Day one of the Think Tank Initiative’s exchange (@TTIX2012)

19 June 2012

One hundred plus think tankers from Latin America, Africa and Asia met in Cape town yesterday for the first day of a knowledge exchange organised by the Think Tank Initiative. It has been an interesting first day.

Rather than notes I decided to ‘tweet’ about the event -which worked out fine because it got others around me into a conversation. And this got me thinking that Twitter at events is a good solution to talking to your neighbour and risking being told off for making noise. The discussion feed can be found here: #TTIX2012.

It is difficult to summarise the event (so I won’t) but a few nuggets may be worth sharing:

  • What are think tanks? The million dollar question. Where does someone draw the line between think tanks, academic research centres, NGOs, government research departments, consultancies, etc? I’ve argued that the boundary is easier to draw where these other institutions are more developed and harder where they aren’t. More than once I heard that think tanks replace deficient institutions: academia, political parties, government research departments, etc. And this makes the task of defining them even harder.
  • I sense that there is a large group of think tanks (not just at this event) that considers that at the core of their identify is the production of research of academic quality (the kind that gets published in academic journals). This is not surprising if one considers that think tanks are replacing universities and many of their researchers employ think tanks as vehicles to do research in a more conducive or flexible environment (not limited by the academic and administrative burden associated to universities). I think I am of the opinion (any one who reads this blog knows I am still forming many of my views) that think tanks need to make use of this kind of research (and be capable of doing it if they wanted to) but necessarily have to do it themselves.
  • The word ‘independence’ keeps coming up. There is an effort to make the point that these are ‘independent’ think tanks but as a group of use discussed at the event complete independence is impossible. Maybe what can be achieved is something closer to intellectual autonomy: which means that think tanks, and not their funders or patrons, set the agenda.
  • The capacity to manage (and lead) think tanks kept coming up. As Orazio Bellettini says: there are MBAs for CEOs, MPAs for policymakers, what is there for think tank directors?
  • There, in general, a good understanding of the context but this does not always translate in an articulate plan of action. Cesar Cabello, from Instituto Desarrollo in Paraguay, offered the following:

The fundamental question is why Paraguay, a country with vast resources such as fertile land, abundant hydropower and no ethnic or otherwise bloody conflict; it is still a country where many live in destitution. To help me in explaining the strategy we had taken to address the issue, I would like to remind you of the speech delivered this afternoon by Minister Trevor Manuel.

Minister Manuel told us that the imbalance problem that is currently haunting the EU was long ago identified and that it was included in the agenda at every time leaders met at Davos. Surprisingly, however, he also told us that no significant action was taken. Why enlightened people knowingly keep a crash course? It is this very same question, changing scale and characters, which also applies to the Paraguayan problem.

These facts reveal that policy depends on the alignment of interest resulting from the institutional setting, which may prevent even well informed parties from implementing welfare enhancing actions. Consequently, we decided to put at the core of our strategy developing a framework, theory and models that helps improving our understanding of the relationship between the observed results and the incentives generated by the Paraguayan institutions. We are aware that this path is more costly and riskier that the straight treatment of the issues, but knowing the otherwise result, we think it is worth taking.

Here is the point of an event like this, I think. Cabello offers an example of critical thinking that reflects the multiple roles that think tanks play in their societies. It is not enough to understand research; without an equally strong understanding of politics (public and private) think tanks are unlikely to make a difference.

Tomorrow the focus is on communications and the session I’ll be participating in will tackle the issue of think tanks and digital strategies which have been accompanied by the following posts: Digital strategy can support communications in think tanks. But can it also improve their research and management too?5 top tips for think tanks using social media, and Social Media and think tanks: lessons from London Thinks.

Instituto Desarrollo’s thinking is at the heart of any decision about the adoption of new technologies and ways of doing business. This is behind the questions that think tanks need to ask themselves: To go public or not to go public: how to decide if it is time for a new communication approach?  The answers to these question (has the world changed? what to do about it?) can be found by means of good old research (see Emma Broadbent’ political economy analysis of research uptake in Africa, for example) and are likely to lead to innovations in the way think tanks position themselves in society and engage with their environment.

The debate on the effect of social media on think tanks that Michael Harris wrote about suggests that there are two possible sides to it. On the one hand those who would argue that all think tanks will need to do is incorporate digital tools into their current structures and practices to do what they do better. On the other are those who would argue that think tanks (as we know them) are on their way out and that social media in particular make their current structures and practices obsolete.

I won’t try to settle this debate here but will ask a follow up question: if (and only if) there is a need for new think tanks, can these emerge out of the old ones or do we need to start from scratch?