Delegations from the State Department to Russia haven’t generally been accompanied by great fanfare. In an information age where a growing social layer for the Internet provides unprecedented means for people to share their experiences online, the progress of the “innovation delegation” through Moscow and Siberia has been marked by a steady progression of tweets, online video and photos.
This is, after all, a group of “geek luminaries” that has considerable reach online and into popular culture. Unsurprisingly, the member of the tech delegation that’s attracted both the attention of mainstream media in the US and fans abroad is Hollywood actor Ashton Kutcher. Kutcher brought with him more than 4.5 million followers as Twitter’s most-followed user (@aplusk) and, perhaps even more crucially, an iPhone equipped with a video camera and a uStream account.
The delegation is led by Jared Cohen of the State Department’s Office of Policy Planning and Howard Solomon of the National Security Council. US Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra joined them in Moscow. They are also traveling with:
- Jack Dorsey, creator, co-founder andcChairman of Twitter
- Padmsree Warrior, CTO of Cisco Systems
- John Donahoe, CEO of eBay, (now @TallBoy6 on Twitter)
- Jason Liebman, Howcast
- Shervin Pishevar, executive chairman and founder of Social Gaming Network
- Mitchell Baker, Mozilla Foundation chair
- Esther Dyson, investor and
- Ellis Rubinstein, president and CEO of New York Academy of Sciences.
“We’re trying to look at how Russia can utilize its population as a health resource, as an education resource, as an anti-corruption resource, as an anti-trafficking resource,” said Cohen, as quoted at Wired’s Epicenter blog.
According to Wired:
“the group hopes to emerge with clear deliverables. Women in remote areas could receive information — either online or using the SMS feature on their cellphones — on how to have healthy pregnancies. And in order to prevent Russian cellphone companies from being pressured into divulging the names and locations of those who report human-trafficking violations by SMS, the complaints could be cleaned and anonymized outside of the country, according to Cohen.
“The State Department is not bringing these people over as CEOs,” Cohen added. “John Donahoe is the CEO of eBay, but he’s also an expert on e-commerce and building platforms that move large sums of money in ways that aren’t corrupt, so he’s an expert on ‘e-anti-corruption.’”
The success of the mission hit at least one roadblock: Moscow traffic.
Despite tweeting about people, the ballet, the Kremlin, food and one another, the tech delegation was quiet about missing a meeting with Russia’s communications minister — and six Russian tech companies.
Other visits, at least viewed from through Kutcher’s livestream and Cohen’s able narration, have been more productive. Twitter gained another high profile user, after Jack helped Donahoe sign up on Twitter.
Sometimes the best record of an event is in pictures of the delegation’s progress. Three of the pictures in this post are from Esther Dyson’s Flickr photostream. While the tweets of delegation tell a tale, as do reactions from Russian students and the rest of the online audience, her pictures and captions is the most eloquent storytelling I’ve encountered to date.
Search engines and science
What’s the fastest growing search engine in the world? Apparently Yandex.ru, as the delegates learned when they visited Yandex.ru headquarters. The Russian search engine has the fastest rate of growth in the world, according to Comscore. After we met on Twitter, Nick Wilsdon also shared statistics on Russia’s top social networks, VKontakte.ru & Odnoklassniki.ru.
Students and social media
As with students elsewhere, Russian students are using phones and social networking to exchange information. Warrior shared a picture of the students gathered at Novosibirsk on Twitter, tweeting about an “energizing chat w/ univ students, topics ranged from talent, innov., corruptin, beer pong.”
Given the return of state control of domestic television networks in Russia, the Internet’s role as a vital means of communication and global news has perhaps never been as acute.
What else will come of the “innovation delegation?”
Veterans of the Cold War might wonder why the U.S. or its entrepreneurs are offering advice or a forum to a former opponent. Even if the “missile gap” is a remnant of the past, Russian and U.S. relations haven’t been exactly sunny over the decades.
It may be that this delegation is a physical expression of the hopes that Hillary Clinton expressed in her speech on Internet freedom. And, in fact, Jared Cohen tweeted the State Department’s innovation delegation is “an example of 21st century statecraft driven by Hillary Clinton.”
But putting concerns about aiding Russian industry aside, creating the conditions that make Silicon Valley or NYC fertile grounds for tech entrepreneurship won’t be easy. “We’re developing joint projects w/Russia on education, anti-trafficking, health, e-gov, anti-corruption using tech,” Cohen tweeted earlier today.
