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Can think tanks make a difference? only if they are capable of logical leaps of the mind

CIGI celebrated its 10th anniversary with an event -not intended to showcase its successes or talk about the business of global governance- by reflecting on the role they play in Canada, and more generally, in the world. They invited a bunch of people to their offices (more on this -they are stunning) in Waterloo, Canada, for a day of discussion and fun (more on this, too).

First of all, the CIGI campus is enviable. CIGI’s offices have been built on top (and around) an old distillery (The empty barrels welcome you as you enter the building. It is just stunning). The design, according to the architects, reinterprets traditional colleges of Oxford and Cambridge with their centuries-old landscaped courtyards, in a contemporary glass, brick and stone building that recalls the industrial heritage buildings that formerly occupied the site.

At the heart of the campus is a courtyard: CIGI to one side, the Balsillie School of International Affairs (BSIA) to another, and a new teaching wing to the other. Across the road is the new Perimeter Centre (designed by Stephen Hawkings). Balsillie, by the way, is Jim Balsillie, one half of Research in Motion (of Balckberry fame). He is the engine behind CIGI. The Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics is funded by his RIM partner Mike Lazaridis.

What a brilliant combination, if you ask me. Industry and academia working together.

The event started with a brilliant key-note speech by Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management. Roger talked about what he called the paradox of think tanks: The reason why think tanks are ever more important is that the world is changing into a place where think tanks are becoming less relevant.

The world, he argued, is heading in a ‘scientific direction’ that prioritises (or gives sole right to) inductive or deductive logic in policymaking. However, he argued, new ideas never come from this type of logic (Aristotle warned about applied it to the world where things can often be other than they are -here, he said, we need rhetoric). Instead, new ideas come from abductive logic or “a logical leap of the mind”.

The world we live in today however seems to want proof for everything. New ideas are not challenged on the ideas but on their evidence. I remember the fanfare around Dambisa Moyo’s book a few years ago: all the criticisms (or most) were on her evidence (or lack of). But few engaged with her proposition: that African countries are addicted to Aid and that something must be done about it.

Think tanks, in his view, must make sure that they are places that not only allow and accept abductive logic but in fact make it central to their work. Abductive logic has a huge effect on how think tanks work. It is not just about coming up with new ideas but what one does with them. And what one does with them is embark in dialogue. One cannot proof or disproof these new ideas by looking back at data -this assumes that what happened in the past will continue to happen in the future (so what is new with that?) but only by bringing these ideas to life through dialogue and action.

This was a great start to the day and a very interesting conversation ensued. Do think tanks (and researchers) often hide behind ‘evidence’ and ‘science’ instead of saying what they actually believe in? (yes) I science being over stretched? (scientific method can, sometimes, tell us what has happened and why but cannot -and is not supposed to- tell us what to do) Can think tanks scape ideology? (no, but they should be able to shift as the world changes)What should we do? (we should strive to make things rightER).

Then there was a panel on policy innovation in the age of social media. Much of what was discussed resonates with the work that Nick Scott has been doing at ODI. My view is that we are still limiting the discussion by our own limited understanding of ‘social media’. Often the presentations and questions went down the path of commenting on the relevance and usefulness of Twitter, Facebook, etc. The digital world is much broader and these are JUST tools. What matters is how we navigate through it -and not whether we can try to manage it (we cannot).

Chad Gaffield had some interesting points when he identified three conceptual changes in this new world: public discussion in real time, not defined by geopolitical borders, and creating new divides.

Alexandra Samuel, Director of the Social + Interactive Media Centre at Emily Carr University, provided a gem of an idea: Social media has been most successful not  when it set out to change a policy but instead it developed to circumvent policy. Of course! Creative Commons is not an attempt to influence copy-right but rather to do without it. Political, economics, art, etc. blogging is not a way into a mainstream media column, it is saying, ‘I do not need you”. Policy change is a thing of the past.

Alexandra wrote a post right after : 6 questions about the impact of social media on think tanks.

The next session was, unfortunately, the session I was involved in and I did not take notes. The question to the panel was whether governments care more about politics than policies. I think we all agreed that they do -although I argued that this is not necessarily a bad thing (and I for one do not want my governments thinking that they can govern over us as if we were automatons). The thing is that evidence cannot be the only thing that matters in policymaking. (Roger Martin said it better.)

To bring politics and politics (ideology and science) closer together we need to stop separating them -as if it was possible to leave our values at the door- and recognise that not one single player can do this. We need to invest in ALL institutions of democracy (political parties, the media, universities, the private sector, the state, etc.) and in the people who lead and staff them. Such is the complexity of finding the right balance between ideology and evidence that this cannot be planned in advance. We must learn to rely in smart and commitment people and lots and lots of opportunities for learning.

