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Geoff Mulgan: How do think tanks think?

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Geoff Mulgan from NESTA gave a talk at Cambridge University this month on the question of what is it that think tanks do?

He distinguishes from think tanks that seek to answer new questions and open new debates and ways of seeing old problems, from others that work with established paradigms and aim for more incremental change instead.

He argues that the first group (those who seek to challenge what we know and what we do) tend to be weak on evidence. This is very much similar to the argument made by Roger Martin in relation to ‘logical leaps of the mind’.

But both groups, Mulgan argues, face a broader challenge. They need to reflect on:

What kinds of knowledge are they trying to create or spread?

In some fields, practical knowledge may well be ahead of theory – hence the spread of do-tanks which both learn and persuade through real life examples rather than pamphlets. I also wrote a short piece to accompany Demos’ 20thbirthday.

 

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  1. I’ve just come across this and I’m puzzled by the distinction you say Geoff offered in his talk:

    “He distinguishes from think tanks that seek to answer new questions and open new debates and ways of seeing old problems, from others that work with established paradigms and aim for more incremental change instead.

    He argues that the first group (those who seek to challenge what we know and what we do) tend to be weak on evidence.”

    If this is true as a general rule, then no wonder the established paradigms are so seldom overthrown! It would seem that evidence is especially important when seeking to answer new questions and open new ways of seeing problems. That’s what many of my colleagues at the Center of Global Development aim to do. I imagine that there are plenty of other think tanks that try to do the same. If not, then this is a niche well worth occupying!

    February 10, 2014
    • I agree with you, Lawrence. The challenging the status quo are weak on evidence because their challenge is yet to be explored. It requires a logical leap of the mind (http://onthinktanks.org/2011/09/22/can-think-tanks-make-a-difference-only-if-they-are-capable-of-logical-leaps-of-the-mind/) -looking forward rather than back.

      So this is a hard thing to buy for most think tanks in developing countries. They, for the most part, have to play it safe. Their funding (almost entirely foreign or through consultancy contracts) limits their room for manoeuvre -and failure (of the kind you need to challenge established paradigms).

      Pressure to ‘show influence’ or ‘demonstrate impact’, too, make it unlikely for them to go after established paradigms where the chance of change is low.

      Short term funding too makes it hard to focus on long term efforts. And even when they do get long term institutional funding, they find it hard to change their approach -either because they don’t know how (they have never done anything else) or they do not expect this to last and therefore prefer to keep things as they are.

      Having said that… paradigm shifts do come along and they are often informed (at least) by think tanks that work on an incremental change basis. But this is more down to persistence and luck than anything else.

      February 10, 2014

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