“Novosibirsk is Russia’s 4th largest city,” tweeted Cohen, “less than 100yrs old, Russia’s hub of innovation, & just northeast of India in middle of Siberia. [The] challenge in Siberia is not lack of innovation, but rather avenues for entrepreneurs to attract start-up capital.”
Giving young Russian entrepreneurs confidence about both patents and ownership of intellectual property would help, as would mentors. “I’ve been interested in Russia, working in computer science, engineering, mathematics for a long time,” said Dorsey in Novosibirsk. “Russia has been a major part of the story. I’ve found that there’s a real desire to create projects and an entrepreneurial spirit but not enough face to face discussion.”
Dorsey pointed out that the U.S. tech community regularly has meetups in Silicon Valley and New York City where the largest companies constantly invite people to come in. “When you have that supportive culture, it’s very easy to take risks,” he said. In Russia, Dorsey observed, “There’s not this desire, or a structure, or momentum, to get together and talk about what we want to create together. If you bring people who can fund this from the beginning, you start building angel networks, which are the basis for all innovation in the US these days.”
Desire, control of intellectual property and a tech community would be an incremental change on a larger continuum. As Fraser Cameron wrote in a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has called for a number of reforms, including a return to elections and freedom.
Cameron points out that Putin “failed to encourage investment in new industries, technologies or infrastructure.” In that context, will access to Western angel investors or social media matter?
Or, to reiterate the questions I asked to the delegation last night:
What uses of tech do Russians admire in the US? Where could new ICT help there now? How important is free, open speech to stimulating a culture of innovation? What about the use of open source tech? (Listen in for answers in Kutcher’s archived streams.)
Kutcher (above, in his own Twitpic) evidently has gained some perspective, at least on the impact of state involvement. “My perception of Russia and Russian technologists was always based on Russia’s ability and interest in scientific achievement,” he said. “The one thing I’ve found since we’ve been here, without Russian government controlling the room, is that it becomes a much more vibrant, expressive room. My perception of control levels and the reality were two different things.”
Donahoe, former head of Bain & Company, had different considerations. He said that while he saw potential to expand eBay into Russia, it would be on the condition: that law enforcement and the Russian government cooperate on anti-cybercrime.
Donahoe was impressed by a number of experiences, particularly in a new view of Siberia. “There’s a wealth of talent, real opportunity to build on a tech center,” he said. “I’m truck by the talent of Russian engineers. They should continue to play a leadership role in the World Wide Web, as they have continued to do with Google, Paypal and Skype.”
On techno-utopianism and digital diplomacy
[Photo Credit: Jarod Liebman]
The ability of social media platforms to provide a platform for conversations was repeatedly shown in 2009, particularly in Iran’s elections. As Jack said to ABC News, “when you can see more of what’s happening you can really see more of the opposition is arguing about and take those arguments head on and have a conversation about them.”
The same communication tools can and have, however, been used in “digital dictatorships,” as Evgeny Morosov wrote in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday. Rita J. King’s considered rebuttal in the “The Evolution of Revolution,” pointing out where digital diplomacy has had effect.
Cohen’s own involvement in the Alliance of Youth Movements (AYM) conferences would seem to extend from a similar belief in the potential for 21st Century statecraft.
Some of the most important interactions, after all, are likely to always be in person. As Jack tweeted, “having lunch together is so much more important to creating something than a business meeting -@edyson.”
The role of ICT
As I listened to the discussions with Russian technologists about what could be done to improve innovation, particularly for civic gain, I thought of a long post that MIT Professor Andrew McAfee posted earlier this month on information and communication technologies (ICT).
As he wrote in “The Oxygen of Bandwidth, or How I Spent My Winter Vacation,” “researchers report that people in the developing world are willing to skip meals in order to buy more bandwidth.”
McAfee’s advice for helping the people of the developing world is simple: “Help them acquire technology that lets them help themselves, and that lets others help them. To paraphrase Winston Churchill: give them the ICT tools, and they will finish the job.”
Mitigating the dangers of journalism in Russia isn’t likely any time soon., but given Russia’s technological base, many of its engineers, students and scientists are equipped with the ability to create such tools already.
Whether this trip will create avenues for better communication, investment in startups or anti-corruption is an open question. It’s one of many that the delegates themselves will no doubt continue to answer in the days ahead.