The art of ‘techplomacy’: Bringing the lessons from China’s bigtech surge to the West – Martin Rune Hoxer, ICDK, Shanghai

The debates we’re having in the West around adapting to climate change and tackling different global challenges, we need China as a partner in this… there’s a lot to learn from China that can really benefit our home countries.


As a nation of under six million, what it lacks in geopolitical might, Denmark more than makes up for in diplomatic muscle. It is perhaps little wonder then the Nordic nation, also among the most digitalised countries in the world, was the first to establish a dedicated foreign ambassador to the technology industry.

While the lure of Silicon Valley was undeniable, becoming the tech envoy’s first diplomatic post abroad, and thus providing a direct channel to negotiate with the world’s premier ‘bigtechs’, including Facebook and Google – a tacit recognition that the US-based FAANGs now wield as much power as many nation-states – the ambassador has always had one eye looking East. Within a year of its founding, partner hubs, or Innovation Centres, were established in Beijing and Shanghai to capitalise on China’s seemingly limitless digital innovation output and R&D potential.

FST Government spoke with Martin Rune Hoxer, executive director of Denmark’s Innovation Centre in Shanghai on China’s astonishing rise as a major tech hub, rivalling the US as a nursery for global bigtechs, opportunities to find common diplomatic ground between China and the West through technology, particularly in tackling the climate crisis, and the ambassador’s ‘techplomacy’ doctrine: a mission to spread “social responsibility, democracy, and safety” through digital partnerships.


 

FST Government: The tech ambassador role is a first-of-its-kind creation by the Danish Government, and a pioneering first for global diplomacy. Could you offer us some insight into the tech envoy’s role and specifically your remit in China?

Hoxer: In fact, this is Denmark’s second tech ambassador. Our first, Casper Klynge, was appointed to help establish our tech diplomacy initiative – or ‘techplomacy’, as we’ve dubbed it. With the appointment of our new tech ambassador last October, our remit is to renew that original mandate set by Casper.

She [Anne Marie Engtoft Larsen] has an office in both Silicon Valley, where she’s personally based, and another at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Copenhagen. Our tech ambassador also has representatives in Beijing within the Danish embassy, with whom I collaborate as heads of our respective ICDKs (Innovation Centre Denmark).

Our mandate in China is no different from the mandate our tech ambassador has in the US or in Europe – essentially, our goal is to initiate dialogue with bigtech companies and also governments, understanding that data protection and the influence of these tech giants extends not only to Danes, but citizens all around the world.

 

Anne Marie, as part of our ‘techplomacy’ initiative, thus also has a role in understanding how we can shape certain foreign policies along these lines. At our core, we’re basically concerned with social responsibility, democracy and safety.

 

FST Government: And, as part of this initiative, are you hoping there’s a bit of cross-pollination or knowledge sharing between ICDK as guest and China as host country?

Hoxer: Definitely. This role will only work if our ambassador has dialogue partners. Speaking with Anne Marie and other heads of innovation, she’s looking forward to building dialogue with fellow tech ambassadors, cyber ambassadors, and science counsellors and so on around the world, because they’re the ones that have a mandate in their respective countries to initiate conversations and policy dialogue with relevant stakeholders.

For us at the Innovation Centre, we’re also hoping that we can revitalise our mandates that form part of our wider techplomacy initiative, taking home knowledge from respective innovation hotspots and using the tech ambassador role as a door opener both in Shanghai but also back in Denmark to access important players in the technology ecosystem, such as universities and bigger R&D companies.

 

FST Government: As part of this exchange, do you feel China itself is also willing to absorb some of the ideas that are coming out of Denmark?

Hoxer: Honestly, I think China is moving so fast these days and absorbing so many different ideas from around the world. But, of course, they’re doing it in their own way, investing heavily in innovation and research. We’ve also seen that the government has stopped some tech giants growing into certain areas, including finance. I won’t necessarily speculate on the motives here, but we can see in certain ways the concerns I hear coming out of China are also concerns we hear in Europe, more or less. In that sense, there’s an opportunity to at least discuss, potentially, some common ground for doing shared implementations and so on.

