It was just another Thursday night at a hip coworking space in the Ferry Building. Beyond the barista bar at the minimalist gold-studded venue, a four-legged robot dog paraded past tech workers settling into happy hour.
No one seemed startled by the machine, which was an inspiration for an episode of the tech-horror show “Black Mirror” where the dog-like robot goes on a killing spree. That is, except for a group of foreign dignitaries, who appeared both dazzled and about as confused as I was in this exclusive gathering space for tech founders and other so-called disruptors.
This evening’s guest of honor wasn’t an investor looking to dump cash into the next Uber. It was the Speaker of the Parliament of Mongolia Gombojav Zandanshatar, stopping by as part of a trip that will also include visits to the Asia Foundation, Stanford University and technology companies throughout San Francisco and Silicon Valley.
“The pandemic has tested us in many ways. But it gives us some opportunity to develop innovative technologies as well,” said Zandanshatar, a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Institute of Development, Democracy and the Rule of Law.
Zandanshatar and the other officials didn’t come just to see these eerie bots. They hope the Bay Area can provide opportunities and fresh ideas to examine big challenges in their country that likely hit home for some San Franciscans, such as COVID recovery and climate change.
“Both San Francisco and Mongolia are similar in responding to COVID-19 at a relatively early stage and contained the virus successfully for some time. It gave us time to prepare for the rapid spread of the infection,” said Zandanshatar.
Despite having a high vaccination rate, Mongolia, which borders China and Russia, is now experiencing a spike in COVID cases, after avoiding much of the global virus surge in 2020 with strict lockdown measures.
“A little over a million adults who are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine reside in rural areas,” he said. “The government of Mongolia and the State Emergency Commission are organizing immunization coverage in stages there.”
Much like Californians, Mongolians are also facing drought and climate change, putting the nation’s nomadic communities and rich agricultural industry at risk. The annual mean temperature has increased by 2.25 degrees Celsius in Mongolia, while annual precipitation has decreased by 7% in the past 80 years.
As the economy continues to shift in the wake of the pandemic and a changing climate, Mongolian leaders are questioning if an injection of technology can help and what that may entail.
“We are facing desertification. We need to cooperate with technology companies and have to manage the situation,” Zandanshatar said. “In order to diversify our economy, we want to be able to spend more on renewable energies.”
Along with talks with technology and government leaders, the parliament officials also plan to meet with the San Francisco Film Commission about aspirations for a documentary about the country and more.
“We are trying to produce a movie about Mongolian history,” Zandanshatar said, adding that the country wants to expand its cinematic footprint globally and hopes its unique geography of lakes, mountain ranges and vast steppe plateaus will draw creatives domestically and abroad.
To speed things along, in August the Mongolian parliament passed a law that establishes a 30% cash rebate incentive for productions that spend at least $500,000.
But you don’t have to be a filmmaker or even travel all 9,000 miles to get a feel for what the Central Asian country has to offer. The Bay Area is home to one of the largest Mongolian-American populations in the U.S., some of whom Zandanshatar is meeting on this trip, plus numerous Mongolian restaurants.
According to the speaker himself, Mongol Cafe on Geary Street is the place to go for the closest thing to the food he finds at home and loves.
“Today’s Mongolian youth are growing up to be world-class educated, free, open and active citizens with a great desire to create wellness. They are full of aspirations to contribute to the development of both their country and the world,” said the speaker. “I really want San Franciscans to meet the new Mongolian generation.”