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21st Century Statecraft to shape our future: Alec Ross, Hillary Clinton's former advisor for innovation

Ross says, "After two years of Obama campaign and four years at the State Department, it is good to be back in the life of an entrepreneur."

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Apr 17, 2013, 05.30 AM IST
Ross says, "After two years of Obama campaign and four years at the State Department, it is good to be back in the life of an entrepreneur."
Ross says, "After two years of Obama campaign and four years at the State Department, it is good to be back in the life of an entrepreneur."
Not too long ago, Alec Ross quit his job as the senior advisor for innovation to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But he is perhaps still the most active supporter of 21st Century Statecraft.

For those of us not familiar with the term, Ross explains, "21st Century Statecraft complements traditional foreign policy tools with newly innovated and adapted instruments that fully leverage networks, technologies, and demographics of our interconnected world."

In other words, use 21st century tools of communication and technology for government business and initiatives, homeland and abroad. "It's about bringing new approaches to the centuries old practice of diplomacy," says Ross.

During his time at the State Department, the 42-year-old often dubbed Clinton's tech guru was featured on several power lists in international publications — the Top 10 game changers, innovators, influencers, et cetera.

Why? Ross and his team developed a bold innovation agenda, a set of new diplomatic practices for the Obama administration. It called for diplomacy to adapt to a fast changing environment. But the initiative he is most proud of so far is the Internet Freedom agenda.

Ross says, "Human rights in the physical world need to extend to online. We made this a major foreign policy issue." And the agenda was born at a particularly significant hour in human history. There is a big shift in global power.

Ross says, "It is not from one part of the world to another, or from one country to another; rather, it is a shift in power from hierarchies to citizens and networks of citizens. Things that would have once required the power of a government or large media company can now be done by a handful of people who are sophisticated about using digital technology. I saw this all over the world, from the refugee camps of East Congo to the Middle East to the furthest reaches of East Asia."

To further elaborate his point, he gives us as an example, the story of Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit vendor from the small town of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia whose self-immolation on December 17, 2010, catalysed what became the Arab Spring.

On December 18, his mother and other family members began a protest that spread to the rest of Tunisia. What most people don't know, though, is that just two years earlier there were protests in Tunisia that started off far larger but failed to spread beyond the confines of the Gafsa mining basin where they began.

What changed in those two years? During the initial protests in Sidi Bouzid, acts of protest were documented on video-enabled mobile phones and posted to social media sites.

Activists in the Tunisian Diaspora curated and distributed this content, leading to its pick-up by pan-Arab satellite television networks including Al-Jazeera. This allowed students with a few dozen friends and followers on social media to become eyewitness sources for satellite TV networks that broadcast their stories to hundreds of millions of viewers.

The Tunisian government of president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was unable to contain this flow of information. "This combination of new and traditional media can amplify the voices of citizen-centred movements into potent political forces and demonstrate how governments lose control over their information environments."

However, there are large populations of people, and not necessarily just the ones in positions of authority, that don't truly realise the power connection technology puts in their hands. Or the fact that it gives them the ability to affect change and use it to drive political, social and economic reforms.

"I think some get it and some do not. There are about 2.5 billion internet users. That is only 1 out of every 3 people on earth. As the world becomes more connected, more people will understand how this connectivity impacts power structures. I do think that everybody in the United States understands this, particularly after how Obama used it in his two presidential elections. If you live in the United States and do not understand this, then you must be living underground," says Ross.

However, we see that power manifest often in the world of brands. "I think that social media has proven to be better to tear things down than build them up. This is a negative of social media. I also think it gives a louder voice to the extremes. I would like to be more positive about this, but I am not."

For every triumph there are three disasters, when it comes to companies and brands and their social media strategies. Nevertheless, are there lessons to learn from how consumer brands navigate and use network technologies?

"Governments can learn from companies and brands that it is necessary to put the customer (what government would call the constituent) at the centre of the transaction. There are governments that do this well (the UK for instance) and there are governments that still don't get it. That said, there are also brands and consumer companies that don't get it."

And that's an area where Ross intends to lend a helping hand. Apart from working on a book about the future of globalisation, he describes as "a big picture view of the disruptive forces shaping the world around us, for good and for bad;” Ross plans to coach leaders, and not only those in government but also corporations, around the world so that they better understand the future we are all hurtling toward.

In fact a few days after this interview he was on his way to South America, Chile to be precise, to help the Chilean Foreign Ministry better understand digital diplomacy. Ross says, "After two years of Obama campaign and four years at the State Department, it is good to be back in the life of an entrepreneur."
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