A conversation with Katy Owen from CoVi, the first visual think tank in the UK

29 August 2016

Common Vision UK (CoVi) describes itself as the first visual think tank in the UK and they “explore, develop and share innovations in policy and practice using visual and accessible tools and channels.” (CoVi).  It is, indeed, a new concept: the focus of their outputs is more “visual”, they are a crowdsourced think tank, and their goal is to reach a wide range of audiences instead of the few who can directly influence policy making. Their work is done under four strategic pillars: common life, common work, common money, and common nation.

I had the opportunity to talk to Katy Owen, programme manager at CoVi, and learn more about their approach to research and their work.

Erika Perez-Leon: Can you tell me about CoVi and the work that you’re doing?

Katy Owen: CoVi is the first visual think tank, and that means several things for us. Firstly, it means that we try to make our outputs as accessible and diverse as possible, rather than just focusing on long reports- we’ve found our audiences usually don’t read them. This is not to say we don’t write them, but we do a lot of other outputs as well that are more visual: videos, animations, websites, web platforms, interactive maps, infographics, all that kind of stuff. This supports the rationale that people are accessing information in different ways.

We also see ourselves as different in terms of our process: we don’t just have an idea, research it, apply for resources and funds, and then do something at the end. We try to be really engaged with stakeholders and the public in an ongoing basis. For instance, the work we put out on Monday is in lots of ways a traditional think tank kind of thing, but at the same time we did things a bit differently. We had two events before the report was actually written to try to engage with people; we had several videos with our findings which were released as we went along; and, we had an interim report that we put out a couple of weeks ago that was very visual and not very word heavy. We do this to try and get more attention to what we’re doing and to have an ongoing process, and also to get input as we go along.

Another way that we see ourselves different is that we like to think quite long term for all of our projects. Rather than thinking just about how to influence this government, we’re thinking about what’s happening within the next year to five years in term of policy in the UK, and we’re thinking about the bigger long term or global challenges for the next ten to twenty years and how what government is doing right now relates to that. For instance, it’s really relevant to us at the moment with what’s happened with the EU referendum and the Brexit kind of processes. That’s something that should be very future thinking and not just be about what should the government be doing in order to work with that for the next year or so.

I think that’s a little bit different than other British think tanks who think about how to influence the budget or what should be in the next queen’s speech. Again, it isn’t to say that we don’t think about those things but we think about them within their intellectual context. We’re a non-partisan think tank, with no affiliation to any political parties. That goes beyond being left wing or right wing- it’s also about overcoming the artificial dividing lines, like public or private or what’s “good” and what’s “bad”.

Something else that makes us unique is that we are kind of the “think tank for the millennial generation”. It’s something that we always have been, but this year we realized that all of the things that I just talked about are all very much Generation Y- millennials- kind of issues. That’s another trend that underpins everything that we do.

EPL: What has the response been to your approach to research? Have you been able to evaluate the response to your work?

KO: We evaluate our work on an ongoing basis as well as anecdotally, but don’t as yet have a full set of formal metrics as often changing opinions takes time and we often see the full impact of our work much later. We’ve had a lot of really positive feedback about both the idea of looking at the younger generation, and also the way of doing things that is more collaborative and working on pieces on an ongoing basis. One of our key impact goals is about being a “do tank” – implementing our ideas in a practical way such as by setting up an APPG on Responsible Tax last year.

EPL: How did you come about approaching research like this, did you see a gap in research or was this an idea that you felt you had to give pursue?

KO: CoVi was formed to address a gap in the public debate. Our aim is more than just about a gap in the research itself – although there’s certainly a lot more interesting and creative things that could be done on the research side – but everything else that goes along with being a think tank. Our aim is to make interesting discussion appealing and engaging in a non-divisive way. We really see ourselves as quite different in terms of our outputs. Also, the process that we go through. As I said, not just doing the research, writing it in a big report and that’s kind of it, but rather having an ongoing process.  

EPL: You have a very strong focus in communications, right? Do you produce your own communications?

KO: Yes, we produce a lot of our creative content ourselves. We do emphasise clear and accessible content but this is more than communications as we aim to embed public engagement throughout all the stages of our work.

EPL: It certainly seems like you are working in a new arena- what do you think is the trend, or what do you think your target audiences want?

KO: The really obvious one is the impact of digital on big data and the way people communicate with each other, particularly through social media. The way people communicate and behave with each other affects the way policy works. On the big data side, I don’t think we’ve quite grasped it yet: we’ve got all these massive data sets, but I’m not sure we have solved how it’s helping us answer some of the big questions. That’s definitely going to be an ongoing question for a long time.

There are a couple of other big ones that come to mind as well. One would be the post 2008 economic crisis and the longer term structuring of how economics and financing work, and I think digital and online communications will have an effect on that as well. Another one is probably around a rise of “populism”, although I don’t really like that term. However, I do think it speaks to some of the things that we’ve seen across the globe, certainly in European countries and the U.S. in the last two or three years. Things that we (meaning political commentators) never thought would happen are happening, like Donald Trump as the Republican party’s nominee in the U.S., or the U.K. voting to leave the EU. That changes what seemed to be a very stable political situation… Certainly in the UK, one of the things that you could just rely upon was that we don’t really go into big political changes, we like very small ones. That’s not necessarily true anymore- that predictability seems to be changing. That’s another really interesting trend that affects research, which is typically based on a series of assumptions of a certain predictability.

EPL: What do you feel is one of the projects or products that you have done that most represents what you do?

KO: The most recent example is the research that we did on the engagement of younger people in the EU referendum. We’ve got a report that we wrote and put out on Monday, and that was very important as it was, in a way, the focus point of that particular project. I wouldn’t say that’s my favourite though, because I also really like the simple things, like twitter cards, that we do. I also really like the videos where we interviewed someone just to help us frame our research, but we also put them on camera and uploaded that to our website. With other projects, like the one on the EU referendum, we’ve done a longer video that sums up the research in a much more visual way. I think it’s that package that I really like, and that’s really important for us and for the way we do things. We want a report that is more visual and engaging, but we also want a video people can watch, podcasts they can listen to, and really simple explanations on our site. We want be communicating to people in all the different ways that they like because I think there’s an increasing diversity in the way people like to receive messages.