 

FST Government: You’ve mentioned the ambassador’s ‘techplomacy’ initiative. Could you walk us through some of the tenets of this mandate and what you’re hoping to achieve from it?

Hoxer: You could say we’re basically addressing three interlinked trends. One, of course, is the technology disruption we’re seeing in many different sectors and businesses across the world. For example, it could be autonomous driving, autonomous vessels, or constant data sharing through technologies like Internet of Things (IoT). Through these, we’re sharing data and not necessarily knowing where it’s ending up. If you put yourself in an autonomous vehicle months or years from now, what kind of data is then shared on your location and whatnot? Secondly – and this is interlinked with the first part – multinational tech companies are driving tech innovation.

This means we have to play a governance role in addressing some of the issues with these bigtechs – not only in a negative way, but also positively.

 

They can drive policies forward as well, but they must be in a dialogue with national governments and multinational platforms. For Denmark, it’s very important that we are on the same platform as the other EU countries – for instance, when it comes to GDPR rules or monopoly environments around certain areas of tech. Free competition is something we’d also like to see in many different areas of the business sector to ensure it’s not being monopolised by different tech giants. Finally, of course, is the shaping of foreign policy and geopolitics; this is where you need global alliances. For dialogue to take shape here and to form future policies, it has to be through international forums.

So, in terms of techplomacy, there’s also a focus on shaping foreign policy, taking careful note of current and emerging developments and innovations in technology. As I mentioned before, we have a three-pronged strategy to support this techplomacy initiative: our promotion of social responsibility, democracy, and safety. It’s ‘tech for good’, or ‘tech for change’, which has wider societal implications. We therefore always address techplomacy with a very pragmatic and realistic approach, in a sort of ‘triple helix’ structure: we have civil society, public and private actors, but also the research sector, which provides the foundation for making better decisions.

 

FST Government: In terms of politics or indeed governance, there’s no doubt a marked difference between China and the West’s systems of government. Despite these differences, what can China’s burgeoning innovation environment teach the West about how we can nurture tech initiatives – perhaps even for social betterment?

Hoxer: There’s honestly a number of things that we can learn from China. What we’ve done, at least from a Danish perspective and I guess from many different countries’ perspectives, has till now looked at China as a simple way of getting cheap labour and production facilities. What we see now is that China is growing in its own right, with a rising middle class. There’s also innovation coming out of China that is second to none; they’re investing not only in applied sciences, but also comprehensive sciences, in medicine and biotechnology for instance.

The debates we’re having in the West around adapting to climate change and tackling these different challenges, we need China as a partner in this. Of course, a lot of this has to do with whether or not we can come together on certain policies. I’m not a policy shaper; I’m here to make sure that Danish researchers are getting partnerships with the best researchers in China and vice versa. But there’s a lot to learn from China in certain areas where it’s beneficial for our home countries.

We’re no longer looking at China as a developing country. China passed that a long time ago and there’s some really ground-breaking research coming out of the country – for instance, looking into the green transition and climate adaptation.

 

And then, of course, if you take a business perspective, an area like Shenzhen really is an innovation hotspot; they’re doing mock-ups and very agile business adaption. There’s a lot to learn from China – not only looking at China from afar, but also being in China.

And you see with Australia, for instance, with this new regional Free Trade Agreement (FTA) coming together with Japan, Korea, China, as the bigger economies alongside some of those key transition economies in Asia. This multinational agreement is evidence that countries can still negotiate and find each other, despite challenging issues in the geopolitical arena. It’s important for countries like Denmark and other Western nations to look at how you then adapt to and be part of such an agreement. And if you’re part of it and you have production in China, that might also give you better access to some other economies that are within that FTA. Of course, we still need to see ratification first. But it just gives you one example of why it’s important to look at China.

China has been one of the main architects behind this FTA. If you’re not a willing part of that agreement, you’re basically saying that 2.2 billion people of the world are not important.

