What the State Department Can Learn from Silicon Valley

February 1, 2016, 1:36 PM UTC
'Innovation' street sign, Silicon Valley, California, USA
Photograph by Bruce T. Brown—Getty Images

There is no end to the list of companies, organizations, and people who want soak up the lessons of Silicon Valley. The latest: The U.S. State Department.

The executive branch’s No. 2 diplomat, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken, visited town last week. His mission was twofold: Find out what tech companies see that State ought to and establish a local presence for the department. “We want to know what’s coming around the corner,” says Blinken, a veteran Democratic staffer on Capitol Hill who held White House positions in the Clinton and Obama administrations. The State Department needs to be abreast of technology that could aid everything from arms-control monitoring to educational techniques to help young refugees.

To establish State’s beachhead in Silicon Valley, the administration dispatched a young strategist named Zvika Krieger. State’s new ambassador to Techlandia is a fan of design thinking and other uses for Post It notes who previously worked for the current secretary of defense, Ash Carter.

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It’s unclear how much State can accomplish in Silicon Valley, especially considering the now-less-than-one-year “sell by” date on Blinken’s tenure. (He’ll depart when President Obama does.) That said, it’s good he’s making the effort. Blinken met last week with the usual heavyweights, including Google (GOOG), Facebook (FB), Amazon (AMZN), and Microsoft (MSFT). With some matchmaking/wrangling assistance from the venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya, State also sponsored a workshop at Stanford University for nonprofits and corporate types aimed at discussing topics including how distance learning could help displaced children. These nonprofits included the Middle East Children’s Institute, the International Rescue Committee, and the UN Refugee Agency. Brokering a meeting between these groups and well-endowed tech titans is valuable diplomacy indeed.

Blinken was part of the administration delegation that visited Silicon Valley three weeks ago to discuss technological ways to fight terrorism. “We have 80,000 sensors out there,” he says, referring to State’s workforce and the potential to marry old-fashioned data gathering with high-tech’s algorithmic expertise.

State’s second-ranking executive even recognizes the opportunity to recruit professionals in Silicon Valley, an aspirational program that aims to be more systematized. “People want to be part of something bigger than themselves,” Blinken says. So true.

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