Considering the constructive role he can play as the US ambassador to Sweden, Matthew Barzun remains fully aware of the long shadow cast by his predecessor, Michael Wood, who served as President George W. Bush’s last envoy to Sweden from 2006 until his departure in January of this year.
Wood’s tenure was marked by his efforts to establish collaboration between the US and Sweden on alternative energy in the hopes of achieving a breakthrough that would be a win-win for both countries.
Dubbed the One Big Thing (OBT), the programme is now a firmly established part of how the embassy conducts bilateral relations with Sweden – and it’s something Barzun is keen to continue, even if it was started by someone from the opposing political camp.
“We’ve had wonderful success in the alternative energy partnerships and that remains a crucial part of our relationship with Sweden,” says Barzun, adding that it’s important not to be complacent about OBT simply because of its past success.
“It is bearing fruit, but we can’t just stand there and look at it. We have to plant new seeds because there are a lot of new ideas that can also grow and bear fruit.”
In addition to fostering more green partnerships between the US and Sweden, Barzun is also keen to look for new areas for the two countries to cooperate.
“Take development, for example, just look at the numbers,” he says, rattling off several rankings which place Sweden at or near the top in terms of foreign aid given relative to population size and GDP, before noting that the United States gives more development assistance in terms of total dollars than any other country.
“You have these two leading countries when it comes to development,” he explains.
“It’s an area that’s ripe for further cooperation, partnership and exploration, not least in terms of how technology can play a role,” he adds, pointing out, however, that nothing specific is in the works just yet.
Returning to the subject of innovation and breaking down barriers, discussion moves to file sharing and The Pirate Bay, considered by its advocates to be the ultimate form of removing barriers to entry, while detractors in the entertainment industry view the site as one of the biggest threats to their businesses.
Barzun, a veteran of internet publishing, is circumspect when asked whether the founders of The Pirate Bay should be celebrated for their innovation or treated as villains who deserve to be jailed.
“In the beginning of a new technology it’s always humbling to look back and see what dominated,” Barzun explains, reflecting on some of the early debates of the IT industry in the early- to mid-1990s.
The IT industry veteran explains that the advent of new – and often disruptive – technologies is never a smooth process.
He tells the story of how CNET, the internet publishing giant he helped found and grow into a multi-billion dollar business, would receive “angry letters” from businesses upset with CNET linking to their websites.
“These were smart people trying to play by the rules,” he says of the lawyers who wrote the threatening correspondence.
He points out that his colleagues at CNET generally abided by the requests, even if they thought the lawyers’ demands were shortsighted.
“It just makes us laugh now,” he says.
“I mean, this stuff gets worked out in a very messy but ultimately very practical way.”
In Barzun’s eyes, technology breeds change, even to deeply rooted systems and paradigms like intellectual property rights – changes which he believes are already underway.
“This thing has been fluid and will continue to be,” he says, arguing that artists and content creators need to be front and centre when dust settles.
“It’s obviously important to go back to the artists and the people creating material,” Barzun says.
“If there’s no mechanism for them to be compensated, however you define compensation, money, fame, something, it’s not a good model.”
Moving on to how innovation and technology may shape his role as ambassador, Barzun is quick to throw out a three-letter acronym of the sort common in US government parlance.
And while his predecessor’s legacy may be OBT, Barzun hopes TED can help make his tenure in Stockholm more effective.
TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design – not exactly three words one typically associates with traditional diplomacy.
But TED didn’t originate in some nondescript government conference room. Rather it comes from an annual conference started in 1984 dedicated to “ideas worth spreading”.
“I was really inspired by their tagline. I think it shows how to tap the diversity of ideas out there,” says Barzun
He then rattles off a number of his favourite “TED Talks”, including one by Swedish international health and statistics expert Hans Rosling, who was recently named by Foreign Policy magazine as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2009.
Hundreds of TED Talks, most of which are purposely shorter than 20 minutes, have been recorded over the years and are available for viewing online free of charge.
According to Barzun, the embassy is already experimenting with various ways to apply the TED model.
For example, the embassy’s Facebook page features short video clips with the 2009 American Nobel Laureates, who were asked during a luncheon hosted by Barzun on the day before they received their prizes to answer the following question: What advice would you give to your 20-year-old self on making a real difference in the world, knowing what you know today?
“Storytelling is such an important and powerful tool; that’s how ideas spread,” says Barzun.
“What we’re trying to do is connect people, connect, catalyze, and celebrate: connect networks, catalyze interactions around alternative energy, and celebrate the success stories.”
Barzun is also encouraging embassy staff to give TED Talks to one another at staff meetings in order to get more acclimated with the format.
“I’m a big believer in the notion that the little thing you do every day better look like the big thing you want to be one day,” he says.
Despite his confidence in where the embassy is heading in its efforts to engage, Barzun remains humble in what remains the start of a new career.
“It’s all about admitting that you don’t have all the answers and really wanting and needing other people’s ideas… I have lots to learn” he said.
Nevertheless, Barzun remains buoyant about what he and his colleagues may be able to accomplish in the year ahead.
“I hope a year from now we will have success stories to talk about,” he says.