 

FST Government: Europe was, of course, once the centre of global innovation and trade. Rather than simply being a follower of China or the US, do you feel it’s possible for Europe to, in a sense, re-claim the mantle as an innovation leader?

Hoxer: I think it is, particularly with our relatively well-educated population. What we’ve seen in Denmark and other European countries over the last few years has been the advancement of the ‘green agenda’. Many companies and a lot of exports are now linked to the green sector. In Denmark, it’s very much focused on turbines and windmills, and we want to be stronger in that area. But we’ve also been focused on innovation within the life sciences and health from bigger pharmaceutical companies.

For Danish companies or Western companies more generally, including Australia, what we’re seeing lacking compared to the US and Asia are those tech giants – and not just the giants, but tech companies really setting the scene with new data-driven business models.

 

We only have very few and they’re not very big. We need to step up our game, not only to attract and grow these tech giants, but to have more tech-driven or data-driven businesses coming out. We also need to look at sustainability, at our green agenda, as a way of looking at new business models that can disrupt old industries around the world.

 

FST Government: Just as a bit of a flipside to the previous question, which noted China’s rise as a great tech innovator. Looking at some government-led advances in technology, while impressive, they do have a troubling element to them: social credit scoring, AI-backed surveillance and facial recognition, for example. What lessons can we in the West take from this unfettered approach to technology innovation and perhaps the limits we must place on our own governments to protect civil liberties?

Hoxer: It’s a very good question and a very big one. Of course, every country has to decide on its own, but also make alliances that they think are relevant and feasible for both business purposes as well as the ethics and values that they represent. For Denmark, under our techplomacy initiative, which emphasises social responsibility, democracy, and safety, that is the direction that we take.

When talking with the tech giants, whether they’re in China, the US, Korea, or the EU, we want to ensure that we shape dialogue in the best possible way [to meet these techplomacy objectives].

 

We have seen data-driven or data privacy scandals around the world. In Korea, there was a lot of leakage of CCTV surveillance footage; controversy still surrounds the use of AI in Europe and elsewhere; and with Cambridge Analytica in the US, it’s clear these scandals are popping up around the world. There is a need for governance and a need for dialogue with different stakeholders to shape our technology objectives in a way that promotes good for all of society.

 

FST Government: It’s also finding that balance, because while we don’t necessarily want to stifle innovation, care needs to be taken to ensure tech companies aren’t solely dictating social policy and, perhaps even inadvertently, eroding civil liberties. Many of these surveillance and facial recognition tech companies are in fact based in the West, selling their wares to governments around the world, including authoritarian regimes, which is something we need to be mindful of.

Hoxer: That’s key. We really do need to be mindful. We also need to be more focused on the partnerships we have.

It’s not only a matter of having as many partnerships as possible, but in having partners with mutual interests.

 

So for Denmark in China, for instance, we are definitely going to pursue opportunities with the green transition. While there are clear commercial opportunities, there are also opportunities where we come from a position of strength and can provide another approach to this thinking. It’s really a matter of finding ways of doing more in these common areas of interest and in arenas where you feel you can do more.


FST Government: Denmark is widely rated as one of the most digitalised countries and, moreover, the most well progressed digital governments in the world today. What conditions or policies do you feel have allowed Denmark to achieve this?

Hoxer: If you look at the timeline for Danish digitalisation, there have been a different set of milestones. One is that we, decades ago, created a personal registration number for all citizens. Of course, citizens have to put trust in government and the structures that you provide. But, essentially, this system has provided the backbone and the structure of digitalising a lot of different public services. So, whether you’re registering for healthcare or your pension scheme or an ‘E box’ – which is basically an email system for all Danish citizens, where all public agencies or public entities send their correspondence; so it’s a safe email environment to share different data and so on with citizens – all this was put in place because there were certain forward-thinking politicians back in the day providing what is now the backbone of digitisation in Denmark.

We’re also an export-oriented country. In order for us to have services that can reach other countries, we’ve had to very much be at the forefront of digitalisation across many different sectors.

