lighting, Diplomacy

Why and How Should Countries Engage in Tech Diplomacy? (WebDebate #60)

06 June 2023


Event summary

Hosted by DiploFoundation in partnership with Swissnex in San Francisco and République et Canton de Genève, the WebDebate event aimed to share key findings from DiploFoundation’s recent research on the practice of tech diplomacy in the San Francisco Bay Area. Furthermore, the event focused on the evolving field of tech diplomacy and its role in addressing the digital divide and promoting digital inclusivity. The discussions highlighted the difficulties in navigating the fast-paced technological ecosystem and explored the growing importance of tech diplomats and global digital ambassadors in shaping international relations.

Key Points

  • Over the past five years, tech diplomacy has transitioned from an exploratory phase to a more policy-oriented phase that encompasses human rights, democracy, and the broader societal impacts of digital development.
  • The exponential growth and influence of global tech companies, particularly digital platforms, has transformed international relations, prompting countries to invest in tech-related infrastructure and enhance their presence in the San Francisco Bay Area.
  • Tech diplomacy in the Bay Area is evolving in response to emerging geopolitical considerations and requires the creation of secure and trust-building spaces for effective engagement.
  • Challenges that persist in the tech diplomacy realm are related to the cultural differences among stakeholders, the rapid pace of the Bay Area's tech environment, and the inherent difficulty of bridging the technological knowledge gap between diplomats and individuals in the tech industry. 
  • Developing a multi-stakeholder dialogue involving the private sector, NGOs, international organizations and governments is crucial for developing co-literacy to address tech diplomacy challenges. 
  • Tech diplomacy discussions in the Bay Area lack representation of Global South perspectives.
  • Geneva can provide a neutral ground for conversations on tech diplomacy, fostering collaboration between states, tech companies, and international organizations/NGOs.
  • The future of tech diplomacy relies on embracing new methods of collaboration with other governments, establishing safe spaces that enable informal engagement and trust, and adopting an anticipatory mindset

Speaker Statements

Ms Pavlina Ittelson, Executive Director, Diplo US

Tech diplomacy has undergone notable transformations in the last five years, marked by the deployment of global digital ambassadors and tech diplomats by an increasing number of countries. There is a growing awareness worldwide of the benefits of tech diplomacy and the far-reaching impacts of digital development. Overall, the tech diplomacy field has matured, shifting from an emphasis on innovation to a policy-oriented approach. We now grapple with pressing questions surrounding human rights and democracy, recognizing the profound implications of digital technologies on these issues. In terms of global digital inclusivity, there remains a lack of representation of Global South perspectives in the San Francisco bay Area, underscoring the imperative for enhanced diversity and equity within the discourse on tech diplomacy.

Mr Yannick Heiniger, Swissnex, San Francisco

To address the complex challenges in the Bay Area environment, a multi-stakeholder dialogue involving the private sector, NGOs, international organizations, and government entities is imperative. We need safe spaces that allow for engagement and a deeper understanding of the issues underlying technologies. Additionally, the establishment of 'hallways of diplomacy' in the Bay Area can facilitate informal engagement, bringing together diverse actors. It is also crucial to include nations from the Global South in discussions surrounding tech diplomacy, ensuring a more inclusive approach.

Ms Beatrice Ferrari, Director of International Affairs, Canton of Geneva

In Geneva, tech diplomacy seemingly operates within a triangular formation, involving states, tech companies, and international organizations/NGOs. Geneva, as the largest center for international cooperation, serves as a hub where these stakeholders converge. We have observed increasing interaction between NGOs, international organizations, and tech companies, recognizing the potential of technology in achieving developmental and humanitarian goals. Geneva offers neutral ground for difficult conversations on cooperation to occur, strengthening the nexus between relevant stakeholders and other institutions working on global governance.

Thato Morokong, Assistant Director, Africa Multilateral Cooperation, Department of Science and Innovation, South Africa

The ideal tech diplomat understands the intricacies of investment, venture capitalism, angel investors, and market considerations. They must be able to grasp the innovative solutions and technologies that can be adopted in different markets and provide insight towards sharpening their country's competitive edge. South Africa, for instance, has appointed science and technology attachés to identify strategic partnerships. There is a focus on innovation and economic diplomacy as a conduit for driving industrialization, economic competitiveness, and sustainable development. Overall, South Africa engages in tech diplomacy using a “quadruple helix approach” which involves collaboration between businesses, academia, government, and civil societies.

