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About the Author

Joe White MBE is Her Majesty’s Consul General in San Francisco and Tech Envoy to the US; he worked previously as a Silicon Valley-based entrepreneur and investor. He has served as: General Partner of Entrepreneur First, a Greylock backed early stage deep tech fund for which he’s raised and run $200m of funds; co-chair of GBx, a curated network of British entrepreneurs; a non-executive director for the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team where he advised on social impact technology products; and a former co-founder of Moonfruit.com, a website and ecommerce platform hosting 7m sites, which he exited in 2012. He received an MBE from HM The Queen in 2017 for Services to Technology Businesses.

Perspective

Steeped in Science: Tech Diplomacy for a New Age of Discovery

The world is changing faster than ever. Technological innovation is proceeding at an unprecedented scale and pace, creating new industries, changing existing ones, transforming lives and livelihoods, and reshaping our societies. This transformative power can be harnessed for the global good—but also comes with complex risks, and the battle over emerging tech’s frontier is itself contributing to a fraying of the old world order. There is a growing gap between what technological advances make possible and the limits of existing global governance. After over twenty years in tech with a singular focus to drive forward the frontiers of this change, my transition to government has been a sobering reminder of the urgent need to support the conversation between the disruptors and those trying to manage the interests of society affected by this change. What is needed is a new science and tech-infused diplomacy, capable of shaping a new international order and managing the transition to a more digital and connected society, through forging deep collaboration between innovation ecosystems and diplomatic domains. The United Kingdom is leading the way, putting science and technology at the heart of its international alliances—starting with the new Atlantic Charter1 agreed to by President Biden and Prime Minister Johnson in June 2021—seeking new collaborative approaches to international problems and involving the full spectrum of scientists, researchers, investors, innovators, manufacturers, regulators, and standards bodies, all of whom have an increasing international role to play in our hyper-connected world.

My role as UK Government Tech Envoy to the United States—the first such British appointment—was made in 2020 in recognition of this new force in international affairs. Amid the economic turmoil created by the COVID-19 crisis, from my base on Sand Hill Road in the heart of Silicon Valley’s venture capital ecosystem, I found myself supporting Her Majesty’s Government in developing the UK’s economic response for the tech sector—leading to our £1bn (US$1.4bn) Future Fund—and then seizing this opportunity to join government in this unique role at a critical time. The COVID-19 pandemic underscored how vital improved science and technology cooperation is, particularly rapid international cooperation on virus genomics and eventual vaccines. It also showed how at risk we all are from fractured supply chains, misinformation, and geopolitical competition in both the physical and cyber landscapes. Climate change will require a similar creative and S&T-supported response.  Making progress in these areas is going to take collaborative approaches, with governments convening all the relevant actors, from researchers through to manufacturers. So, while I am involved in traditional diplomacy, forging a new tech partnership with the U.S. government, I am also strengthening the UK’s relationships with Silicon Valley and the broader U.S. innovation ecosystem, discussing issues from data flows and ethical standards in AI to cybersecurity and online harms.

The British government put the role of science and tech front and center in its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy,2  published in March 2021. The review sets out how, faced with a fragmented international order characterized by intensifying competition between states and diverging interests and values, the UK is integrating its diplomatic, development, defense, and science and innovation tools, to act as a force for good in the world.

My role, based in San Francisco, with a nation-wide remit, is part of the UK’s commitment to its relationship with the United States: no alliance is more valuable to British citizens. The revitalized Atlantic Charter builds on the commitments and aspirations set out in the original over eighty years ago, and affirms our ongoing commitment to sustaining our enduring values and defending them against challenges old and new. Working together, as the Charter states, the United States and the UK can “embrace the promise and manage the peril of emerging technologies.”3

This is already underway with new agreements in place on AI4 and quantum technologies,5 underpinned by ongoing cooperation between our national research funding agencies and the flourishing collaborative research relationships that have long contributed to the United States and UK’s research excellence. These Declarations of Intent recognize the importance of bilateral collaboration in early-stage research and development, and of promoting trust and understanding between nations to enable the safe adoption of AI and quantum technologies and fully realize their potential.

It also means combining our influence to pursue what the UK terms “regulatory diplomacy”:6 bringing together and brokering conversations between governments, standards bodies, academia, innovators, and industry to shape rules, norms, and standards. This is especially important in rapidly evolving areas such as space, cyberspace, emerging technologies, and data. The UK has long been a global services, digital, and data hub, with a strong track record of leading regulatory and standards innovation. This year marked the 75th anniversary of the historic UN meeting in London which led to the foundation of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), which has had a huge positive impact on the world in its support for economic growth and responsible technological innovation. Having expert-led, consensus-based international standards will be ever more critical in tackling the massive challenges of climate change, sustainable development, and the digitalization of the global economy, while protecting rights and freedoms. We were pleased to see ISO members agree to the London Declaration7 during the virtual meeting convened by the British Standards Institute in September, a declaration promising to embed climate considerations into every standard that is created.

I have just returned from the first Future Tech Forum in London, hosted by the Prime Minister, where like-minded democratic partners convened to discuss the role of technology in supporting and protecting open societies and tackling global challenges. Hearing the challenges and discussing issues with colleagues from Australia, across the EU, Nigeria, Senegal, Japan, and the Republic of Korea, to name but a few, as well as representatives from big tech, industry, and civil society, was a reminder that we face many of the same challenges and we must face them together. The Forum launched a shared effort to mitigate regulatory fragmentation and facilitate coherency of emerging tech ecosystems—a process that will continue for years to come.

I will be continuing these frank, future-facing exchanges with partners from across the U.S. tech ecosystem. Let’s build a positive dialogue leading to collaborative action and ensure that the next generation of technologies deliver in the public interest and support open democratic societies in which we all share the benefits.

 

Endnotes

  1. The New Atlantic Charter, June 10, 2021, www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/06/10/the-new-atlantic-charter.
  2. Cabinet Office, “Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy,” March 16, 2021, www.gov.uk/government/publications/global-britain-in-a-competitive-age-the-integrated-review-of-security-defence-development-and-foreign-policy.
  3. The New Atlantic Charter.
  4. Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, and Office for Artificial Intelligence, “Declaration of the United States of America and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland on Cooperation in AI Research and Development: A Shared Vision for Driving Technological Breakthroughs in Artificial Intelligence,” September 25, 2020, http://www.gov.uk/government/publications/declaration-of-the-united-states-of-america-and-the-united-kingdom-of-great-britain-and-northern-ireland-on-cooperation-in-ai-research-and-development.
  5. Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, “UK-US joint statement on cooperation in quantum information sciences and technologies,” November 4, 2021, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/uk-us-joint-statement-on-coop....
  6. Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, “International regulatory cooperation for a global Britain: government response to the OECD review of international regulatory cooperation of the UK,” September 2, 2020, www.gov.uk/government/publications/international-regulatory-cooperation-for-a-global-britain-government-response-to-an-oecd-review/international-regulatory-cooperation-for-a-global-britain-government-response-to-the-oecd-review-of-international-regulatory-cooperation-of-the-uk-h.
  7. “London Declaration: ISO Commits to Climate Agenda,” September 24, 2021, www.iso.org/news/ref2726.html.