Casper Klynge waves his hand at a long row of bicycles locked to a second-story landing and says, "Look. This is how you know that there are many Danes working nearby."
Klynge himself bikes to work every day from Menlo Park to Palo Alto and — not surprisingly — is often perplexed by the habits of local drivers who can't be bothered to signal or keep to their lanes. Of course, it's not the only local trait that confounds his Danish sensibilities: Klynge's bike commute also puts him in touch with a fair amount of homelessness, leaving him bewildered by the disparity between Silicon Valley's tremendous wealth alongside its considerable poverty.
Just eight months into his appointment as Denmark's (and the world's) first Tech Ambassador, Klynge is still enjoying his time on the Peninsula even as his mission has taken on what he believes to be a sense of moral urgency.
Surprisingly, he feels that he is late in getting here.
"I think it is late," he asserts over coffee during a summer afternoon in Palo Alto. "If we could have done this two or three years earlier, we would be in a much better position today."
A career diplomat, Klynge arrived here this past autumn seeking to apply his diplomatic know-how towards engaging with the largest technology companies in the world, building an ongoing rapport with them and, ultimately, helping his nation anticipate some of the profound social consequences that Silicon Valley innovations often unleash on the world.
Klynge's mission in Palo Alto started with fanfare and cheery optimism. Then he ran into a wall of indifference from the tech companies. Then the scandals broke — Cambridge Analytica, Russian hacking, Uber turmoil—and now Klynge senses his mission is more important than ever. And he's determined to get Big Tech to talk, and to listen.
The Office of Denmark's Tech Ambassador is located in a nondescript complex overlooking the daily bustle of Palo Alto's Oregon Expressway. The office sports a foosball table in close proximity to a pair of framed photos of the country's monarchs. In what is a bit of a stereotype of Danes, the staff there are indeed friendly, well-educated and good-looking. In many ways, their office could pass easily enough as another Silicon Valley startup, with Klynge as their savvy 45-year-old CEO.
A well-traveled diplomat, Klynge has a fitting disposition for his new role. He is articulate and even-keeled, and exudes the sort of cooler-heads-will-prevail outlook that you would expect in a diplomat. His experience is considerable despite his young age and includes a list of high pressure postings — Kosovo, Darfur, Afghanistan's Helmand province.
News of Klynge's arrival last year was met with a mix of amusement and bewilderment but by Klynge's account, the nature of the position is straightforward.
"I would actually say that this is diplomacy at its core," Klynge says. "It's an interesting combination of the work as an ambassador in a very traditional way, but it is also bringing it to the cutting edge of where change is coming from. So it is extremely timely and I was a little bit surprised that no other country came up with this before we did...simply because of the major changes and the tectonic shifts that are coming out of the new technologies that we are seeing."
Yet if the idea for the ambassadorship was logical, actual application of it has been challenging. Klynge had high hopes for a dialogue with the titans of tech. Instead, he says, he was often met with a standoffish skepticism, even as he has been careful to not approach with the air of a regulator.
"These companies are not used to having an ambassador knocking on their door...and some of them have been very, very difficult to get access to," says Klynge. "In that sense, it has been necessary to test out different approaches. If you look at what I said publicly eight months ago to what I say publicly now, you will see a change in rhetoric, simply because in the beginning we were playing nice."
If Klynge feels justified in taking a more confrontational approach it's because of the relentless tide of awful news coming out of the technology world that feels, to him and many others, like a long-overdue reckoning. He notes "big, big differences between the companies" when it comes to their willingness to engage with him. Ever the diplomat, he's reluctant to name names even as he is candid about the amount of obliviousness that he has encountered, especially in areas he didn't expect it.
"There has been a massive underestimation (by many Silicon Valley companies) from a strictly commercial point of view. If you don't play by the rules, that's not only an ethical problem, but it will have massive commercial consequences further down the road. And that has been somewhat surprising to me even in the midst of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, when you can still hear executives saying, 'That has nothing to do with us.'"
Still, Klynge has made some tangible progress and worthwhile connections, pointing to Microsoft president Brad Smith as an accessible exec who is willing to work publicly to address the tech industry's challenges.
Another reason for Klynge's sense of urgency beyond the tech reckoning: he has to deliver results.
David Tarp, political advisor within Klynge's office, says, "There is a weight on our shoulders. It's up to us prove that this concept actually works."
Asked then if his position will exist in 20 years, Klynge—for the first time—seems a bit uncertain with his response. "We'll see. We don't shy away from saying that this is a foreign policy experiment. But in terms of the role as an ambassador to the industry, I don't see that disappearing. But there is a lot of impatience in us delivering, and we knew that coming into this."
So when he cites a "cautious optimism" moving forward, it clearly rings with the sense of an uphill battle on many fronts, especially when he frames his mission in the context of his previous ones.
"Does it feel important what I'm doing? You bet," Klynge says emphatically. "It feels like the most important thing I've ever been involved in. And again, I was working on stabilizing Helmand at a very critical time, but this just feels enormously timely and relevant."
TheSixFifty.com is a sister publication of Palo Alto Online, covering what to eat, see and do in Silicon Valley.
The illustration in this story was by Kaz Palladino/Awkward Affections. See more of her work here.