Mr Martin Rauchbauer, Former Austrian Tech Ambassador in Silicon Valley; Founder & Co-Director, Tech Diplomacy Network

Over the past decade, the tech industry has had a transformative impact on global relations. We have witnessed the remarkable rise of powerful global tech companies, whose influence now rivals that of nation-states. The pandemic has brought about dynamic changes, with companies leaving the Bay Area and causing significant shifts in the workforce. In response, countries have taken proactive measures, investing in their own structures and bolstering their presence in Silicon Valley. Recognizing the need for enhanced engagement in the tech industry, the Tech Diplomacy Network was established in February 2023. It serves as a crucial platform for countries seeking to establish their foreign presence in the digital space and navigate the evolving landscape of the tech industry.

Key Questions and Answers

How do tech diplomats differentiate from traditional diplomats and what skills are they generally expected to have? 

Compared to traditional diplomats, tech diplomats, alongside well-rounded personalities, tend to have dual or triple backgrounds that enable them to evaluate the impacts of technology on societal issues, economy, employment, and more. Tech diplomats also tend to have more freedom with the objectives they decide to pursue specifically within digital foreign policies. Overall, tech diplomats must be able to cross the boundaries between different ministries and silos within their own government to discuss issues which are affected by technology and which are within the realms of different ministries. 

Is there any capacity building training for policymakers in terms of tech diplomacy engagement? 

In terms of tech diplomacy engagement, the availability of capacity building training for policymakers is currently quite limited. In reality, tech diplomacy practitioners are often thrown to the front lines and left to figure things out on their own.  Diplo’s online course on tech diplomacy traces the development of tech diplomacy, identifies specific practices of how diplomats and the tech sector interact, and explores innovative forms of diplomatic representation. 

How can countries address the digital divide and promote digital inclusivity through tech diplomacy? 

Countries that effectively bridge the digital divide often blend traditional diplomatic skills, grounded in a broad geopolitical perspective, with adaptable technological knowledge considering the rapidly evolving nature of the tech sector. Addressing the digital divide and promoting digital inclusivity requires a holistic approach that combines policy interventions, infrastructure development, capacity building, and collaborative efforts at the national, regional, and global levels.

Event recording

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Event description

The practice of tech diplomacy has been on the rise since the appointment of the first tech ambassador in 2017. Tech diplomacy includes new forms of diplomatic representation and new topics on the diplomatic agenda. It also reflects a changing geopolitical environment. 

Tech diplomacy has brought about new venues for engagement and the involvement of new actors, and makes clear that countries and tech companies need to adopt new approaches to current digital policy issues. 

DiploFoundation has published its report on Tech Diplomacy Practice in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is the most up-to-date mapping of tech diplomacy in the Bay Area. The report looks at specific exchanges between diplomatic representations and tech companies, and maps the existing benefits and challenges of tech diplomacy.

In WebDebate #60, we will:

  • Have a close look at the main findings of the report
  • Hear from various tech diplomacy practitioners from the Bay Area and Global South
  • Ask what benefits and challenges countries from the Global South face when aiming to engage in tech diplomacy
  • Investigate the role of tech diplomacy hubs beyond the Bay Area

Join us for an informed discussion on the emerging practice of tech diplomacy.  

Tuesday, 6 June, 13:00 UTC (09:00 EDT | 15:00 CEST | 18:30 IST) 


  • Ms Thato Morokong, Assistant Director, Africa Multilateral Cooperation, Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), South Africa
  • Ms Beatrice Ferrari, Director, International Affairs, Canton of Geneva
  • Mr Martin Rauchbauer, Former Austrian Tech Ambassador in Silicon Valley; Founder & Co-Director, Tech Diplomacy Network
  • Ms Pavlina Ittelson, Executive Director, Diplo US
  • Mr Yannick Heiniger, Consulate General of Switzerland in San Francisco
  • Dr Katharina Höne, Director of Research, DiploFoundation (moderator)

This event is organised in partnership with Swissnex in San Francisco and République et Canton de Genève.


About our WebDebates

Our WebDebates on the future of diplomacy are live-streamed on the first Tuesday of every month. They are organised by Diplo within the framework of the International Forum on Diplomatic Training (IFDT). Learn more about our WebDebates series.