.


A paradigm shift

The city is no longer just a physical reality: it is also a ubiquitous location. Physical maps no longer have substantive autonomy; they became just one more coordinate in a discontinuous environment where space and boundaries have disappeared. In this context, cities become powerful communication nodes that interact among each other, capable of generating new geographical-digital outlines beyond boundaries and physical space, connecting and coordinating each other with several national or supranational “super nodes” (UNO, Europe, USA, Asia, Africa, Latin America, C40, etc).

Clearly enough, the connected society has discovered the so-called “invisible gorillas”(Michele Acuto), represented by cities that, in some cases (London, Paris, New York) generate more than 20% of the national GDP. Their population density indexes are becoming more and more significant. All the aforementioned reasons justify their cooperation in fighting against climate change and poverty, and in favour of economic development. In conclusion, this is a matter of fostering actions focused on finding an answer to the following question: How can cities learn from each other, implement innovations and share them among each other in order to solve local problems with a global scope?

The best way to foster engagement with your audience is moving towards where your audience is. As Alec Ross (Former Senior Advisor for Innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) stated, “it is important for diplomacy to understand that «we have only one mouth, but we have two ears»”. Listening is essential.

City diplomacy was born with a “Human-Centered” view in which technology is a way to build and generate connections to support public policies. The apparently simple act of listening is something powerful. The challenge lies in using the feedback obtained in the policy-making process in the cities. Turning people’s energy and intelligence into actions that have an impact on the city’s common good.

Digital technologies and Social Media are changing the way we think, the way we organize ourselves and the way we connect to each other. Now we have to wait until 2018 and see how municipal leaders have faced the challenge of working out the Citizen Engagement Rate. Nowadays, digital 0 and 1 are somewhat “alive”, they “breath” and are connected to the physical world. Art is also present. The art of Digital Diplomacy. Lights, camera, action!

* The expression “smart power”, in the framework of international relations, refers to the combination of strategies that include hard power and soft power. Hillary Clinton officially stood up for it, and stated that the United States may not and should not give up their diplomate and military power, but still they would wish to break up with and move away from the messianic and on many occasions coercive speeches so often used by the Bush administration (Source: Wikipedia)

by Santiago Martín Caravaca
Public Innovation, Smart City and Digital Diplomacy Assessor

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