A ministry of foreign affairs is a very traditional place where men in suits analyze international challenges and find answers in closed circles. Right?

Think again.

The future of diplomacy might very well look more like a co-working space, where collaborative brainstorming formats are organized to tap the knowledge and ideas of creative minds from all walks of life.

Let us introduce two bottom-up initiatives we’ve had the chance to contribute to: the volunteer think tank foraus, which is crowdsourcing the ideas and knowledge of hundreds of young foreign policy pundits. And the Open Situation Rooms format which enables MFAs and international institutions to tap the problem solving capacities of creative people.

Who can manage complexity in a multipolar world?

This is not to say foreign policy ever used to be a simple business. States have interests and more often than not, those were conflicting interests. Diplomacy is an art and a craft, it takes experience and knowledge today just like it used to a thousand years ago. But these days, international politics have become enormously complex, and thus, sometimes confusing to the traditional diplomat.

Not only are the topics new, disruptive and highly technical, but they are also emerging with increasing speed. Internet governance will set crucial precedents for the way we govern communication in the future; last year’s Ebola outbreak just gave us another example for the kind of lethal challenges we have to tackle, while climate change brings surprising and devastating catastrophes that require sophisticated and concerted long-term action.

Some of the main players in these crises are non-traditional, and this area is no longer restricted to nation-states. Global foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation play a decisive role in development, Daesh fighters from all over the world are causing havoc in the Middle East, and opaque forces are involved in the Ukraine crisis.

And finally, communication, the cornerstone of diplomacy, has been radically changed by electronic and social media, by smartphones, by the internet. Never in the history of mankind, has the general public had so many opportunities to stay informed about foreign policy – and never before did they expect to be informed more accurately and more timely than today.

It is no exaggeration to say: In the second decade of the 21st century, foreign affairs isn’t short on challenges.

A new era

To be sure: there is no panacea for all the current challenges in foreign affairs. But there are some key factors that are to be taken into account when designing future policies on the international level:

  • Think outside the box. Foreign policy is probably most famous for its vast collection of strategies and doctrines. This fact may lead to the idea that there’s a foreign policy recipe for every challenge. But the opposite is true: there is hardly another discipline where the circumstances are as dynamic as in foreign policy and hence, hardly a field where creativity needs to be embraced more. Today, this applies more than ever.
  • Become an expert. In order to be creative, diplomats always had to be generalists, knowing bits and pieces of every subject they might encounter, from nuclear power to oenology. But human knowledge now has to go deeper than ever before.
  • Mix disciplines. Solving the worlds problems not only requires a deep understanding of specific issues, but also the interlinkage between various subjects. In order to find answers, today’s foreign policy needs to look for them not only in politics, in science and in business, but also in arts, social movements and creative industries.
  • Be fast. The sun never sets on international affairs; issues can pop up at every time of the day or night. And they develop at an increasing speed. The days when we had the time to plan conferences or meetings months ahead are long gone.
  • Create communities. New ways of tapping into creative, wide and interdisciplinary communities of experts within an extremely short time-frame have been opened up by social media. By creating communities, you have a global task-force on standby. The only question is: who gets the brightest minds?
  • Be open and accessible. The sharing economy has set the tone for foreign policy. Creating the best approaches can no longer be done in closed circles. Only dynamic, accessible and permeable networks of like-minded people are able to exert impact on a global scale.
  • Inform. There may still be moments, when negotiations have to take place behind closed doors – but as a principle, these doors must be kept open. It is the only way to create trust in societies that are aware of the fact that the era of privacy has come to an end.

In previous years, we’ve had the opportunity to contribute to two foreign policy initiatives that embrace these ideas and implement them successfully: The Open Situation Room (OSR) and the first grassroots think-tank, foraus – the Swiss Forum on Foreign Policy. 

The case of the Open Situation Room 

During crises in foreign policy, it used to be the most senior officials of an administration that gathered in a Situation Room. A place where all available information is gathered and made available, where the chains of command are synchronized and where decisions were made.

The OSR takes this model and updates it for the 21st century. Around the table are not only senior officials, but also young entrepreneurs, physicians, designers, artists and social activists. Instead of sitting and discussing, they are calling Facebook-Friends that are on site, they are designing prototypes for foreign policy reactions by entering role-plays, while at the same they are tweeting live from the OSR. At the end of the session, they present a range of scenarios and recommendations to decision makers.

The first series of OSRs have taken place during the German Foreign Ministry’s Review process in 2014. German foreign policy officials asked the curated round of the OSR how they should react to real foreign policy challenges – ignoring hierarchies and the traditional boundaries of a foreign ministry. The results were surprising – and they have become a valuable addition to traditional foreign policy making.

The OSR process will not replace traditional foreign policy making, but it presents a useful path to a more comprehensive policy design ready for today’s international challenges. Consequently, the German ministry of foreign affairs continues to hold OSRs around the country – and others may well join in soon.

The case of foraus

Switzerland has a long and successful history of democratic civil-society participation in policy-making. However, until 2009 it even lacked a foreign policy think-tank. When creating foraus with a large group of friends, we knew that the community-aspect of a foreign-policy think-tank in Switzerland would be crucial – not only because it fits the country’s tradition, but also because it serves the necessities of current international policy-making.

The concept of foraus has its roots in the conviction that only by sourcing ideas from the crowd, will a think-tank be able to come up with the best new foreign policy designs. Consequently, foraus is a grassroots organization whose membership is open to everyone. Publications are written by volunteering members and quality control is secured through a network of peers, dedicated professors and foreign policy practitioners. In return, it is not only the think-tank, but also young researchers that receive public and academic attention for their policy recommendations.

Furthermore, relying on volunteers meant that the think-tank’s overhead costs are at a minimum and its private and public sources of finance will never be in a position to exert influence. Hence, foraus is probably one of the most independent think-tanks in the world.

Currently, more than a thousand members are publishing with foraus, organizing public conferences and expert round tables. And the concept is expanding: Polis180 in Berlin and a foraus-subsidiary in Brussels are ready to stir up the European think-tank scene, with more cities to join in soon. We’re now thinking of scaling the project to the global level, working together with international organisations

The way forward

We believe that politics will become more and more internationally oriented with ever more challenges that cannot be tackled by a single nation-state.

And while we think there is a need for diplomacy to radically alter approaches, we still think that the Ministries of Foreign Affairs are in an excellent position to embrace the current developments. Having a network of embassies around the world at their disposal and diplomats with long-lasting experience in all regions and a variety of subjects, they are predetermined to play a central role in the global politics of the future. But it is now high time for them to change their modus operandi. Foreign policy has to become more innovative, more interdisciplinary, more open and happen much faster.

If they are successful in adapting to the new and complex global realities – and only then – will they remain key players.

Authors: Nicola Forster is the founding curator of the Global Shapers Bern, president of the Swiss foreign policy think tank foraus and an innovation consultant. Maximilian Stern is a member of the Global Shapers Hub Zurich, a Mercator Fellow on international Affairs and a co-founder of foraus.

Image: A man takes picture of national flags fluttering at the Copacabana Fort, where the TEDxRio+20 forum will be held, June 11, 2012. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes