The Fletcher Political Risk Group (FPRG), a student group at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, hosted its annual political risk conference, entitled “New Frontiers: Emerging Technologies and Political Risk,” on March 2. The conference is the only one of its kind in North America, according to co-chair Zoltán Fehér, a diplomat from Hungary and a Ph.D. candidate in international relations at Fletcher.
Fehér said FPRG wanted to pick a specific and timely theme for the conference and ultimately decided on technology. He said conference speakers would address both how rogue actors use technology for dangerous activities and how corporations are using technology in a beneficial way to reduce risks.
“Political risk is a booming field. It looks like every company in bordering industries wants to get involved in political risk,” Fehér said. “The industry itself is increasingly looking at this conference as an industry forum.”
Everyone from consulting companies to law firms to banks is becoming increasingly concerned with political risk, according to Fehér. Analysis of political risk used to be focused on developing countries, but the trend is shifting.
“Political risk firms increasingly work on developed countries because the whole political architecture has become much more blurred and chaotic,” Fehér said. “Things are changing at a fast pace, even in developed countries. There’s a whole new subject area that political risk needs to cover.”
Conference attendees included industry professionals in political risk insurance, consulting and in-house employees, as well as Fletcher students, according to FPRG Media Director Quinn Rask (LA ’12), a first-year Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy candidate.
“There is a mixture of students who are interested in the subject and practitioners who can come in and provide context,” Rask said. “This is both a teaching and a networking opportunity for people who are working in this space.”
Following an employer showcase in the morning, University President Anthony Monaco opened the conference and commented on its theme.
“This year’s conference is focused on a theme that businesses and governments around the world are striving to manage: How the pace of technological change and innovations disruptions is affecting the pre-existing views on risk,” Monaco said.
Siobhan MacDermott (F ’13), Global Cyber Public Policy Executive at Bank of America, delivered the afternoon keynote.
One of her key points was the importance of cross-industry sharing of knowledge. She advocated for business professionals and computer science professionals to bridge the gap between their industries and start communicating more.
“They don’t speak the same language. In general, there’s a translation layer missing,” MacDermott said. “There’s a great opportunity to balance those two. And what sits squarely in that debate, I think, is the notion of both geopolitical and political risk.”
She told the Fletcher students that whether or not they understand the computer science aspects of political risk, they should at least learn enough so they know what questions to ask.
MacDermott said that cyber attackers have the huge advantage of acting as a single entity and sharing information without any regulations. They are not restricted in the same way that governments and corporations are.
“I don’t think this is a problem that can be solved alone,” she said. “The government can’t solve it and the private sector can’t solve it. We have to work together, and I think we also have to work across borders with international partners.”
To illustrate the importance of having difficult conversations, MacDermott asked the conference attendees to consider the hypothetical example of a cyber blackout across a country. She posed the following question: In what order should things come back online?
Audience members shouted out different ideas such as water, communications and banks. MacDermott explained that everyone thinks their own industry is the most important, so compromise is necessary.
“It really is a matter of different opinions,” MacDermott said. “These are really, really big, complex problems. Unfortunately, as you cross borders, they get more complicated.”
MacDermott said she has hired many Fletcher alumni to work with her because they are willing to consider all sides of a situation and find a solution that truly works.
“There’s a lot of heated debate in terms of exchange of ideas,” she said. “This is what I love about the true Fletcher style of disagreement, where you have people on opposite poles who actually argue about something and come to something better as opposed to giving up.”
The morning breakout sessions dealt with political risk on a macro scale, featuring conversations about cyber risk, regulations and crisis management. The afternoon breakout sessions zoned in on more specific issues such as social media, sustainability and virtual terror.
New York Times Spain and Portugal Correspondent Raphael Minder’s session was entitled “Catalonia: A Case Study on Social Media and Crisis.”
Minder talked about how the Catalan call for a referendum last fall followed close on the heels of the Spanish government’s resolution with the Basque country. He said officials in Madrid fear that if they acknowledge the Oct. 1, 2017 Catalan independence referendum, then the Basque country will again begin asking for independence.
Minder said the Spanish constitution does not adequately detail division of power. In Post-Franco Spain, Catalonians were granted power over controlling their own health and education, a decision Minder said is problematic for the Spanish government.
“If you want to create national identity, and you hand over education, you put yourself in a very difficult position,” he said.
Minder said he has observed that the level of fake news in Spain parallels that of the United States. He said that in Spain, there is growing distrust of established media organizations, but he could not understand why.
“There is fake news on both sides,” he said. “We have reached a level of division over basic facts which is exactly on the same scale as that of here in America about whether Trump’s inauguration was well-attended or not.”
In regard to the challenge of analyzing political risk, Minder said it is becoming more complex, and therefore more important.
“I think the ability to predict where risk arises has fallen because there are more players on more equal footing than in the days of the Cold War,” Minder said in an interview with the Daily. “Societies are fragmenting as well. The political elite is in general much less connected with the electorate than it used to be.”
Alex Dimitrief, President and CEO at Global Growth Organization and Senior Vice President and General Counsel at General Electric (GE), talked about GE’s transition into the 21st century and its changing relationship with customers.
Dimitrief talked about the novel idea of predictive maintenance for products such as airplanes.
“Before a problem arises, you can identify it,” he said. “Imagine a world in which an aircraft engine is going to be talking to the control tower and saying, ‘We’re going to need a new blade when we land in Atlanta,’ and having the airline be able to get that part there waiting for the plane when it gets there.”
Dimitrief said that countries trying to assert sovereignty over data are regressive and create unnecessary borders. He said GE persuades its customers to grant GE secondary rights to their data so that the company can aggregate and learn from its customers’ data.
“We have been very interested in global standards that allow for interoperability across jurisdictions,” he said. “I hope we can continue to make some progress in this area, because it’s important. It’s complicated, but there’s so much at stake.”
Outgoing Provost David Harris closed the conference. He talked about the benefits of the university’s new Bridge professor initiative, by which the university hires professors who teach courses that span across departments.
“One of the challenges in universities is that we hire people in departments, but problems the world faces don’t really align with departments very well,” he said.