The next big trend – digital diplomacy

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Cultural diplomacy has long been regarded as the cornerstone to establish bilateral relationships through the exchange of high and low culture via touring exhibitions, performances and expos. At the moment this practice is going through an intense period of change as the major players are increasingly using social and digital media to realise its full potential. This period of transition offers new opportunities for arts and heritage institutions to participate in the process.

Benefits of digital diplomacy:
An agile, risk-managed approach

Cultural diplomacy lies at the heart of international relations and is driven by ideas, values and traditions. However, sometimes even the best of intentions and carefully laid out plans can backfire. Take the example of the efforts by the German ambassador to India, who organised a concert by conductor Zubin Mehta in Indian-controlled Kashmir in August of this year. The execution of this project did not take into account national sentiment as well as the cultural minutiae of the region. As a result it was politicized early on and was seen as an elite event rather than an event for the people of Kashmir.

This is where digital and social media can play an important role in creating an iterative, agile and risk-managed approach. When executed correctly, and in the right context, the positive impact of digital diplomacy can be hugely amplified.

An example of how this can work, is the exchange of tweets between the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani and US president Barack Obama. The public mention of the phone call between the two presidents on Twitter has sparked a sea change in public perception of the Iranian president on conventional and digital media channels.

New opportunities for arts and heritage institutions to participate

Arts and heritage institutions have an important role to play in the emerging model of e-diplomacy for a number of reasons. They have been going through a period of transition for several years now to develop new models of digital engagement and participation with a global emphasis.

This intense effort has begun to yield rewards such as engagement data that can be used to make informed decisions — from forecasting global cultural trends to analysing regional sentiment and public opinion. In a diplomatic context, this information can be useful to test the waters before launching a large scale project.

Not only do major institutions have access to big data and online communities, they are also used to working in a very specific context, which is to encourage the intelligent consumption of culture. This expertise creates new opportunities for arts and heritage institutions to participate in cultural diplomacy.

This can take many different forms. For example, giving embassies access to engagement data to help strategically position regional programmes. Opening up their own digital archives as well as sharing open access content on other platforms as part of international educational initiatives in schools, colleges and universities. And finally, using social networks to facilitate direct connections with grassroots organisations and new stakeholders who might not be visible via existing diplomatic channels.

Taking the first step:
breaking out of silos and interdisciplinary dialogue

Perhaps ironically, the first step is to increase dialogue and exchange across the relevant government, culture and heritage institutions. It is also important to put an emphasis on interdisciplinary dialogue that includes policy makers, culture sector specialists and technical experts.
A recent pilot event in London, highlights how this can be achieved. The Diplohack was co-organised by the embassies of Sweden and The Netherlands to the UK. This event brought together an eclectic mix of professionals including diplomats, international NGOs such as Article 19 and cultural entrepreneurs who were tasked with coming up with solutions on how digital can be used to further the cause of artistic freedom.

The solutions presented at the end of the day were fairly imaginative and occasionally pragmatic. But it was the process of arriving at them that was particularly interesting. As one senior policy advisor from The Hague put it — the experience took him out of his comfort zone, but the time spent in conversing with specialists from other fields showed that ultimately the goals and aspirations were the same, it is only the vocabulary that differs. Perhaps it is in building this shared vocabulary that we begin to develop genuine and meaningful opportunities for collaboration during this period of transition.

Abhay Adhikari / @gopaldass

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On December 1, 2013
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