 

These are some of the drivers that have been paramount for Danish digitalisation. By contrast, our neighbouring Germany is not very digitalised; it’s still very analogue, so they’re facing some other challenges. However, it’s not always a positive; certain citizens who have problems using ICT may be excluded.

 

FST Government: And in terms of practical benefits from this digital-friendly environment, has it driven a rise in citizen trust in or engagement with government?

Hoxer: There’s a lot of low practical benefits. There is near seamless – though perhaps I’m over-selling this – information-sharing between our government systems, which, of course, gives a strong sense of security that only the right data and documents are being shared. And it’s very easy to find the right person in this system.

Whether it’s a good thing for government is hard to say. In my perception, these services are regarded as something that almost aren’t related to government anymore; it’s broader than the Danish state. Those different agencies that citizens interact with or pay their taxes through, those services have moved online. And, of course, moving online offers the benefit of not spending too much time with public agencies. So a public service that can be digitalised and automated is, from the outset, seen by the majority of Danes as something that is beneficial.

 

FST Government: Are there any lessons Australia can take from Denmark’s experience in advancing digital government?

Hoxer: I’d say the most important thing is to introduce for younger generations ways to better interact with different online platforms. Back when I was still in public school, there was a fair bit of focus on understanding the manipulation behind advertisements or marketing messages.

For younger generations, technology is transforming so fast. We need to provide these generations with a good foundation of understanding around how technology can enhance and elevate a lot of positive things, whilst on the other hand, understanding how social media can affect one’s life or future employment and so on.

And it almost feels redundant to say, because younger folk probably know a lot more than me, but it’s happening so fast. So, whether we need to have new teaching modalities or involve other key opinion leaders and introduce them to the pros and cons of tech and innovation, I’m not entirely sure. I’m just raising it as a potential red flag. And it’s a matter of health, too. My own sons spend a lot of time in front of their iPhones, iPads, and computers. We have to ask ourselves, how do we maintain a balanced life and remain in good health with all the technology that surrounds us?

 

FST Government: There’s always talk around the next big emerging technology – currently, eyes are on AI, blockchain, quantum computing and IoT. Out of all these emerging innovations, which do you feel will have the most radical impact on government and society over the next decade?

Hoxer: We’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to AI. We’ll see that a lot of things will revolve around AI-based applications, because the technology can effectively automate every digital process. We recently did a report on AI in healthcare, how AI is applied here in China and how it can potentially help with, for instance, personalised medicine in getting better advice, getting a second opinion and so on, and questioning how we can quality assure a lot of different processes in the medical sector.

Then, of course, quantum is the basis of a lot of new processing. Quantum will initiate and elevate the use of AI as well, if it becomes more commercial, of course. And then there’s also the developments in networking technology, such as 5G, that we now see being rolled out in many countries – and in China they’re even looking at 6G.

When that 5G and 6G infrastructure is put in place, we’ll no doubt see a lot of new applications and an exponential growth in IoT devices and connectivity all over this country, and also all over the world, that will have massive consequences.

 

FST Government: After the world’s slight Covid hangover from 2020, what’s on the roadmap for Denmark’s Innovation Centre over the next 12 months?

Hoxer: Our portfolio is really full. There are a lot of companies and universities that have reached out to us, basically because they cannot be here in China due to travel restrictions still in place. We’re essentially acting on their behalf; we’re the boots on the ground, if you will, meeting with a lot of Chinese partners.

We’re moving, currently, in the direction of supporting much more of a green transition, noting also the big ambitions and innovations we’re seeing here in China in that space. Within the next couple of weeks, I’ll be visiting a number of different districts to promote Danish and Nordic solutions in the ‘cleantech’ arena. One has to do with the digitalisation of water – so, how you might better measure the use of water resources, for instance. We’re also happy again to involve ourselves in the Entrepreneurship World Cup, where we’ll be taking a trip around universities in a bid to promote entrepreneurship and the nurturing of start-ups. ◼


Martin Rune Hoxer was a featured keynote speaker at the 5th Annual FST Government Queensland 2021 conference last March.