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Innovation in diplomacy: Discovering unknown unknowns

Published on 22 November 2012
Updated on 19 March 2024

One of the questions I was asked at the recent conference on Innovation in Diplomacy was why we chose to involve so many senior participants (a few of them have seen seventy winters).  The main reason was to address two increasingly important biases which can hamper innovation and creativity:

Innovation in diplomacy: Discovering unknown unknownsThe first is chrono-narcissism, the belief that everything that’s important is happening in the here and now.  To a large extent, chrono-narcissism is expected because we live in the here and now and we like to see our short moment on Earth as unique. However, this becomes problematic if it moves into arrogance and the belief that we can overcome some deep principles and laws of how society or even nature functions. The most ambitious chrono-narcissist changed its calendar in the past (French Revolution, a few dictators in twentieth century). The Internet provides a lot of potential which should be beneficial for society, but only through humble and smart application; it’s still important to be  aware of human conditions and this is where the wisdom of our elders can help.

The second is the googlisation of our knowledge. Google adjusts search results to our needs, based on patterns of previous searches. We search for dilemmas we know and get results based on their usefulness for us. But, the history of innovation and creativity shows that innovation is often a result of  combining “useless knowledge”. Gutenberg was inspired to create a printing press by watching a wine-pressing device. If he had lived today, where would Gutenberg have found inspiration for his innovation? Wandering around, randomly choosing a book from the bookshelf could bring an insight that you were not expecting. The extreme obsession with usefulness of information in the “Google era” could reduce chances to find ‘unknown unknowns’ which are ultimately a source of innovation.

At the Malta Conference on Innovation in Diplomacy we had participants ranging in age from  20 to 80. Technology-focused people sat with lawyers, techno-optimists with techno-sceptics, young with old. The main challenge was to facilitate and create dynamism in the limited time we had (2 days) while not imposing a structure that would reduce the possibility of discovering unknown unknowns. We succeeded in bringing together people who are not likely to meet each other daily or engage on Facebook chat.

The first result is the list of Diplomatic Competences 2022 (Curriculum for Training Diplomats). Please let us know your comments!

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