Georgetown University: From Tahrir Square to Silicon Valley: Ambassador Ben Rowswell on how tech can change the world

Apr 20, 2018 | Interview

By Margaux Fontaine

Self-described “IR geek” Ben Rowswell (SFS’93) had his sights set on international affairs from an early age. Right after graduating from Georgetown, he went on to pursue a distinguished career in the Canadian foreign service, serving most recently as the Canadian Ambassador to Venezuela from 2014 to 2017.

Rowswell has since left the world of diplomacy, with the goal of improving the world in another way. With an app he developed called Betterplace, he’s now taking the skills he learned at Georgetown and as a diplomat and applying them to technology.

“One reason why I left diplomacy to jump into tech is that I think that’s where the game is right now, in building the kind of democracy we want for the 21st century,” Rowswell says.

“Living History” at SFS

Rowswell arrived at Georgetown in 1989, when the world was watching growing protests in Hungary, Poland, and East Germany with great anticipation. In his first semester at SFS, he enrolled in a course called “Modern International History,” taught by a professor from Germany. While the class was focused on international history of the early 20th century, conversations inevitably shifted towards the history unfolding before them.

“[The professor] was absolutely adamant that the Berlin Wall would not fall—and if it did fall, East Germany would never join West Germany because it was a totally separate nation with its own identity,” Rowswell recalls. “And she was very convincing, because she was a professor and I was a student.”

Then, halfway through the course, the wall came down.

“That reinforced a few things for me,” Rowswell says. “First, was that we were living history. The second was that this was a fascinating place to be witnessing it all in Washington, D.C. And the third was that the grown-ups don’t have it all figured out when it comes to international relations.”

That third point is an attitude that Rowswell has tried to carry with him.

“I’ve tried to keep that humility ever since, now that I’m a practitioner of International relations,” Rowswell says. “Recognizing that history is fundamentally unpredictable, and that our best attitude is one of open curiosity and not dogmatic certainty.”

While at Georgetown, Rowswell was a member of the International Relations Club and was part of the organizing committee for NAIMUN XXVIII and XXIX. He still keeps in contact with IRC friends in New York City and San Francisco, and all the way to Abu Dhabi, Delhi, and Nairobi.

“Basically when I do my international travel I just drop in and see my IRC buddies in countries around the world,” Rowswell says.

Beyond forming these lifelong friendships, Rowswell also describes his experience in Model UN as “an incredible form of training for diplomacy,” where he gained negotiating skills and practiced understanding different perspectives.

“Nothing prepared me to be a diplomat better than being a pretend diplomat,” Rowswell says.

Rowswell’s time at Georgetown was also shaped by mentors like Professor Anthony Clark Arend, whose class “International Organizations” helped influence Rowswell’s later experience with peacekeeping in Somalia. Professor Abiodun Williams, who taught a course on the United Nations and later became a senior diplomat himself, was also a major inspiration.

Rowswell took the Canadian foreign service exam the spring of his senior year, and was immediately accepted. Looking back, he realized that the education he had received Georgetown had well prepared him for the application process.

“In retrospect, I kind of understand why I got in at a much younger age than I would have otherwise, and that’s because of the training that Georgetown offered me,” he says.

Upon entering the foreign service, Rowswell began as a specialist in conflict and peacekeeping issues, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. He then shifted towards democracy promotion, and served as Canadian Ambassador to Venezuela.

His career has now taken a new turn: away from diplomacy and towards tech for political change.

Creating the Betterplace App

Rowswell first became interested in the tech sector during his sabbatical at Stanford University in 2010, which provided him with the opportunity to explore different interests.

“I decided because I was in Silicon Valley that I should learn a little bit of tech, because that’s what everyone talks about there, kind of like here in D.C. everyone talks about politics,” he says.

Then, the Arab spring broke out. His first diplomatic assignment had been in Cairo, so he was already familiar with Egyptian politics, the activists, and the issues facing the country.

“When the Mubarak regime fell, I just jumped on a plane and went to Tahrir Square, tried to meet as many democracy activists as possible, and find out how they had used technology to accomplish what I cared about,” he says. “I didn’t care about the tech so much—but I cared about the political outcomes that they were able to accomplish.”

This experience was Rowswell’s first indication of the power of technology in advancing political change. He immediately began developing a project to bring tech expertise to activists in Cairo.

Following his experience in Egypt, Rowswell set to work researching how to address the short-term nature of online civic organizing.

“It’s increasingly possible to mobilize millions of people very, very quickly thanks to the internet, but it’s very difficult to hold them together—they dissipate as quickly as they gather,” he says. “That’s the problem we identified in Egypt in 2011.”

After years of research, he and his cofounder Farhaan Ladhani developed a solution: allow every individual in the crowd to choose their own role in the movement, each creating their own individual experience of civic action.

“If you build it individual by individual, the network that results is far more resilient,” Rowswell explains.

The end result is an app called Betterplace, which has already seen concrete success. Last month, Rowswell’s app was used by students in Spokane, Washington to organize their local March for our Lives. Using the app, they were able to connect with over 100 volunteers from across the city. People would choose for themselves the role they would play in the movement, whether that be designing flyers, distributing materials, or applying for permits. The students also raised two-thirds of their funds through the app.

“As a result of using Betterplace and their own very considerable skill, the students were able to organize the second largest march in Spokane’s recent history—in the heart of gun country, a red, pro-gun part of Washington state,” Rowswell says. “So having 5,000 students all calling for more sensible gun laws is really quite a massive accomplishment, and we were very privileged to be part of that.”

Bringing Tech to International Affairs

At the global level, Rowswell noted that technology has acted as a power diffuser, giving individuals a greater say in their government and society.

“Individual citizens [have] unprecedented access to knowledge or information about what’s happening in the world, and unprecedented ability to voice their own opinion,” Rowswell says.

While technology can certainly be a force for good, it has also lead to the voicing of sometimes dangerous views once kept underground, leading to increased polarization.

“That leaves us as citizens, and those of us that can do more, like technologists, with the responsibility to try and build technology that will leverage the most positive aspects of the internet, and try to minimize the negative social impacts,” he says.

Developing this nuanced understanding of the role of technology in the world is essential for global affairs going forward, Rowswell notes. He sees the creation of the Science, Technology, and International Affairs (STIA) major in the SFS as an important step forward.

“I can say as a former diplomat that the skill sets that we need for advancing our national interests in the digital age are woefully lacking in foreign ministries and national governments around the world,” he says.

Citing issues like cybersecurity, hacking, and digital campaigns, he emphasizes the need for people to better understand the impact of digital technology on society.

In that respect, Rowswell thinks that STIA would be a valuable course of study for students to pursue. But no matter the major, he encourages all SFS students to take advantage of the new opportunities for activism presented by in the digital age.

“There’s an unprecedented opportunity for individuals to have influence in national and international affairs, and I hope that all Georgetown students seize that,” Rowswell says. “Other individuals are definitely going to seize it, and my own hope would be that people who have received the training and have the kind of worldview of Georgetown students are more prominent in these new citizen-driven movements that happen nationally and internationally.”