The last panel of the day (Policy influence -who has it and how to get it) was won over by Tiffany Jenkins of the Institute of Ideas (of Battle of Ideas fame) who said that their objective was NOT influence. A proper post on her presentation will come soon, I promise, but in the mean time: she argued that we live in depoliticised times where big ideas are off the agenda and where policymakers just as for ‘technocratic’ solutions to very specific problems (I think many think tanks having to answer to ToRs that start with “Demonstrate that”  will be able to relate) and where influence, as a consequence, is easy. Of course it is: if the policymakers ask for the answer and you give it then how difficult can it be.

In the absence of political authority, she said, science has been brought in and overstretched (same argument as Roger Martin’s). It is now used as a weapon and a substitute for political debate.

Patricio Meller, from CIEPLAN, talked about think tanks in Latin America. He presented an argument to use in leveraging more domestic funds for think tanks in the region. The experience of think tanks in Chile is worth looking into. Jeffrey Puryear’s book: Thinking Politics is a must read.

It is worth mentioning that other leading minds in the world of think tanks were present: Lawrence McDonald, Vice President of Communications and Policy Outreach at the Center for Global Development, being one. Lawrence is a rare thinktanker: he does just ‘do it’ he also thinks about what and why he does it: Learning While Doing: A 12-Step Program for Policy Change.

And so the day went. We then had a cocktail in the CIGI campus and dinner. Steve Patterson provided some really good comedy during the dinner.

There was an interesting twitter discussion going on during the event in case you’d like to follow it.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Interesting post, interesting meeting! Thanks for sharing. It is encouraging to hear the discussion pushing back against the so-called “scientific direction” and pushing a focus on innovation and creativity. This has interesting and important implications for the evaluation of think tanks. If Roger Martin is right, then think tanks cannot be evaluated only on the standard measures of i) quality of their research and ii) policy influence in the medium term. While both of these remain part of the picture, think tanks should also be evaluated against their incentives and motivations to foster the guesses and inferences that abduction implies, as well as their abilities to be creative in that regard. Measuring these things requires a framework that situates these characteristics in the logic or program theory of a think tank.

    The organizational assessment models presented on this blog a few posts ago, found at, include models such as the Universalia-IDRC framework for organizational assessment that attempt to do this by making motivation and context explicit parts of performance assessment. Outcome mapping comes at this from the perspective of organizational practices: it outlines a set of practices that are likely to be in place in a creative, learning organization and that are key to improving the quality of our guesses and inferences over time.

    So it is possible to document the creativity of a think tank, or the capacity and presence of abductive reasoning, by defining a bit more carefully what that could look like and then defining some key characteristics that can be reported regularly, and reflected on to explore and understand the potential of a think tank to have influence.

    Then, the link to results and outcomes: this is a longer term proposition but one I would argue think tanks need to engage on today: by defining their intent and the paths they are following, when they do have influence, they can make the (longer-term) link back to the abductive reasoning processes they [might have] used to get there.



    September 22, 2011
    • Thanks for the comments, Fred. I think (or at least I take) you make two important points. When assessing think tanks (or other policy innovations) we should not lose track of the ‘inputs’ bit of the intervention. While we may not be able to control the outcomes side of thing we can control (more) how we organise ourselves and how we work. We should be asking if our way of working is conducive to these logic leaps of the mind. So maybe we should bring OM’s organisational practices to the beginning of the process (that same for the RAPID Outcome Mapping Approach -I had tended to push them right to the end).

      Second, longer-term links back to the abductive reasoning process. Longer-term is the key work here. I think we need to win the battle over this one soon. Assessing influence a few months or even within a year is not only misleading (it is unlikely to have happened) but also counterproductive as it is likely to miss out on the great many channels of influence that may still occur in the longer-term.


      September 23, 2011
      • I agree on your observation that organizational practices or organizational assessment around capacity to innovate should be thought about and designed in from the beginning. This part of OM is often left out or left til late. Designed in from the beginning it can then help the conversation about how the organization stays innovative and creative. It also allows the collection of data on this capacity (and sometimes helps identify positive unexpected outcomes).

        On your second point, I am not so optimistic about winning the battle soon. The American Evaluation Association thought the battle on the limits to RCTs was won in the 70s; the ability to live with uncertainty and in dynamic environments does not seem to sit comfortably with us as human beings so we constantly seek out stability and clarity (even though, as Kenneth Boulding observed long ago, equilibrium is death). Maybe we have to find a different way into the discussion than we have come up with so far.


        September 23, 2011

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