Stanford students are applying lean start-up techniques to some of the world’s most difficult foreign policy issues.
The fall 2016 quarter class, Hacking for Diplomacy: Tackling Foreign Policy Challenges with the Lean Launchpad, is a first-of-its-kind course for studying statecraft, created as a reflection of the best that Stanford and Silicon Valley offers in the way of pioneering paradigms. Hacking for Diplomacy is co-taught by Joe Felter, a senior researcher at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC). It is based on the Lean LaunchPad methodology, created by course designer Steve Blank, a Stanford lecturer and entrepreneur.
The teaching team also includes Jeremy Weinstein, a political science professor at the Freeman Spogli Institute; Zvika Krieger, the U.S. Department of State's Representative to Silicon Valley; and Steve Weinstein, the CEO of MovieLabs.
The class is based on cultivating ideas and imagination, breaking free of the traditional “business plan” approach to rolling out new products and solutions. In the case of diplomacy, the lean start-up method is fast and flexible above all. It has three key principles based on concepts such as "mission model canvas," "beneficiary development," and "agile engineering,” according to Felter, also a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.
“The first principle is accepting that any proposed solution to a problem whether in the commercial world or public sector is initially just a set of untested hypotheses – at best informed guesses – as to what may solve the needs of a customer or beneficiary,” said Felter.
Regarding beneficiary development, he said, experiential learning is central.
“There are no answers to complex challenges ‘inside the building,’ if you will, and students must ‘get out of the building’ to find out –in as intimate detail as possible – the various pains and gains experienced by the various beneficiaries, stakeholders and end users that must be addressed to find viable and deployable solutions to their problems,” Felter said.
The last principle, “agile development,” is based on the view that proposed solutions are generated and constantly updated through a collecting of data and feedback. This in turn, Felter explained, is rapidly tested and new solutions are designed based this iterative process.
Overall, he noted, the core idea is that entrepreneurs are everywhere, and that lean startup principles favor experimentation over elaborate planning, offering a faster way to get a desired product or solution to market.
In the class, student teams analyze real-world foreign policy challenges. They then use lean startup principles to find new approaches to seemingly intractable or very complex problems that have bedeviled the foreign policy world. The teams actually work with mentors and officials in the U.S. State Department and other civilian agencies and private companies.
Each week, the teams present their findings (“product”) to a panel of faculty and mentors, who will critique their solutions. The outcomes will range, as they vary from problem to problem. Examples include human rights, food security, refuges and labor recruitment, and mosquito disease threats, among others.
On Oct. 10, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited the class. “Brilliant minds are applying technology to world’s toughest problems. Their perspective will inform,” Kerry tweeted after the class.
Kerry’s State Department gave the students seven challenges to address – human trafficking, avoiding space collisions, tracking nuclear devices, and countering violent extremism. The students will explore and analyze these issues through the rest of the quarter.
One student, Kaya Tilev, later asked Kerry what the students should be striving for to make their “solutions” a reality for national policymakers.
Kerry said, “Well, you’re doing it. You’re in it. You’re in the program. And I have absolute confidence if you come up with a viable solution it is going to be implemented, adopted, and institutionalized.”
Zvika Krieger, the state department official, told the students that Kerry was impressed with them and the class.
“He (Kerry) brought up our class in all of his meetings that day, including at a lunch with the CEOs/founders of Google, Airbnb, and Lyft; in a podcast interview with Wired magazine, and in remarks at the Internet Association's conference,” Krieger wrote in an email to them.
Global flashpoints are proliferating around the globe – the Syrian War, conflict and civil wars across the Middle East and in parts of Africa; the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction by states and non-state groups; the most significant flow of refugees since World War II; North Korea nuclear testing; Russian adventurism on its borders; China’s forays into the South China Sea; and a changing climate.
In other words, there is no shortage of thorny problems for young minds to solve as they embark on their careers.
‘Hungry to apply their energy’
Jeremy Weinstein, the political science professor, described the students as “hungry to apply their energy and talents to real-world problems, and to use hands-on experiences as a way of accelerating their learning.”
The class taps into that motivation by bringing together data scientists, engineers, and social scientist, he noted. In the end, the idea is for students to learn how to “innovate inside government.”
Weinstein is optimistic that this class – and a stronger connection between the State Department and Stanford’s technical and policy expertise – can drive more innovation inside government.
“Technology can play a critical role in addressing many of today’s foreign policy challenges, and this class is one new way for senior U.S. officials to tap into the passion, creativity and talent of Silicon Valley,” he said.
Hacking for defense
Last year, Felter and Blank also led a Hacking for Defense class based on the same lean start-up principles. Hacking for Diplomacy is co-listed as both an International Policy Studies and a Management Science and Engineering course – it counts for international relations and political science majors as well.
Blank, a consulting associate professor in engineering, told the Stanford News Service in a recent story that he seeks to cultivate in students a passion for giving back to society and their world.
“We’re going to create a network of entrepreneurial students who understand the diplomatic, policy and national security problems facing the country and get them engaged in partnership with islands of innovation in the Department of State,” said Blank, who also wrote about the new hacking for Diplomacy course in the Huffington Post.
“Teams must take these products out to the real world and ask potential users for feedback,” he noted.